England wrest a draw but concede the series to India
India won their first series in England since 1986, albeit 1-0, after England held on for a draw on the final day of the last Test at The Oval. It was a fitting denouement to a hard fought and evenly contested series as India's bowlers seldom slackened in their effort to force a win whereas England's batsmen displayed remarkable application. Kevin Pietersen helped himself to a workmanlike century and provided the backbone for England's resistance as they ended on 369 for 6. On a day when wickets fell at regular enough intervals to keep India interested till the very end, England held on, but Michael Vaughan's unbeaten home record slipped from his grasp.
England's batting in the second innings was in sharp variance to their first. While the first was dotted with cameos and generously sprinkled with batsmen error, the second was one characterised by abstinence and self-denial. England's batsmen focused purely on eliminating risk, to the exclusion of all else, and that paid off.
India, having chosen to bat on as long as they could in their first innings, rattling up 664, not declaring even after Anil Kumble reached his maiden Test hundred, and then having decided not to enforce the follow-on, were clearly thinking not in terms of a match win but the bigger series win. They would settle for a draw if it came to that, and it did.
But that's not to say the bowlers did not try their hardest. Sreesanth bowled better than he has all series, finding the right line, attacking the stumps. Zaheer Khan continued to swing the ball both ways, and probed both from over the stumps and around. Kumble, charged up till the very end, metronomically sent down delivery after delivery, but the pitch had not really broken up as India would have hoped, and batsmen were able to play him on the back foot, reading him off the pitch. Sachin Tendulkar served up his enticing mixture of legbreaks, offbreaks and seam up, and with more luck could easily have picked up a wicket.
What England needed to do - and managed quite handily - was break the day's play down into small chunks and negotiate each one. The first phase was the relatively new ball, which the openers needed to see off, and they did so without serious problems. It wasn't until the 12th over of the day, when RP Singh was introduced into the attack, that the first breakthrough came. Andrew Strauss played a touch away from his body and nicked a late outswinger into VVS Laxman's hands at slip. Soon after India tasted second success, the only time in the day where one wicket would be followed closely by another.
Alastair Cook's penchant for glancing uppishly led to him playing the stroke to Kumble, with Laxman at backward short leg, positioned there for just the eventuality. England were then 86 for 2, and still had more than 75 overs to play.
Vaughan and Pietersen came together, and barring one moment - when Rahul Dravid, at slip, dropped a straightforward edge from Vaughan off Kumble - were in control of proceedings for more than 25 overs. Pietersen was a perfect example of a high quality batsman changing his natural game to adapt to a challenge, as he put away his natural attacking instincts, instead using his considerable talent to just keep the bowling out.
Vaughan, for his part, ensured that he did not play anything that could just as easily be left alone. That is, for 94 balls, before a brief break in play for bad light broke his concentration. Sreesanth had slipped Vaughan the booming inswinger, and followed that up with a well-directed away-swinger, which Vaughan flashed at, off the back foot, and nicked to the keeper. By then almost 61 overs had been consumed.
Paul Collingwood replaced Vaughan and proved to be a more-than-adequate foil to Pietersen. Collingwood's naturally dour game was just what the situation demanded, and he stonewalled defiantly, while not losing out on the odd chance to score, putting away the really loose deliveries quite efficiently.
Collingwood and Pietersen added more than 100 runs and saw off close to 24 overs, and just when they had appeared to have steered England to safety, Collingwood fell to the first delivery sent down with the second new ball. Sreesanth managed to get on to pitch just outside off and come in a touch, and Collingwood, who was expecting the outswinger, played down the wrong line and was trapped in front of the stumps.
There was just the slightest flutter in the England camp, and this became a full-fledged tremor when Pietersen, who had just reached his 10th Test hundred, drove away from his body and edged Sreesanth to Dinesh Karthik at first slip. Pietersen had consumed 159 balls for his 101, and when he went, India were within sniffing distance of the shaky tail, with Ian Bell and Matt Prior at the crease. Bell batted positively, as he has done all game, and brought up a run-a-ball fifty, even taking four consecutive fours off Kumble. Perhaps overexcited by this, Bell played, and missed, an unwise sweep against Kumble, and watched in agony as the lbw decision went India's way. But Ryan Sidebottom and Matt Prior managed to keep the bowling out, taking England to safety.
England had drawn the game, but India were still celebrating, for they'd just managed a series win in England, just the third time ever by India on English soil and something no-one in this team has ever tasted before.
Anand Vasu is associate editor of Cricinfo