England v India, 3rd Test, The Oval, 1st day August 9, 2007

Time to drive well and sleep carefully



As at Sydney in 2004, Sachin Tendulkar's innings has been characterised by patient accumulation than the free-stroking flair that once enthralled so many © Getty Images

Michael Ondaatje's acclaimed novel The English Patient contains the line: "From this point on in our lives, we will either find or lose our souls." This Indian team, many of whom have evolved together, find themselves in a similar situation on Thursday night. If they can reprise what they did at Sydney in January 2004, when they piled up 705 for 7, the prize at stake is a glittering one - a first series win in England in a generation. But if the demons of defeats past torment them instead, the match could well go the way of Melbourne in 2003 and defeat in Cape Town last January, games where perfect starts were carelessly frittered away.

For those that believe in omens, and which sporting aficionado isn't a little superstitious, the duo at the crease at The Oval are the same two that ruined Steve Waugh's farewell at the SCG. On that occasion, they added a massive 353, and it is safe to say that Rahul Dravid would settle for half that on the second morning with the relatively new ball certain to pose a threat.

Most Indian victories away from home have been built around a defining innings, whether it be Dilip Sardesai's 112 at Port of Spain (1971), or Dravid's 233 at Adelaide (2003). At Sydney, both Tendulkar (241) and Laxman, with a wondrous 178, played innings for the ages, yet the bid for victory was thwarted on an engrossing final day.

In reality though, the opportunity to win that series had been squandered at the MCG, when India stumbled from 278 for 1 to finish Boxing Day on 329 for 4. The next morning, they were rolled over for 366, and the initiative was irrevocably lost. Three years later, they did much the same at Cape Town, cruising to 395 for 5 before losing five wickets for 19.

If Laxman was batting like he was back in 2004, when he was very close to being the best in the world, there would have been little reason for trepidation in the dressing room. But despite flashes of wristy elegance, he has crossed 50 only twice in six Tests in England. The onus therefore will surely be on Tendulkar to carry on.

If Laxman was batting like he was back in 2004, when he was very close to being the best in the world, there would have been little reason for trepidation in the dressing room

As at Sydney, his innings thus far has been characterised by patient accumulation than the free-stroking flair that once enthralled so many. Like Mohammad Ali, another legend who transformed himself from the devastating puncher who annihilated Cleveland Williams and Ernie Terrell to the rope-a-dope expert who exhausted George Foreman, Tendulkar appears at ease in his new avatar, one where he works away like flowing water on rock.

England helped his cause by overdoing the short stuff, when swing at pace might have asked far more uncomfortable questions. He got a chance too, with Matt Prior's gloves not being as wide as his gob, and late in the day, there was another edge that flew past the slip cordon.

Tendulkar will not be bothered by trifles such as TRPs and entertainment quotients when he resumes tomorrow, and that is as it should be. The Oval is one of those venues where it is notoriously difficult to predict a par score. Nine years ago, England made 445 in the first innings and were still routed by a combination of Muttiah Muralitharan, Sanath Jayasuriya and Aravinda de Silva. And as recently as four years back, South Africa piled up 484 - they were 290 for 1 at one stage - only for "Banger" Trescothick to play one of the innings of his career as England swept to a nine-wicket win.

After the refreshingly positive approach shown on day one, with Dinesh Karthik and Dravid to the fore, Friday could be a day for attrition. Too often, India have stumbled in foreign climes through either being too cavalier or too diffident. It will be the middle path that they seek tomorrow, and if they find it, English hopes will die as slowly as the patient did in Ondaatje's book.

Dileep Premachandran is associate editor of Cricinfo