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December 13, 2008
This Test series only consists of two matches, but Andrew Strauss has already batted for longer than some players manage in full-length contests. He followed up his first-innings century with a composed, unbeaten 73 on the third day in Chennai as England built a strong lead of 247, leaving them superbly placed to push for one of their unlikeliest Test victories. Paul Collingwood helped him add 129 for the fourth wicket and by the close India were walking around without much energy or purpose.
The home side face a huge challenge to try and salvage the game. Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Harbhajan Singh added 75 to limit the first-innings deficit, before the last four wickets fell for 29. Even though the equation was evened up when England slipped to 43 for 3, the crucial moment came in the over after Kevin Pietersen had fallen to Yuvraj Singh's first ball. Strauss, on 15 at the time, went to cut Amit Mishra, a shot that has brought him so many runs in this match, and a thin edge was spilled by Dhoni. It would have made the score 43 for 4 with the Indian spinners bounding in.
Apart from that blemish, Strauss was again in complete control at the crease, playing himself in against the early pace and then playing to his strengths against the spin. He has barely produced a shot down the ground during more than 10 hours at the crease, scoring most of his runs with well-controlled sweeps and his favourite cut. Batting in the subcontinent is a draining experience, both mentally and physically, so to back up a first-innings century puts Strauss on course for his finest Test. If he converts this start into a second hundred it will surpass Port Elizabeth in 2004-05 when he scored 126 and an unbeaten 94.
After Ishant Sharma, who struggled with no-balls and overstepped seven times, removed Alastair Cook with a thin outside edge it was the spinners who provided the major threat, although Harbhajan was a disappointment. The pitch offered encouragement, but it also looked worse that it played. As in the first innings Mishra was introduced in the ninth over and produced one that bounced more from a length to take Ian Bell's glove to short leg.
Then came the latest Dhoni masterstroke. As soon as Pietersen walked in Yuvraj was brought into the attack. All of England's batsmen have struggled with Yuvraj, both in the one-dayers and this Test, but as much against his sliders as his spin. His first delivery angled in with the arm, trapping Pietersen in front and the England captain knew his fate before the finger went up.
Collingwood was the perfect man to walk into a dicey situation which needed some grafting. He was the ideal partner for Strauss, someone to work the gaps and run hard between the wickets. India's fielding has improved out of sight in recent times, but they still carry a few passengers and the England pair harried them on occasions.
Mishra became a touch expensive as Strauss put him off his line and Collingwood came down the pitch. It was pleasing to see an England batsman advance, and although Collingwood didn't always convince - he lofted one narrowly over Yuvraj at mid-off - it was a statement that some of the first-innings batting lacked.
Alongside spin, reverse swing was the other trump card Dhoni would have banked on. However, Sharma was struggling for rhythm and Zaheer couldn't replicate his first-innings threat. It was noticeable that the two Indian players to show most frustration as the partnership grew were the strike-bowling pair of Zaheer and Harbhajan.
Harbhajan had been much more feisty during the morning session as he and Dhoni rattled up 75 in 17 overs and it appeared India would make a decent fist of getting level with England. Dhoni played a very mature innings and the more flamboyant shots came from Harbhajan, who has an individual style to his batting. When Monty Panesar went over the wicket, Harbhajan brought out the reverse sweep which left the bowler with a rather bemused smile.
Panesar provided the breakthrough when Harbhajan got an inside edge to short leg. It was a confidence-boosting strike for Panesar, who had again seemed at odds with his game. Pietersen sensed the opening and almost immediately returned to Andrew Flintoff. Once again he was rewarded with a first-over breakthrough as Zaheer was trapped on the back foot by one that shaped in.
Dhoni played within himself and brought up a half-century off 77 balls despite the pain of a twisted ankle which he picked up while running a three. However, with the final two tailenders in, he felt it was down to him to reduce the deficit and attacked Panesar, only to find Pietersen stationed two-thirds of the way back at mid-off. Panesar's trademark smile was returning and his spirit will be vital when England defend their fourth-innings target. Thanks to the remarkable efforts of Strauss he should have plenty of runs to work with.