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December 19, 2008
This was a day of accumulation that offered little out-and-out entertainment - 179 runs and one wicket came off 72 overs - but one that belonged entirely to India. The gloomy weather, which accounted for 18 lost overs, was lifted by Gautam Gambhir's fourth, and most watchful, Test century and - a sight to please every Indian fan - Rahul Dravid's return to relative form in an innings of sweat, composure and immense character.
Stuart Broad had struck a decisive blow on a distinctly chilly morning, removing the dangerous Virender Sehwag without scoring. Batting wasn't easy in the first 45 minutes, especially when the bowlers hit a length just outside off stump. After ten overs India were 15 for 1 as both batsmen shunned all extravagance; 68 deliveries separated the first and second boundaries of the innings.
Despite the movement, there was no nervousness, tension or half-measures from Gambhir. Clearly riding on the confidence of his role in the team during a successful year, he slipped into the sheet-anchor's role commendably, secure in defence and curbing his tendency to attack. Having seen off Broad's six testing opening overs, Gambhir took two fours off the seventh and gradually flourished against the rest of the attack. He motored along in the hope that the man at the other end would stick around to provide him company.
This was a position Dravid used to revel in in times gone by, and today no situation could have been better laid for him. Somewhere between a loose push outside off stump in Chennai and taking strike in Mohali, a struggling Dravid took a step back to see what he had left.
He had begun his innings in a slump that went beyond mere statistics and with India in early trouble on a tricky surface. Early dot-balls will always remain bogeys for Dravid and he played and missed and miscued a weak pull shot between two converging fielders. By lunch, he had inched his way to 11 from 53 balls and India had clawed back to something resembling a platform.
As the footwork got more assured, so did Dravid and Gambhir's strokeplay. Though not always timing the ball perfectly and a bit anxious while running between the wickets, Dravid gained confidence in spurts. He began with a flowing cover drive off Monty Panesar and an on-drive off Andrew Flintoff immediately after lunch, but the focus was clearly on getting well on top of the ball with a high elbow and the full face of the bat. Once settled, Dravid played his trademark shots: Broad was twice clipped through midwicket, Panesar driven exquisitely past three fielders on the off.
This was Dravid's 54th half-century, but in terms of pressure and nerves it could have felt like his first. The period from lunch to tea is often a segment of consolidation but for Dravid, those 32 overs between the two intervals allowed him time to turn a nervous start into an innings of confidence and resolve.
Gambhir, meanwhile, drove down the ground and through cover, uppercut Broad over the slips twice, and deposited Graeme Swann for six. He had two lucky moments, both off Swann - a dropped catch by Collingwood when on 70 and, one run later, when he copped one on the pads, the ball seeming to have everything going for it except Daryl Harper's consent. They were rare moments of fortune in what was otherwise a commanding innings.
Three consecutive off-side doubles, each more aggressive than the last, took Gambhir to 99 and he duly raised a century off 214 balls with a trademark clip off the pads. In terms of balls faced, this was Gambhir's slowest hundred but it will give him immense satisfaction. Stirringly, it continued his amorous relationship with the PCA Stadium.
After Broad's early success, England's attack tapered off. Flintoff's control kept a choke on the scoring, James Anderson didn't make the batsmen play enough, and Panesar again struggled to find his rhythm. Swann was the slowest bowler, but also appeared the most dangerous. He again purchased turn, and was unlucky not to have Gambhir twice. England failed to maintain control, while Gambhir and Dravid ensured that Mohali, despite all the pre-match talk of a green tinge, and the first hour of play, lived up to its reputation of being a batsman's track.