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March 18, 2006
Battered and bruised on and off the field after defeat, injury and illness, England performed well beyond expectations on the opening day at Mumbai, laying the foundations to launch a serious attempt at a series-levelling win. Powered by a fantastic century by Andrew Strauss, and a curious decision at the toss by Rahul Dravid, England finished on 272 for 3.
A severe personnel problem for England became even more critical on the morning of the match, when Alastair Cook was ruled out due to a stomach bug. Perhaps the Indian think-tank believed they could capitalise on the unsettled opposition top order; perhaps they were swayed by the tinge of green on the track, or by a bowling attack which included three seamers. The decision was strange, but England, to their credit, grabbed the opportunity with both hands, with Strauss's 128 easily the highlight.
Over the last few months, Strauss has struggled - his last nine Test innings have fetched him 150 runs in all. He threatened to match that number in just one hit today, with a superbly planned knock. When the ball was new and moving around, he was content to see off the bowling, scoring just 35 at lunch. The horizontal-bat strokes were closeted away, replaced by drives in the V and through the covers. Then, after he had done the hard yards, he capitalised - unlike makeshift opener Ian Bell, who threw it away in a moment of indiscretion.
As the pitch eased up in the afternoon, Strauss opened out and unfurled his full range - the drives became more extravagant, and the slightest error in length was punished with crisp cuts and pulls.
He did have a couple of moments of good fortune, though. On 92, a hard slash off Harbhajan flashed past slip before Dravid could get his hands to the ball, and on 123, Mahendra Singh Dhoni dropped a more straightforward chance off Kumble. Strauss celebrated the first escape with a superb sweep to bring up his hundred - his eighth in Tests, and his first in the subcontinent - but could manage only five more after the second reprieve before nicking one off Harbhajan.
If Strauss's knock was the story of the day, then Owais Shah's performance on Test debut was a close second. From the outset, he oozed confidence, mixing intense defence with powerful drives and cuts. He started his innings with a smashing cut off Harbhajan, then stroked him delightfully through covers to bring up his fifty, and in between took full toll of the other bowlers as well. The fourth over after lunch was his highlight, as Shah waded into an utterly listless Pathan, slapping him down the ground, then flicking, and then driving through mid-on for three glorious fours in an over. Cramps in his hands curtailed the knock, but with an overnight rest, Shah should be back to try and inflict more damage to the Indian cause tomorrow.
Kevin Pietersen ensured that Shah's departure didn't halt the momentum, playing with typical flair. The front-foot drives off the fast bowlers boomed as powerfully as ever, but there were moments of good fortune too, when top-edged pull shots evaded the fielders. And when he fell, Andrew Flintoff and Paul Collingwood were around to ensure that all the good work of five hours weren't undone in a few minutes.
Having erred at the toss, Dravid tried all the tricks to limit the damage, rotating his fast bowlers in short spells, getting the spinners on early when the fast bowlers proved ineffective, and changing the ends for Anil Kumble. However, India's three-man pace attack was effectively reduced to two, with Pathan, bowling at medium pace with no swing, seam or accuracy, being completely off colour. Sreesanth was all fire and heart, but the best spell of the day came from Munaf Patel, after tea. Generating pace and bounce, he had the batsmen in plenty of bother, rapping Strauss on the pads, cutting him in half with an indipper, and forcing Pietersen to fend awkwardly. England survived all those moments, though, and ended the day with enough runs on the board to put pressure on India when it's their turn to bat.
Ian Bell c Harbhajan b Sreesanth 18 (52 for 1)
Drove loosely outside off, straight to point
Andrew Strauss c Dhoni b Harbhajan 128 (230 for 2)
Nicked an offbreak to the keeper
Kevin Pietersen c Dhoni b Sreesanth 39 (242 for 3)
Edged a drive
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