India v England, 1st Test, Nagpur, 1st day March 1, 2006

Two tales from Nagpur

Dileep Premachandran looks back at the day one comparing it with another opening day at the same venue, two years back against Australia.

Sreesanth bowled intelligently, relying on reverse swing, to trouble the batsman on a flat track © Getty Images
As in October 2004, India picked up seven wickets on an opening day at Nagpur, only this time there was no resplendent batting to take the game away from them, or costly wicketkeeping lapses to intensify their pain. The green-sprinkled surface prepared for that game - in many ways, the beginning of the end for Sourav Ganguly - bore no resemblance to the turgid grassless pitch on show today, though in S Sreesanth and Irfan Pathan, India had two bowlers more than capable of testing a batting line-up without Michael Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick - 10,097 runs and 28 Test centuries between them.

Back then, the Australian openers had added 67 before Zaheer Khan produced a superb second spell that reduced them to 86 for 3. It was a similar story this morning, with England proceeding fairly untroubled to 56 before a slash from Andrew Strauss resulted in the first wobble.

India lost that game in the afternoon, when Damien Martyn and Darren Lehmann combined in a stirring counterattack that saw 143 runs clattered in 29 overs. There was no such generosity from the bowlers after lunch today though, with England able to eke out just 68 runs from the 30 overs bowled in the session. Even more pleasing was the fact that both Sreesanth and Pathan capitalised on Scrooge-like spells from the spinners to pick up a wicket each.

With the conditions not abetting swing and the pitch providing no lateral movement, both men relied heavily on reverse swing to break through. Kevin Pietersen's was the crucial wicket, hustled into an inside-edge by a Sreesanth delivery timed at 87.1 mph. With Pietersen gone, and Andrew Flintoff forced to adopt a more circumspect approach given the situation, England just didn't have a batsman capable of upsetting the bowlers' rhythm.

Paul Collingwood batted with commendable grit and application in stifling heat for his half-century, but he has neither the inventiveness nor the shot repertoire to tear an attack apart. By contrast, Australia had Darren Lehmann's stroke-filled 70 and Michael Clarke's busy 73 to buttress Martyn's immaculate 114.

On that day when India leaked 362 runs, Murali Kartik had been the standout performer for India, varying flight and pace for figures of 3 for 57. And though Sreesanth's pace and control caught the eye on debut today, Pathan's was as valuable a contribution. With no conventional swing to keep him in his element, he had to dig deep to create opportunities, especially after a wayward and disappointing opening spell. The fact that the two men adopted such disparate methods - with only reverse swing in common - kept the batsmen guessing, unlike on the recent tour of Pakistan when the sameness of the left-arm pace attack cost India dear.

England's inability to up the ante, especially against the slow bowlers, meant that Rahul Dravid never really had to rethink his strategy. The Australians had trained their sights on Anil Kumble, and taken him for four an over, but apart from one or two shots that spelt attacking intent, neither he nor Harbhajan Singh was under any pressure today.

What it did show, however, was that the English batsmen had learnt from the debacle in Lahore, when utterly mindless application of the sweep shot against the far-from-lethal Shoaib Malik ended their hopes. Despite his discomfiture against Harbhajan, Alastair Cook's 160-ball vigil highlighted the virtues of old-fashioned opening batsmanship. Unfortunately, only Collingwood could follow his lead. And with no Martyn, Lehmann, or even a Trescothick in sight, it was always going to be India's day.

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo