Batsmen help India build momentum
On a day of fluctuating fortunes and squandered opportunities, India finished on top, putting 316 for 4 on the board after they chose to bat on a friendly Oval pitch, in conditions where bowling was hard work. Some of India's top-order batsmen must still be ruing the fact that they did not go on to make big runs but Matt Prior, who dropped Sachin Tendulkar on 20, will be the one most wanting to erase the flawed moment from memory.
Wasim Jaffer began the Indian innings in characteristic fashion, with little footwork but excellent shot execution, timing and placing the ball superbly on both sides of the pitch, in front of and behind square. Among affer's seven boundaries that will make the highlights reels was an uppercut six off James Anderson that sailed over the ropes at point.
But this uncharacteristic adventurism was to eventually be his undoing. Michael Vaughan, a captain who loves tinkering with his fields, sent Kevin Pietersen from gully to a short third-man position, a touch wide and about 20 yards in from the ropes. It is tough to believe Jaffer did not see Pietersen going there, and in all probablilty took the bait simply because he found him with the kind of pin-point accuracy that would be hard to achieve if the batsman had tried to place the ball somewhere. Anderson had a wicket that looked like it would not come all session, and India were 62 for 1.
Rahul Dravid, who walked - no, rushed - out to bat, signalled his intentions early enough, slashing one over the slip cordon between striking clean fours in front of point. With Dravid keeping the scoreboard ticking over - his first 15 came off as many balls - Karthik too loosened up.
Karthik's drives through cover, when the ball was in the slot, were crisp and cleanly struck, but his lofted six off Monty Panesar caught the eye. Karthik, tired of kicking away the ball on a leg-stump line, came down the track, gave himself a bit of room and timed the ball sweetly over extra cover.
The shot of the day, however, came from the other end. Vaughan had placed two fielders close to each other - they could have leaned over and shook hands - at short cover, reminding Dravid of the manner in which he had scooped Panesar to the same position earlier in the series. As if to defy Vaughan, Dravid picked Panesar off, threading a drive perfectly between the two men.
Dravid waved his bat vigorously at the press enclosure on reaching his fifty, clearly making a point to some inside. The statement, whatever it was, was cut short five runs later by a peach of a ball from Anderson that slanted in and swung away just enough to york the batsman and nail the middle stump. The 127-run stand had come in good time, and India were still scoring at a fast clip when the next wicket fell, for the third time in the day against the run of play.
Karthik, nine short of a well-deserved century, played an airy drive outside the off to Sidebottom but could not quite get behind the line of the ball. Replays suggested that Karthik may have been unlucky to have been given out - no Indian opener has ever been dismissed in the 90s against England - as there was no visible deflection when the ball passed bat.
That brought Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly together, and the two weathered a spell of sustained short-pitched bowling as England clawed back into game, sharply reducing the scoring rate, which had hovered above the four-per-over mark almost all innings. Ganguly managed to deflect the ball away albeit awkwardly at times, but Tendulkar simply bided his time.
It was 37 balls before Tendulkar, who had managed five at that stage, scored his first boundary, a sumptuous drive through cover off Anderson. From then on Tendulkar showed more positive intent, using the bat rather than receiving the ball on pad or body. But even then, Tendulkar looked oddly hesitant in his strokeplay, and when he edged Sidebottom trying to force the ball through the off side, it did not come as a total surprise. What was shocking, though, was Prior's attempt behind the stumps. Prior threw himself to the right, displaying poorer footwork than the batsman's, and parried the ball goalkeeper-style past first slip.
No matter how he is batting, or what the score is, it is not a good idea to drop Tendulkar. He and Ganguly showed why they each have more than 100 Tests in the bag, putting on 77 not-so-pretty yet invaluable runs for the fourth wicket before Ian Howell, the umpire, dropped his clanger for the day.
Paul Collingwood, filling in a few overs before the second new ball was taken, got one to come in a touch to Ganguly, on 37, who crashed the ball onto his pad off a thick inside-edge. The appeal was a good one, and Howell raised his finger even as Ganguly smiled in bemusement, concealing his disappointment as best as possible, and trudged off.
VVS Laxman joined Tendulkar out in the middle, and he had a better time of it than Ganguly. England's bowlers failed to make full use of the second new ball, allowing Laxman to leave alone far too many deliveries. Tendulkar was taking no chances, and bedded down on 48, content with taking India to a good first day's score and ready to have another go at England on day two.
Anand Vasu is associate editor of Cricinfo