Late wickets spoil England fightback
It started India's way and ended India's way. Kevin Pietersen's 15th Test hundred, reeking of swaggering brilliance, had combined with Andrew Flintoff's determination to bail England out of trouble on an absorbing day in Mohali but their dismissals in fading light swung the advantage right back to the hosts. Pietersen blended solid defence with trademark flashes of audacity to steer England out of choppy waters after two wickets had fallen in five balls. Then, in a manner eerily similar to how they started the day, India nipped out two wickets in successive overs, capping a thrilling end to an entertaining day's cricket.
The morning began sensationally. Andrew Strauss, the man in form, fell walking across the wicket to Zaheer Khan, and Ian Bell, the man out of form, had his middle stump uprooted by Ishant Sharma. But a scoreline of 1 for 2 was the inspiration Pietersen needed to score his first Test hundred in India.
Hardly putting a wrong foot forward - or across the line - Pietersen retaliated with a bold innings. He started, as he always does, with a scampered single off the first ball, and mounted a confident assault, reeling off four fours in the next four overs. But when two more wickets fell - Alastair Cook trapped leg-before by Zaheer and Paul Collingwood snapped by Amit Mishra in a classic legspinner's dismissal, luring him forward and taking the edge with sharp turn - he settled down to rebuild the innings again.
A potentially match-turning partnership followed. England's two match-winners had failed to come good in Chennai, but they weren't about to surrender here. A flurry of shots singed the outfield in chilly Mohali.
Flintoff started with a bristly clip for four off Mishra, and then produced a sashayed drive past mid-on. The runs started to flow, courtesy a sweep here and a flick there and some dismissive clubs down the ground from Flintoff. Words were exchanged between Pietersen and Yuvraj Singh, amid a sublime six from Flintoff, prompting the umpire to step in and have a word.
Pietersen's driving was excellent, and the flicks and swaggered pulls he played showed few signs a cracked rib. And against the spinners, Mishra in particular, he unleashed a shot that bears his unmistakable stamp: the switch-hit.
Harbhajan Singh, after a listless showing in Chennai, was hardly a threat and Pietersen confirmed it with a breathtaking switch-hit six over midwicket in a 13-run over. Pietersen refused to let Harbhajan settle and raised a splendid century, his 15th in Tests, from 126 balls. In his 45th Test, Pietersen went past 4000 runs, including 1000 for the year. It was, truly, an innings from a champion.
The 100-run partnership needed only 139 balls but after a gripping session between lunch and tea, England's tempo slowed in the final passage as India employed a defensive, one-day field. Having coasted to 36 from 53 balls at tea, Flintoff applied the brakes, taking 43 balls to reach his fifty. Both batsmen knew England's chances of squaring the series depended on their approach. Flintoff applied himself commendably, the only blip coming on 29, when he survived a confident lbw appeal against Mishra. It was his first fifty since Sydney in January 2007.
As the shadows lengthened across a tangerine sky, the game changed on its head. Harbhajan returned to trap Pietersen lbw, thus giving India leverage. Like he had against Australia in Mohali, where he got Michael Clarke with the last ball of the day - and what a turning it point that had been - Mishra got Flintoff. This was a googly as well, and Flintoff's defensive prod was exceptionally snapped up by a crouching Gautam Gambhir a forward short leg.
Like another solid partnership, worth 102, this too had dazzled only to fizzle. Pietersen and Cook came together with England in disarray after the innings began 90 minutes behind schedule due to thick fog. Strauss was wonderful in sunny and humid Chennai with a pair of centuries but found cricket to be a great leveller in murky Mohali as he missed a full delivery that angled in. An out-of-form Bell lasted two Zaheer Khan deliveries before his technique was exposed first-ball by Ishant Sharma - feet moving late, bat pushed away from pad and clipping a full ball that curved back in to take out middle stump.
Pietersen, however, refused to take a backward step, straight-driving and clipping Zaheer for fours while Cook's delicate driving eased the nerves. Cook was fortunate on 44 when Sachin Tendulkar flinched at first slip but a searing yorker from Zaheer cut him off on 50. Cook continued his frustrating trend of not making a big score - he has eight half-centuries in 2008 but no century - and India hit back further to leave England 131 for 4.
Through Flintoff and Pietersen, England had managed to break the shackles and gain ground on a track likely to aid batting for at least another day. That day, after the last ball this evening, looks to be a daunting one for England.
Jamie Alter is a senior sub-editor at Cricinfo