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December 12, 2008
England's bowlers proved that it doesn't matter how many thousands of runs a top order has, each innings is a new one and all batsmen are human. A fine combined effort from the five-man attack reduced India to 155 for 6 in reply to their 316 on the second day in Chennai. Graeme Swann grabbed the spotlight with two wickets in his first over in Test cricket and three strikes in the final hour - one apiece for Monty Panesar, Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison - allowed England to cement unexpected control.
The pitch has already played a part in this fascinating contest and chasing in the fourth innings isn't going to be easy. There was help for Harbhajan Singh and Amit Mishra, but also for England's spin pair as Swann and Panesar matched them. After stumbling to 37 for 3, courtesy Swann's two in four balls before tea, India partially recovered through Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman. But their dismissals in consecutive overs after the break stunned the crowd into silence.
Flintoff produced another of the chest-thumping spells for which he has become famous. With his first ball back he had Tendulkar caught and bowled and then got under the skin of Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh. There is a belief that Yuvraj doesn't have the same taste for Tests as he does for one-dayers and the roughing-up worked: in the penultimate over of the day he drove at Harmison, edging to Flintoff at second slip.
That left England, dismissed mid-way through the afternoon session after Matt Prior's battling half-century had led them to 316, happy with a total that appeared initially about 100 short. It began with James Anderson cramping Virender Sehwag for room, before Swann stole the spotlight in grand style. Often spinners are given the final over of a session as a token gesture - a few minutes later it looked like a masterstroke.
Swann's first delivery was cut away by Gautam Gambhir, but the following ball brought a big appeal for a short-leg catch, ultimately turned down by Daryl Harper. Next ball, however, Gambhir padded up to one that straightened to give Swann his first wicket. If that wasn't enough, with the last ball before tea an out-of-form Rahul Dravid was beaten by one that spun in sharply, though replays suggested it would only have grazed leg stump.
Swann - and England - probably wished play hadn't stopped for tea, as when the players returned Tendulkar and Laxman settled in, having been able to gather their thoughts. They calmly steadied the innings but, unlike England's leaden-footed middle-order their first instinct was to attack. Tendulkar swept Swann over midwicket for six, and Laxman effortlessly turned him through the leg side from a ball that could reasonably have gone through cover.
Panesar was the last option Pietersen introduced though he struggled initially to find his pace and line. Tendulkar toyed with him, one over in particular evidence of his greatness in making bowlers do what he wants. A short ball was cut away and when Panesar compensated by pitching up Tendulkar drove him past deep cover.
It looked like normal service, only for Laxman to suddenly chip a return catch to Panesar. There was shock all around; Panesar because he'd caught it (just, in the heels of his hands), Laxman because of the error and the crowd because they had started to enjoy the rally. The Barmy Army, though, were in fine voice and chants of 'Monty Monty' soon turned to cries of 'Super Fred' as Flintoff got in on the act after tea.
The batting hadn't gone quite as well for Flintoff, his dismissal in the third over of the day putting paid to England's hopes of reaching 400. It was an out-of-character innings, as he prodded around for 75 balls, until a lunge at Mishra was snapped up at short leg. In contrast to Flintoff's heavy-footed technique against spin was Prior's lightness at the crease.
When Prior was dropped after the Sri Lanka tour last year it was because of his glovework and not his batting. His fifty came off 96 balls and although the innings including a lone boundary he was the one England batsman to remain busy. However, his tactics with the tail were odd, as he continually exposed both Harmison and Panesar. The final-wicket stand lasted 37 balls, of which Panesar faced 26.
His best support came from Anderson - dropped by Dravid at slip - who again excelled in his role as nightwatchman. He defended stubbornly and even had the gumption to reverse sweep the day's opening boundary off Mishra.
The dismissal that woke everyone up, however, was the ball from Harbhajan that leapt off a length and took Swann's glove to slip. It was a sign of what the batsmen can expect as this match progresses and highlighted the importance of gaining a first-innings lead. England are likelier to harbour those thoughts tonight.
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