Zaheer bowls India to the brink of victory
An enthralling day's cricket ebbed and flowed before Zaheer Khan turned the game decisively India's way with an inspired spell with the second new ball to leave them on the brink of a famous victory. Michael Vaughan's outstanding hundred had lifted England to 287 for 3 and threatened to thwart India, but the last seven wickets crashed for 68, as Zaheer finished with 5 for 75, leaving India with a victory target of just 73. By close of play, that target had been reduced to 63, and a 1-0 lead in the series was within touching distance.
Through the first two sessions, though, the signs didn't look good for India as Vaughan stroked his way to a sublime century, his 17th and the 100th by an England captain. With Paul Collingwood offering dogged support, England were in control, having gone past their first-innings deficit of 283 with seven wickets still in hand. The Indian bowling became increasingly ragged, and Rahul Dravid's only option was to take the second new ball as soon as it was due. When 13 came off Zaheer's first over with it, it seemed even that option wouldn't work for India. One fortuitous dismissal later, the momentum changed completely.
Vaughan, after scoring 124 delectable runs, tried to turn a seemingly harmless delivery to leg, but the ball got entangled in his thigh pad, and dragged back to dislodge the bail. Vaughan was distraught, the Indians were ecstatic, and the game turned on its head.
Two balls later, Ian Bell, who had been hit on the head in the nets in the morning, was trudging back, trapped plumb in front by another round-the-wicket scorcher from Zaheer which angled in and then straightened to beat the bat. RP Singh joined the fun, landing the perfect indipper to beat Matt Prior's defences and crash into middle stump, before Zaheer removed Collingwood, the last specialist batsman, to end any realistic chance England had of testing India with a fourth-innings target.
Collingwood had battled hard, without ever being entirely convincing, to get to his half-century, but his lack of footwork finally cost him as he flailed at one and edged low to Dinesh Karthik at first slip. Anil Kumble then got into the act. He had been uncharacteristically wayward in the first two sessions, but the tail was easy prey - Chris Tremlett's attempt to clear mid-on failed, while Monty Panesar skied an ambitious slog-sweep, and James Anderson had no answer to the quicker one for the second time in the match, leaving Ryan Sidebottom undefeated yet again.
Zaheer had been splendid in the first two sessions too, trapping Alastair Cook in front and troubling Vaughan, but before his new-ball spell, the story of the day had been an innings of superb skill and concentration by Vaughan. The start was iffy, as he played and missed repeatedly against the round-the-wicket line employed by Zaheer, but once he settled in he played with the kind of authority and elegance that fetched him so many runs on India's previous tour here. Helped along by Andrew Strauss's fluent 55, England lost just one wicket before lunch and two in the afternoon session.
Vaughan was immense. He got into his stride against the gentle pace of Sourav Ganguly, clipping him for two silken fours, before completely dismantling Kumble, who, when the day began, would have fancied his role as the key strike bowler. Before lunch, he clipped him for three fours to deliveries drifting down leg, while after the break he unfurled the full range, late-cutting two delectable fours and then cutting with precise placement when Kumble strayed outside off. Fittingly, the century came with a back-foot cover-drive off Kumble which eased to the boundary. In all Kumble leaked 104 runs from 25 overs, with 49 of those runs coming from the 58 balls he bowled to Vaughan; clearly there was no doubt who won that contest.
Though Strauss fell soon after lunch, Vaughan and Pietersen got into their stride immediately in a 45-run stand which threatened to blossom into something far more substantial before a frenetic ten-minute passage of play accounted for Pietersen. Sreesanth, whose contribution with the mouth was far more substantial than with the ball, started it with an unintentional beamer which forced Pietersen to take hasty evasive action. The apology from Sreesanth was immediate, and while Pietersen seemed satisfied with it, Vaughan was more upset, and even called up Dravid for a chat.
Next over there was more drama. RP Singh's fourth ball was wide, Pietersen slashed at it, got a feather, and got a reprieve from Simon Taufel. Justice was delivered next ball, though, when Pietersen completely misjudged a sharp indipper, shouldered arms, and so plumb was it that he started to walk even before Taufel lifted the finger. The wicket lifted the Indians, but when Vaughan and Collingwood tided through the next 20 minutes, it seemed the worst was over for England. Sadly for England, the Zaheer Khan show was yet to begin.
S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo