Jaffer and Dravid revive India's day
A brilliant momentum-seizing 134 not out from Paul Collingwood rescued his team-mates from the mire on the second day at Nagpur, as England demonstrated that the personnel may have changed in recent weeks but the team spirit still lingers. After a brace of near-misses before Christmas, Collingwood's first century in Test cricket could hardly have come at a more opportune moment for England, given the disarray that has swamped their squad since the start of this tour.
By the close, India were doing their utmost to resume normal service. Wasim Jaffer recorded his first Test half-century for three-and-a-half years, and Rahul Dravid was beginning to cut loose in his inimitably classy fashion, as India's second-wicket pairing eased their side back into contention with an unbeaten 125-run stand. But Collingwood's performance, aided and abetted by a remarkably resilient English tail, was the undoubted highlight of the day.
England's overnight position had been unenviable, to say the least. On a slow and true batting surface, they had slipped to 246 for 7 with Collingwood, England's only realistic hope of salvation, entrenched on 53 not out. The first signs that a surprise could be in store came in a sedate 10-over stand with Matthew Hoggard, which was notable only for the ease with which both batsmen repelled the threat posed by Anil Kumble. Collingwood was content just to bide his time, safe in the knowledge that his partner would not be attempting anything rash.
The new ball made the breakthrough, as the ever-excellent Sreesanth squared Hoggard up and found the edge in a superb comeback over, but the arrival of the bigger-hitting Steve Harmison signalled an upping of England's tempo. In a barnstorming 60-run stand, he and Collingwood turned a dicey situation to their favour, with Harmison bringing up the 300 with a stunning trio of boundaries, all off consecutive deliveries from a pumped-up and increasingly livid Sreesanth.
Adrenalin eventually got the better of Harmison, as he bounded out to meet Harbhajan and was stumped by a country mile. But Collingwood by now was totally at one with the pace of the wicket, and with Panesar belying all the doubts about his stickability by blocking resolutely at the other end, he set about taking the attack to India.
Collingwood had been 79 not out at the time of Harmison's dismissal. But now he took up the cudgels, lofting Anil Kumble for six to go to 99, and lifting his very next ball for three to cue joyful scenes in the England dressing-room, where Collingwood has long been one of the most popular men in the team. The man is becoming something of a subcontinent specialist, for this was his third significant score in three Test innings, having made 96 and 80 at Lahore before Christmas.
He smacked four sixes in all, each of them an emphatic swing down the ground, and signed off with three fours in succession off Irfan Pathan before Sreesanth pinned Panesar lbw for 9 with a low full toss. It was a much-deserved fourth wicket on debut for Sreesanth, but Panesar had battled through 43 deliveries in helping add 67 for England's final wicket. It was a huge confidence boost, both personally and for his team.
England were buoyant as they took the field, and little wonder. The tail had wagged to the tune of 147 runs in 37 overs, which meant that Flintoff, leading England in the field for the first time, had runs to defend and room to play his captaincy shots. Moreover, India's openers had been stewing over their first innings of the series for three hours longer than anticipated, which could only be to England's advantage.
Sure enough, England capitalised with an early breakthrough, as the ever-impulsive Virender Sehwag failed to pick Matthew Hoggard's slower ball, and slapped a low chance straight into Kevin Pietersen's midriff at short midwicket for 2. The chance, in fact, was almost identical to the one that Pietersen had failed to take off Michael Clarke at Lord's last summer, but having broken his run of six successive drops at Multan in December, Pietersen's catching tally is off and running.
India at this stage were in a bit of a muck sweat, with Jaffer, whose last Test appearance had been 0 and 5 against England at Trent Bridge in 2002, understandably anxious. Flintoff introduced Panesar for a two-over foray before tea, and came excruciatingly close to earning a maiden Test wicket when Jaffer edged a nervy shot onto his boot and into the hands of silly point. Replays showed the ball had grazed the pitch on its way through, but the degree of loop and turn that Panesar was already generating was hugely encouraging.
By degrees, however, Jaffer settled, aided no doubt by the inscrutable sang froid of his captain. Both batsmen played within themselves at first, opting - as Alastair Cook and Collingwood had done on the first day - to play straight and wait for the bowlers to come to them. Harmison was not at his best and strayed too often down the leg side, while Panesar soon opted to come over the wicket and aim for that ever-encroaching rough outside the leg stump.
Hoggard and Flintoff did find some reverse swing, but Dravid in particular was fully equipped to cope, clipping the bowlers majestically through midwicket whenever they strayed towards his pads. Ian Blackwell's first foray in Test cricket was steady enough as he looped the ball onto a length, but England were in need of some inspiration as India's batsmen worked through the gears.
By the close, Jaffer was closing in on the maiden hundred that his stop-start career so desperately needs, while Dravid was just Dravid - cool, calm, collected and digging in for the long haul. This Indian batting line-up has just returned from a three-Test masterclass in building monumental innings. Thanks to Collingwood, England are out of immediate peril, but the danger is still very much lurking.
Matthew Hoggard c Dhoni b Sreesanth 11 (267 for 8)
Perfect seam position with new ball, thin edge
Steve Harmison st Dhoni b Harbhajan 39 (327 for 9)
Down the track, beaten in the flight
Monty Panesar lbw b Sreesanth 9 (393 for 10)
Low full toss, angling in from around the wicket
Virender Sehwag c Pietersen b Hoggard 2 (11 for 1)
Slower ball, driven on the up to short cover
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo