England v India, 3rd Test, The Oval, 5th day August 13, 2007

A team performance to rank with the best



Sreesanth struggled through most of the series, but finished on a high with three wickets on the final day at The Oval © Getty Images

The Oval may be a mighty ground for finishes, with 13 positive results in 17 matches since 1990, but it is the inconclusive fixtures that have caused the most flutters in recent years. Last summer this ground played host to the Pakistan furore (the match was eventually awarded to England, but in the mind's eye it remains the ultimate no-result), and the year before that, there was arguably the most famous draw of the last 25 years, when England defied Australia to bring home the Ashes after an 18-year hiatus.

India's fans may not appreciate it right now, as they quibble about the reasons behind Rahul Dravid's safety-first approach, but this draw will one day be looked upon with similar fondness. The scenes at the end of the final over, with Indian fielders raising their arms in triumph and leaping gleefully into each other's embrace, will be replayed over and over in the coming months and years, and rightly so. This match ended in a victory every bit as tangible as England's in 2005, and for India it had been an even longer time coming.

Much had been made of India's inability to win outside the subcontinent - their laboured 1-0 win in the Caribbean last spring was their first against a major nation since they again beat England in 1986. But this triumph was something else entirely. It was spearheaded by two swing bowlers, Zaheer Khan and RP Singh, who learned their lines quickly and prevented England's batsmen from reaching 400 in any of their innings.

It was underpinned by the decades-long knowhow of Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly in the middle-order, and it was given impetus by the unexpected success of Wasim Jaffer and Dinesh Karthik who, as an opening partnership, stole the show from their off-colour English counterparts. Mahendra Singh Dhoni had the better of Matt Prior, Anil Kumble outperformed Monty Panesar. And even the maligned Sreesanth finished the series on a high, with three wickets to Zaheer's none on the final day at The Oval. It was a team performance to rank with the best.

But for far too many detractors, the moment of glory was spoiled by the tactics of India's captain, Dravid, who - in opting not to enforce the follow-on and choosing instead to bat again - has been subjected to a barrage of condemnation. Accusations of cowardice, negativity, even (can you credit it?) match-fixing have been flying his way, and all from fans who have become so hooked on the quick fix of the one-day game that they have lost the ability to savour the ebb and flow of proper Test cricket.

Those fans will be back at the burger bar soon enough, when the seven-match one-day series gets underway next week. For the time being, let's appreciate the bigger picture: Dravid's men are heirs to Ajit Wadekar's heroes of 1971 and Kapil Dev's of 1986. England - the second-best Test team in the world, unbeaten at home since 2001 - have been turned over in swing-and-seam conditions that should have suited their cricketers down to the ground. This is a hugely significant victory.

And yet, what would the reaction have been if the series had been squandered? It's not such an outlandish prospect as you might think. In 2005, England made Australia follow on in the fourth Test at Trent Bridge - rightly so, as the series was tied at 1-1 and the match simply had to be won. They were left with a modest target of 129, and ended scrambling home by three wickets into the teeth of a Shane Warne and Brett Lee gale.

Nerves play an almighty part in international sport, especially when history is within your grasp. For all that they were the better team for two Tests, India still had a very real chance of losing if they went all-in for the win.

Let's not forget, at Trent Bridge in the second Test, India had lost three quick wickets chasing a mere 73 - if Michael Vaughan had found a few more batting partners during his magnificent 124, the chase could have got even trickier than that.

No way was Dravid going to risk another attack of the jitters - it was bad enough when his team slumped to 11 for 3 in the third innings here, but at least he knew that, by dropping anchor in the manner that he did, his team would be able to ride out the storm. "If I'd have been in his position I'd have done exactly the same," said Michael Vaughan. "They were 1-0 up and they want to make sure they win the series."

What is more, England had in their armoury a batsman who loves nothing better than an assault on the impossible. It was Kevin Pietersen who transcended the panic in the 2005 Oval Test, and for the second time in three appearances on the ground, he took it upon himself to score a last-day century. From the moment England had folded in their first innings, the pressure - perversely - was off. Follow-on or no follow-on, all they had to do was bat for themselves, and then bat some more.

And a man like KP hardly needs a second invitation to look after No. 1. Sometimes that would come across as a criticism, but not when there's a series to be saved. In the end, Pietersen's hundred could do nothing more than save the match for England, but Dravid - by his tactics - had eliminated the other dreadful possibility. It was hardly the conclusion that a million fans had been hankering for, but 50 years from now, no-one will quibble about the small-change. "I'm sure you've all be entertained," added Vaughan by way of support. "It's been proper Test match cricket, and it's been tough."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.