India v England, 3rd Test, Mumbai, 1st day March 18, 2006

India fail to hit the high notes

Did Rahul Dravid make a mistake in putting England in? © Getty Images

While it's still too early to judge whether Rahul Dravid's gamble to bowl first was monumental folly along the lines of Nasser Hussain at Brisbane in 2002-03, it can safely be said that things didn't exactly go as he had planned. On a pitch that turned out to be as good for batting as it had looked at the toss, only England's inability to up the ante prevented an embarrassment of 364-for-2 proportions.

The conditions at the Wankhede have generally aided fast bowlers at the beginning and end of the day when the sea breeze comes into play. Having opted for a three-pronged pace attack, Dravid perhaps felt compelled to let them loose against an English side that had been further weakened by the absence of Alastair Cook. He may also have expected some early life in the pitch, but what little there was couldn't be exploited as the bowlers bowled largely insipid opening spells.

That said, Andrew Strauss and Owais Shah batted beautifully to wrest the initiative away in the post-lunch session. Strauss was as confident and positive here as he had been diffident in previous visits to the crease in the subcontinent. A dismal average of 18.62 on Asian pitches was no indicator of the quality of a player who has now got eight Test centuries in less than two years, and the fluency with which he batted today was more in tune with his splendid batting in South Africa 15 months ago.

Until his arm muscles started cramping up, Shah had matched him stroke for stroke. The way he stepped out and drove Harbhajan Singh early in his innings was indicative of his approach, and he played some peachy strokes on either side of the wicket when the bowlers pitched too full. As Cook had at Nagpur, he seized his opportunity, playing with composure and class before the sapping conditions did what the bowlers couldn't.

Owais Shah made India sweat till the conditions sent him packing © Getty Images

The pitch may have turned out to be a belter, but the bowling at times was dreadfully disappointing. Once the ball stopped swinging, the line and length were all over the place, with Irfan Pathan especially culpable. Sreesanth was easily the pick of the bowlers on view, inducing miscues and edges from Kevin Pietersen before finally nailing him with one that tempted the expansive flourish.

The Ranji Trophy games played on this particular strip had been low-scoring affairs, but the atmospheric conditions in December and January were far removed from the harsh glare and baking heat that greeted the players today. And on the one occasion that Mumbai did elect to bowl first, they subsided to a 65-run defeat, with a certain Munaf Patel taking 9 for 121 for Maharashtra.

After his Mohali heroics, Munaf had a stop-start day. Impressive in patches, especially when testing Pietersen with the short ball at the body, he nevertheless struggled to get any genuine rhythm going. Pathan's day didn't improve either, and his performance was as mediocre as the figures suggest. Kumble wheeled away as only Kumble can, but there were still more questions than answers about Harbhajan.

He did pick up Strauss and extract disconcerting bounce at times, but there can be no getting away from the fact that his last 200 overs in Test cricket have fetched him four wickets at a cost of 677 runs. Many locals were incensed by the decision not to include the portly Ramesh Powar in the squad - 23 wickets at 26.91 in four matches at the venue this season - but Harbhajan's prior exploits at the Wankhede (17 wickets at 17.58) probably earned him a reprieve.

One man watching his recent travails with great interest would be Murali Kartik. The last time India played here, he won them the Test with match figures of 7 for 76, setting up a stunning defence of 106 with the wickets of Ricky Ponting and Damien Martyn in one over. He has played only one Test since, and the selectors - who have done a great job of revitalising the side in recent times - might be hard-pressed to explain why.

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo