India v England, 4th Test, Nagpur, 4th day December 16, 2012

Waiting and hoping

Excessive caution has hurt India several times in recent memory but in the morning session it reached new heights of absurdity

There must be something about the Nagpur air that makes you not want to be desperate. Four years ago, during this ground's debut Test, Australia were in a similar position to India's here. It was the last Test of a series Australia had fallen behind in, they had conceded a first-innings lead of 86, but just before tea on the fourth day they came back with three quick wickets, those of VVS Laxman, Sourav Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar.

India were effectively 252 for 6. One more desperate burst and Australia could have been chasing around 320 in a little over three sessions. That would have set up a great finale to the series, right? Wrong. Australia wouldn't even try it. They came back from tea, and bowled many overs with Cameron White, Michael Hussey and Michael Clarke. That corrected the over-rate all right, but India laughed their way to a series win.

At least that was surprising. Australia's captain then, Ricky Ponting, was the man, we were told, that hated losing more than any other man who played cricket at that time. The most desperate part of what happened in the first session of day four in the Nagpur Test four years later was that it was not surprising. It is just what India are used to doing under MS Dhoni and Duncan Fletcher.

On numerous occasions under the leadership of this combination, India have been too shy to be desperate. This side can go to any length to avoid risks. They can call off a chase in a Test they have no chance of losing; they can start off a new session with Suresh Raina when Ishant Sharma has just given them a lifeline in the match; they can know they need to keep a team down to 121 to go further in a T20 tournament and yet attempt merely to win and then even brag about it. However, in a home series, trailing 2-1, you would have thought they would shed some of the "coolness". You had another think coming.

By the time the fourth day began, time had become almost as important an element as runs and wickets. And on a slow, lifeless pitch, it was always going to be difficult to run through batsmen intent on defence. And it was obvious that with the series lead in hand, England would be intent on defence both with the bat and the ball. It was India's obligation to make all the running. Forget an overnight declaration with a notional deficit of 33 runs to give them the time to bowl England out, India meandered for 62 precious minutes for just 29 runs, which is even slower than the normal funereal pace on this pitch.

"Everybody in the world knew England would be glad to give away one run an over for however long India were content with it. Except for the India think-tank"

It would have been understandable had they come out to bat with quick runs in mind, without bothering if they lost wickets in the process. To everyone's shock, though, R Ashwin began the day turning down singles, which he had been doing in Kolkata too before hitting boundaries when the field came up towards the end of the over. Back then, though, England were going after wickets. Only the naïve would expect them to bring the field up in this situation.

Brace up for this. Hold on to your armchairs, for you might fall off them: India did expect just the same from England. "The same as the last game," Ashwin said of refusing singles. "Looking for the last two balls for the fielders to come in. They had a different strategy [this time]. They didn't bring the fielders up. After two overs we decided to take the singles."

Everybody in the whole wide world knew England would be glad to give away one run an over for however long India were content with it. Except for the India think-tank, that is. It took them 18 minutes, 3.5 overs wasted for just three runs and a message from the dressing room to realise that this was not working.

Moreover, it was not as if the last two wickets could have hit James Anderson and Monty Panesar around at five an over. Ashwin acknowledged as much. "You don't have the best of ability at nine, ten, eleven," he said. "You can't expect someone to smack Anderson over the top for a six on this pitch. All this game the average has been 70 and 80 runs a session. Basically looking to take the singles. We have three-run, four-run overs too. We were just looking to eat into the lead. What best we could muster we did muster. Putting it into a larger scenario, we needed to even the game. We just about did it."

Ashwin is right. The average runs per session until then had been around 70. So what does a side pushing for a win do in that case? Do something innovative to move the game and risk losing the series 3-1 or go at a rate of 58 per session? India did the latter.

England were clearly happy with the proceedings. At one point, Jonathan Trott didn't even try to run Ashwin out when the latter had run half way up the pitch before being sent back by Pragyan Ojha. When Panesar did get Ojha out, England were almost disappointed. Now they were one wicket closer to batting again.

Those 62 minutes might not even matter in the end. The pitch is just too dead. Or India might still win through some capitulation or some miracle. Regardless, that first part of the day remains a mystery and a reminder that India were hoping to win as opposed to wanting it. Then again, it goes well with a cricketing system that has been hoping for the last 18 months that things will be all right as opposed to wanting to make them all right.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo