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December 11, 2008
This Test looked like it might never go ahead, and some still argue it's too soon to be playing cricket, but in the end the opening day produced a fascinating start to the short series. Despite a fine century from Andrew Strauss, a brace of wickets apiece for Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan reduced England to 229 for 5 at the close although the surface is threatening to break up later in the game.
Against the odds England controlled the first two sessions and were 164 for 1 at tea after an opening stand of 118. However, India hit back strongly, led by another outstanding display of reverse swing from Zaheer. He removed Ian Bell with the second ball after tea and bounced-out a scratchy and skittish Kevin Pietersen. Andrew Flintoff did well to survive his early trial by spin and swing, and faces a huge role on the second day with nightwatchman James Anderson for company.
Strauss's effort was a remarkable show of concentration. Barring three short innings during the Stanford week, this was his first knock since the end of the English season. He brought up his 13th Test century off 191 balls, but his dismissal late in the day, offering a low return catch to Amit Mishra, put India firmly ahead on points. The four sessions splits confirm how India fought back: 63 without loss, 101 for 1 and 65 for 4.
Zaheer's first ball after tea slanted across Bell, then the second arched back in and was heading for middle when he was trapped in front. Dhoni hadn't used Zaheer between lunch and tea, but when called upon played a vital part. Pietersen has had more to deal with in recent days than most, so it was unsurprising that he struggled at the crease. He was tested by Zaheer's swing but also Yuvraj Singh's left-arm sliders. Yuvraj caused as many moments of discomfort as Harbhajan, who was introduced in the ninth over, or Mishra and had a very close lbw shout turned down against Pietersen. Zaheer, though, claimed a deserved second wicket as Pietersen top-edged a pull which the bowler claimed in his follow-through.
Paul Collingwood retained his place in the side ahead of the in-form Owais Shah, and when your spot is being debated it doesn't help to get a rough decision. Billy Bowden thought he'd got a glove to short-leg off Harbhajan, but he missed it by at least six inches. A lot of the players have spoken about how events in Mumbai have given them a greater perspective, but once the contest is resumed in the middle, instincts take over and the disappointment was easy to detect.
To put England's position in further context, the last Test on this ground, when South Africa played India, produced first-innings totals of 540 and 627, plus an individual contribution of 319 by Virender Sehwag. The visitors, though, have the advantage of bowling last on a surface that is likely to break up after hurried preparation.
There were reminders of what had gone before - a minute's silence before play and black armbands on show - however in the middle the cricket was about as intense as could have been expected. The expectations on England's top order were low after a frantic build-up that included just two days of practice in Chennai and that may just have allowed then to settle. As Alastair Cook said before the game a large part of the battle is mental and both he and Strauss appeared unburdened.
It has taken time for Strauss and Cook to perform together and, while they are still too similar to be an ideal combination, the results are starting to improve. This was their fourth century stand of the year. Cook was the only casualty before tea, falling to an expansive slog-sweep against Harbhajan as he attempted a rare moment of aggression. It was the sort of lapse in concentration the heat and humidity can cause, but was also an indication as to why Cook has only hit one six in his international career.
Strauss showed how to play the sweep, using it as a regular option especially against Mishra, who was the man England attempted to target. It was a smart tactic, Mishra is the least experienced of the frontline bowlers, and meant that runs were steadily ticking over from one end although Mishra made a late impact.
Strauss didn't score a run through the off side before lunch, a mark of how he has tightened his game since returning to the side. After the break Harbhajan dropped short and allowed him room for his favourite cut although moments of acceleration were few and far between. With Zaheer's probing line he found it hard work through the nineties before reaching his century with a glide to third man.
If he'd stayed until the end, England could have claimed honours were even, but India's late roll means they have made considerable strides towards controlling a match that is important for so many reasons.
Plays of the day from the fifth ODI in Ranchi
Shorter tours don't allow you time to get into form, and domestic cricket isn't demanding enough