An attack of nerves
Rahul Dravid's epic defensive performance actually began at Saturday evening's press conference, when he treated an enquiry about the follow-on with the same suspicion that he later reserved for Paul Collingwood's half-volleys. "I'm going to keep those cards close to my chest," he declared, in a manner that suggested his mind wasn't fully made up. India had done extraordinarily well to take eight wickets in the day on a pitch that Dravid described as "flat and slow", but with the series at stake, he wasn't about to trust that England would be so generous with their shot-selection in two innings running.
If any doubt still remained this morning, it was almost certainly banished during the day's first seven overs. England's last pair, Chris Tremlett and Monty Panesar, batted with such disarming poise against RP Singh and, more importantly, Anil Kumble, that a deficit of 319 suddenly looked like an opportunity for an almighty comeuppance. Dravid, of all people, would know about that. At Kolkata in 2000-01, he and VVS Laxman changed forever the popular perception of the follow-on with their 376-run stand against the Aussies. From the day of that turn-around, no international captain has ever accepted a gift-horse without a full oral inspection.
And least of all on a pitch that had produced an innings of 664. "The wicket is playing beautifully," said India's manager, Chandu Borde, as he explained the reasons behind his team's decision. "It's not turning or helping the spinners as much as we expected, and we were taking into consideration that our bowlers were also tired. We want to bring them back fresh, and try to attack the English batsmen."
Borde's words weren't exactly flushed with optimism, but they were grounded in some sort of historical precedent. By way of explanation, he harked back to India's famous run-chase on this same ground in 1979, when Sunil Gavaskar's imperious double-century took his team to within nine runs of their vast target of 438. England's last-day requirement is 444 in 90 overs - monstrously improbable, but in Borde's estimation, not entirely impossible. "You can score 400-odd runs easily on the last day," he said. "It is possible because this wicket is so good for batsmen. It's a very, very good wicket."
Understandably, the decision to bat again came in for some criticism, but Borde was adamant. "We are not scared of losing, we are just making ourselves absolutely sure of beating them," he said. The respective performances of the two batting line-ups more than justified India's caution. By the close England, with nothing left to lose, were on cruise control for the first time in the match. The burdens of expectation had been lifted from their under-fire openers, Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook, and after some familiar jitters against the new ball, they did as they had been exhorted in the first innings and bedded down to bat for themselves. In so doing they put together only their fifth half-century stand in 27 innings.
India, on the other hand, suffered a day of pent-up anxiety. They stand on the brink of a hugely significant chunk of history - their first series win in England since 1986, and their most significant scalp outside the subcontinent since 1971 - and it showed. England may have been lacking the services of Ryan Sidebottom - the best and most consistent exponent of swing in their line-up - but almost as soon as the teams had taken the field, the weather took a turn for the worse and India's judgment, quite literally, became clouded.
|India, on the other hand, suffered a day of pent-up anxiety. They stand on the brink of a hugely significant chunk of history - their first series win in England since 1986, and their most significant scalp outside the subcontinent since 1971 - and it showed|
The judgment of umpire Ian Howell also remained overcast. His latest duff decision - this time against Wasim Jaffer - was delivered with a look that was nothing short of panic, and at 11 for 3 with Sachin Tendulkar gone as well, that was the over-riding emotion in India's dressing-room. English sympathy might have been in short supply, but there's little doubt that there was empathy in the air. Two years ago, The Oval was the scene of England's famous capitulation in the Ashes decider, when they went to lunch in a fog of pessimism on 127 for 5.
It was from that nadir, however, that Pietersen strode out to do what he does best and play by uninhibited instinct. But it's different strokes for different blokes, and on this occasion, Dravid's response to an undeniable crisis was to revert to his default setting. It's not for nothing that he is known as "The Wall", and for 96 bloodless deliveries, defiance was his only ambition.
Alongside him was Sourav Ganguly, who has a punchier attitude to adversity. His response was a crowd-pleasing counter-attack that peppered his favourite off-side and hauled India back into a position of strength. It was an exasperating passage of play for India's legions of fans, but ultimately their 55-run stand - and the 22 overs that it devoured - should have put the series beyond England's grasp.
But there is still one day remaining, and England have ten wickets with which to play. The worst that can befall them is a second defeat in a series that, to all intents and purposes, has already been lost. It is by no means as devastating a prospect as failure would be for the Indians. At Nagpur last winter, Andrew Flintoff's men were given an almighty scare on the final day when, after a measured start, Irfan Pathan and Co. took it upon themselves to have a dart at their target of 368. Pietersen has previous on this ground. It's not impossible he might be sizing up some payback.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo