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December 13, 2012
England 199 for 5 (Pietersen 73, Prior 34*, Root 31*) v India
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details
India's strategy of beating England on sharply-turning surfaces had left them 2-1 down with one to play so in Nagpur it was time to find another way. It was not pretty. Plan B was to drive England to distraction on the slowest, lowest, shabbiest pitch imaginable. It might yet work, but Test cricket, not in the best of health as it is, is a little sicker for it.
That England came out evenly after the first day owed much to the self-denial of Kevin Pietersen, a quality with which he has rarely been associated, especially during a prolonged feud with England last summer which put his international career in jeopardy. But Pietersen yearns to end a largely unhappy year with a rare England Test series win in India and while others struggled he was a veritable professor of decorum. It is precisely because he had to work uncommonly hard that England will believe they are very much in the game.
His 73 from 188 balls ranked among his slowest Test half-centuries but it was an innings of great purpose for all that and prevented England from becoming entirely becalmed on a tedious day when the run rate ground forward at two an over. Turgid cricket was inevitable on a sub-standard surface that demanded a defensive outlook from both sides as India sought a victory to level the series and dissipate gathering criticism of the captain, MS Dhoni and his coaching staff.
Pietersen apart, England, needing to accumulate, largely gathered dust. Joe Root, a surprise debutant at No. 6, would understandably regard it as gold dust as he grafted for an unbeaten 31 in an unbroken stand of 60 with Matt Prior which stabilised England's mood by the end of the first day. Root, a patient technician, was well suited to such denial. TV viewers in England, who had roused themselves for a 4am start, may have nodded off long before then, but crease occupation could be vital on a pitch that started dry, abrasive and heavily cracked.
Pietersen fell early in the final session, flicking Ravindra Jadeja, India's debutant, to short midwicket - an area where Ishant Sharma also twice come close to dismissing him. The wicket was the highlight of a quite unforeseen day for Jadeja, who also drifted his slow left-arm onto Jonathan Trott's off stump when he misjudged a leave on 44, and who was generally met with such caution that he had 2 for 32 in 22 overs when Dhoni briefly honoured him with the second new ball. As the fourth-ranked spinner, he could not have expected that.
Even allowing for the different characteristics of pitches worldwide, this surface was inadequate for Test cricket. For Sharma, the sole representative of that increasingly endangered species, an Indian quick bowler, to find such persistent low and uneven bounce on the first morning of a Test was a travesty; the only question was how much it was by accident or design. Praveen Hinganikar, the curator, had no reason for satisfaction.
Sharma reduced England to 16 for 2 by taking the wickets of Nick Compton and Alastair Cook in his new-ball spell. It was vagaries in bounce that accounted for Compton, Sharma managing to get a short one chest high and drawing Compton into a defensive edge to the wicketkeeper. It was the vagaries of umpiring (mediocre throughout the series) that did for Cook as Sharma's hint of inswing was enough to win an lbw decision from umpire Kumar Dharmasena even though the ball was clearly missing off stump. Sharma had come close to an lbw decision against Trott in his previous over and that might have helped.
For England to find that they must repel India's challenge in the absence of Cook, their ultra-dependable captain, must have come as quite a shock. In the first three Tests he had batted 1,565 minutes, 1,164 balls and scored 548 runs. He did not adorn those figures very much at all, managing a single off 28 balls. His departure brought India hope.
The two wickets lost by England in the afternoon session were more self-inflicted, brought about by the pressure applied by India's quartet of spinners on a ponderous surface that allowed minimal first-day turn. Dhoni was left to play a waiting game, dispensing with slip or men around the bat for most of the day, and arresting the run rate with ring fields until gifts fell into his lap.
On several occasions, Trott and Pietersen, raised up on quick, bouncy South African pitches, made as if to pull a short ball before playing defensively on the crouch as the ball ambled towards them whenever it chose. Their third-wicket stand of 86 with Pietersen provided England's only concerted response, but after Trott allowed himself to be bowled, Ian Bell's unimpressive record in Asia continued as he punched a near half-volley from the legspinner, Piyish Chawla, to short extra cover.
On a pitch where the ball repeatedly died on pitching, lbw is in play for any bowler maintaining a strict wicket-to-wicket line. Even as they strangled England's innings, India must have seen enough to rue selecting four spinners instead of providing some fast-bowling support for Sharma. Steve Finn, omitted because of disc trouble in his back, was the type of tall, hit-the-deck bowler who might have been particularly effective and England could rue his absence.
Although Trott occasionally swept India's spinners to good effect and Pietersen, who was anxious to play positively against the spinners, muscled one or two shots down the ground, it was grim fare. Only a few thousand had turned out to watch it - this modern stadium on the edge of town echoing to the smallest crowd of the series. Those who stayed away were fortunate. Yawns all round.
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