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July 19, 2007
The early predictions for this series were of a contest that would be dominated by two strong batting line-ups and, for much of the opening day at Lord's, England lived up to their side of the bargain. Led by Andrew Strauss, who continued his return to form with 96 after being offered a life before lunch, and a solid innings from Michael Vaughan, they set a strong platform before a previously lacklustre India were sparked into life by a fine spell from Anil Kumble.
England spent the early part of the season feasting on plenty of help-yourself offerings from West Indies and, except for the wily Kumble, India's attack didn't pose many more questions until a couple of late stoppages hit England's momentum and RP Singh removed Vaughan. The easy pickings on offer in the morning allowed Strauss to settle any early nerves and Rahul Dravid was on the back foot from the moment the opening five overs cost 40. England scored at four an over before lunch and their below-par performance hit a trough with Dinesh Karthik's horrible drop at point when Strauss had 43.
Strauss hasn't been a reliable source of runs since the series against Pakistan last summer; his last century came in the third Test at Headingley when he was captain. Although he fell four short of breaking that run, when Kumble beat him in the flight with a quicker top-spinner, he did most of what the selectors will have wanted. Kumble, for his part, showed his importance to a weak Indian attack and added Paul Collingwood for a duck with a classical googly to even the scales.
If Strauss wanted some positive memories to fall back on then Lord's provided the perfect location for a return to form. Not only is it his home ground, he has three centuries and averages 61 in seven Tests. Since his return from a mid-season break, while England played the one-day matches, Strauss has slowly begun to find his feet again; he struck a half-century for Middlesex before making 80 in the second innings playing for England Lions against the Indians last week.
This wasn't a vintage performance as he picked up a couple of early edges to third man and had accepted his fate as his drive looped towards Karthik before realising the let-off. But slowly a few trademark shots - square of the wicket through point and a meaty pull - were brought out on a true surface. He went to his fifty off 109 balls and became increasingly dominant with each over spent in the middle. His dismissal was down to a clever piece of bowling from Kumble, who spotted Strauss' rare decision to come out of his crease and fired the ball wider and faster, which drew an edge to slip, ending a stand of 142 with Vaughan.
Strauss was overshadowed in an opening stand of 76 by Alastair Cook, who quickly found his Lord's groove against wayward pace bowling, and later by Vaughan who approached his average of 90 against India with a classy innings. The lone wicket in the first two sessions went to the unlikely figure of Sourav Ganguly as he nipped one back into Cook in his first over.
Vaughan's innings had important personal significance, too, after his departure from the team for the one-day internationals. He's claimed that it's been easy to slot straight back in but now he has only one form of the game to play runs are even more important. He oozed command throughout his innings, using his feet to Ganguly's medium-pace to counter any swing and impose himself on the bowler, while playing comfortably off front and back foot. He picked the gaps on the leg side and when the bowlers tried to adjust he went through the covers as the half century took 118 balls.
However, his momentum was interrupted by the late stoppages for light and when Singh went round the wicket he extracted a thin edge through to MS Dhoni. Singh and Sreesanth improved as the day wore on although Zaheer Khan failed to lead the attack as his experience suggests he should. But despite the recent poor weather - and, as if on cue, more is expected over the weekend - the pitch is ideal for batting so coupled with the late wickets India are far from out of this contest.
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