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March 5, 2006
At tea on the fifth and final day of a remarkable contest at Nagpur, it had seemed there could be no more twists to come. England's valiant bid for a Test victory against the odds had been thwarted by the broad and resolute bats of Wasim Jaffer and Rahul Dravid, and at 131 for 1 needing a massive 368 for victory, the only remaining topic of interest was whether Jaffer, in his first Test for nearly four years, could cap his recall with a hugely deserved maiden hundred.
Well, he duly made it, thanks to a harum-scarum single that could so easily have become a run-out, but by the close, his colossal contribution had been reduced to a mere side show. Instead, in one of the most audacious heists in the history of Test cricket, India rejigged their batting order, threw their big hitters into the fray, and attempted to clobber a dumbfounded opposition for 237 runs in a single session.
The statistics suggest that they fell well short, but that was not how it felt at the time, as England's close catchers vanished in a bid to protect the boundaries and Nagpur was transformed into a cauldron of patriotic fervour that intensified with every violent swish for four. But England held their nerve (and Andrew Strauss held their catches, all three of them) and with four wickets still standing, the chase was called off by Sachin Tendulkar, who took an offer for bad light with 108 runs still needed from 70 balls, and the new ball just around the corner.
It had been a breathless transformation, and one that was totally at odds with the pattern of the day. Having lost Virender Sehwag for a duck in the fifth over of the day, bowled through the gate by the tireless Matthew Hoggard, it seemed that India's best chance of victory had vanished there and then. For two attritional sessions that yielded less than two-and-a-half runs per over, Dravid and Jaffer did little to dispel the notion that comfortable survival was the limit of their ambition.
Dravid once again lived up to his nickname the Wall, bringing up his half-century from 168 deliveries, and in the process passing 1000 runs against England. From that moment on he began to play a few more shots in anger, with ten runs coming off the first over of Steve Harmison's new spell. But the implication of this upping of the pace was not fully realised until he had been dismissed for 71, bowled out of the rough by an absolute ripper from Monty Panesar that spat across his bows to take out off stump.
For the third time in the match, Panesar embarked on his trademark canter across the outfield - Tendulkar, Mohammad Kaif and now Dravid is no mean haul of debut wickets - but England's celebrations turned to puzzlement as the willowy figure of Irfan Pathan came haring out of the dressing-room. The score was 168 for 2, and the enigmatic smile being worn by India's coach, Greg Chappell, suggested that something strange was afoot.
India's requirement was still 200 runs from 25 overs, but an edged four from Pathan off Panesar was enough to put Flintoff immediately on the defensive. Out went the close fielders as six runs were milked from Ian Blackwell's next over, and when Flintoff brought himself back on to take personal charge of the situation, Pathan belted him for four and six from his first three balls.
Jaffer by this stage had reached three figures for the first time in his Test career, a spectacular feat of endurance and no little class that deserved a greater ovation, but his moment of glory had been comprehensively overshadowed. He didn't last much longer either, as Flintoff had him driving to the sure-handed Strauss in the covers, but the arrival of Mahendra Singh Dhoni at No. 5 was further evidence that England were being set up for a sucker punch.
Flintoff turned to his firmest ally, Harmison, the man with whom he had bowled in tandem during the ultimate nerve-jangler at Edgbaston last summer. It did the trick, as Pathan's most violent intentions were negated by the extra bounce, and Flintoff ended his assault courtesy of Strauss's simple take at mid-off. Even so, Pathan had made 35 from 25 balls, and with 153 now needed from 18 overs, it was time for Tendulkar to take centre stage.
Two whipped fours off Flintoff were evidence that Sachin was spoiling for a fight, but it was the return of Blackwell that really ignited the crowd, as 16 runs were gleaned, including three boundaries of the highest one-day class. But Harmison gave his side some invaluable breathing space with a brilliant full-length over that included the wicket of Dhoni, and when he followed up by yorking the new batsman, Harbhajan Singh, in his next over, India decided that enough was enough.
It had been a breathless end to an extraordinary Test, one that will be notable for the coming-of-age of several hitherto unproven cricketers - Collingwood, Panesar, Alastair Cook and the classy Jaffer, to name but a few. But the ease and poise of India's strokeplay on the final afternoon meant that the Man of the Match award went deservedly to England's yeoman seamer, Hoggard. Without his first-innings haul of 6 for 57 there might have been no contest at all, and who knows, without his early dismissal of Sehwag today, there might have been no stopping India in their pursuit of the unattainable.
Virender Sehwag b Hoggard 0 (1 for 1)
Big drive, little footwork, nipped through the gate
Rahul Dravid b Panesar 71 (168 for 2)
Pitched outside leg, spat onto off stump
Wasim Jaffer c Strauss b Flintoff 100 (198 for 3)
Driven on the up to extra cover
Irfan Pathan c Strauss b Flintoff 35 (215 for 4)
Round the wicket, into the blockhole, shovelled to mid-on
Mahendra Dhoni c Strauss b Harmison 16 (252 for 5)
Flat-batted to deep long-off
Harbhajan Singh b Harmison 7 (260 for 6)
Played around a yorker, lost middle and leg