Cook's debut century drives England
A brilliant maiden Test century from England's new boy-wonder, Alastair Cook, and a typically pugnacious - and decidedly fortunate - 87 from Kevin Pietersen set England up for a shot at an extraordinary Test victory, after a fourth day at Nagpur that exceeded the wildest expectations of even the most diehard member of the travelling Barmy Army.
By the close England led by the small matter of 367 runs, with Cook leading the way and receiving a tumultuous ovation for his 104 not out on debut, an innings that had spanned the best part of six hours and included 243 balls of supreme application. It is extraordinary to think that he is just 21 years old, for this was a performance that Marcus Trescothick, the 69-Test veteran whom he has replaced for this match, could scarcely have bettered.
Allied to his first-innings 60, Cook's performance was the best by an England debutant since his opening partner, Andrew Strauss, made 112 and 83 against New Zealand at Lord's in 2004. He too had been called up in desperate circumstances, when Michael Vaughan's dodgy knee gave way in the nets, but even Strauss would admit that his own magnificent debut has to pale in comparison. Given the venue, the opposition and the strength-sapping heat, not to mention Cook's own tender years, this was in a class of its own. England cricketers, we are led to believe, should not be mature enough at 21 for such jaw-dropping feats of endurance.
But this is no ordinary youngster. Cook had been marked out for great things since his days at Bedford School where he spent his summers breaking batting records for fun, and you could well imagine that his self-confident and economical stance has hardly changed since the day he first picked up a bat.
For much of his innings, Cook was content to bide his time and play every delivery on merit. Thanks to Matthew Hoggard's six-wicket haul, which was wrapped up within seven balls of the resumption of India's innings this morning, England had earned themselves a priceless 70-run lead. Cook and Andrew Strauss set about doubling this and more in a 95-run opening stand, seeing off the new ball with aplomb and repelling the best efforts of Anil Kumble who, on a desperate day in the field for India, remained a shining beacon of virtue and persistence throughout.
Even when Irfan Pathan struck twice in two balls after lunch to remove Strauss for 46 and Ian Bell for 1, Cook's resolve was unshakeable. He ploughed onwards and upwards with a resolve that Geoffrey Boycott could not have bettered, and somehow remained oblivious to the byplays accompanying Pietersen's outrageous performance at the other end. The pair added 124 for the third wicket, but Pietersen enjoyed a charmed life amid some typically rabid hitting, the most extraordinary moment of which came when he had made just 36.
With 15 minutes remaining before tea, Pietersen appeared to toe-end a half-volley straight back to the bowler, Kumble. The Indian players had absolutely no doubt they had their man, but Pietersen stood his ground and a lengthy delay ensued as the third umpire, I Shivram, studied the incident from all angles.
In the opinion of most observers, the ball clearly bounced first on the turf, then looped up off the bat and into Kumble's hands, but to the astonishment of the entire stadium, Sivaram decided otherwise. Even Pietersen was surprised in hindsight. "I have looked at it from a few angles," he admitted to Sky Sports afterwards, "and I think I am very fortunate to get 87 today."
He compounded his good fortune when Sreesanth in the covers dropped a skier, again off the luckless Kumble, and not even his eventual dismissal could compensate for Kumble's ill-fortune. Pietersen had smeared the previous over for 16 adrenalin-fuelled runs, and though two balls later he top-edged a sweep to Dravid at leg slip, Paul Collingwood somehow survived a stone-dead lbw appeal first ball, as a Kumble topspinner fizzed into his back pad. When Lady Luck turns against you, she really lets you know about it.
But then again, the Indians did little to earn much luck either. As the innings progressed, Cook began to sense the need to lift his tempo to match his team's needs, but Harbhajan Singh dropped the simplest of return catches when he had made 70, and then looked on aghast as Dravid at slip spilled a one-handed chance on 92. By now it was a race against the close for Cook, and he began playing as many shots as the circumstances would allow. A sweet cover-drive off Kumble took him to 96, but with Collingwood on hand to scamper the singles, he reached 99 with two overs of the day remaining.
In the event, he needed just one more ball. Harbhajan offered some width outside off stump, and Cook was onto it like a flash, carving through point for four before haring down the pitch with his arms aloft in triumph. He had become just the 16th player to score a century on debut for England, and at 21 years and 69 days, he had ousted Peter May as the youngest of them all. If his efforts today go on to set up an extraordinary Test victory against the odds, you can be sure it will be recalled as one of the greatest as well.
Sreesanth lbw b Hoggard 1 (323 for 10)
Wicket-to-wicket delivery, struck in line
Andrew Strauss c Dhoni b Pathan 46 (95 for 1)
Nipped off the pitch, grazed edge, low catch for keeper
Ian Bell c Dhoni b Pathan 1 (97 for 2)
Cut across bows, thin edge to keeper
Kevin Pietersen c Dravid b Kumble 87 (221 for 3)
Sweeping out of the rough, top-edge to slip
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo