India v England, 2nd Test, Mohali, 3rd day March 11, 2006

Inching forward in the gloom

Test cricket: a tea party it is not © David Betts

During the 1989 Ashes, Robin Smith grew thirsty while batting, and asked for a glass of water. "No, you can't have a glass of water," spluttered an enraged Allan Border. "You can wait like all the rest of us. What do you think this is, a tea party?" Quite right. Test cricket is not a tea party. England rediscovered that this afternoon and took control of the Mohali Test.

After two rainy days the game was caught in what Ken Barrington would have called 'two-man's land'. Now England have begun to inch forward. Given early strikes and quick runs tomorrow, they will have about a day to budge India for a second time - and secure an improbable victory. "We've got the seam bowlers to exploit the conditions," said an optimistic Steve Harmison at the close. But within an hour of those comments, it was raining again, and the match could still disappear into drizzle.

However, zooming out to take in the bigger picture, it was a better day for both sides than the scorecard suggested. England found some oomph. And India found a quick bowler.

The evening session, where throat balls and sharp fielding left India 149 for 4, was a relief for England supporters, who were beginning to worry that the Ashes win had left appetites sated. That thought loomed large during a peculiarly bloodless England display in the afternoon, during which they leaked 96 runs for one wicket. The fielders looked listless. Noise and urgency were missing. The game was stuck in cruise control. The fanatical intensity of last summer, when Harmison gashed Ricky Ponting's cheek and fielders had the batsmen sweating in a pressure-cooker atmosphere, seemed a distant memory, despite Harmison's muscular efforts.

Scorching speedster: India seem to have found a quick bowler in Munaf Patel © Getty Images

Maintaining hunger after spectacular success is Australia's great achievement and England's pressing task. It was hard to pin it down, but there was a limpness to England's early work in the field. The best sides make a batsman feel like a high-altitude mountaineer: lonely, wind-blasted and a long way from home. This was a bit too much like a stroll in the park. England missed their chief aggro-merchant, Simon Jones.

However, as the shadows grew longer, menace emerged. Sachin Tendulkar will not be talking of his opponents' lack of hunger after a vicious and fatal bouncer from Flintoff. Nor Yuvraj Singh, brilliantly caught by a flying Ian Bell at short extra cover.

It was high praise to say that Munaf Patel looked almost as menacing. Patel grew up in a rural part of Gujarat, an area with almost no cricket culture. He was not fluent in the nuances of the game; he didn't need to be. He just ran up, mane flowing behind him and hurled the ball down in a cyclone of arms and legs. Today he married 90mph pace with precision, fooling Flintoff and prising out Plunkett, in a superb burst of reverse-swing. After a spell that straddled lunch, he took his sunhat with figures of 5-2-8-2.

In the scrap to become the world's No. 2, the weapon India have lacked is pace. Patel is about two yards quicker than Irfan Pathan and could yet provide the cutting edge. Then came the calm before the storm.

Paul Coupar is assistant editor of The Wisden Cricketer and will be covering the first two Tests for Cricinfo