Early wickets dent England lead
England's chances of fighting what seemed insurmountable odds and drawing level in the series improved significantly after a thoroughly dominant performance on the third day at Mumbai. They bowled India out for just 279, snatching a first-innings lead of 121, and then stretched that lead to 152 by close of play, though they lost both openers in the process.
After the first two days England had the edge, but they needed a strong performance today to further that advantage. They didn't finish India off completely - Rahul Dravid will still hope for a collapse and a chaseable target - but Andrew Flintoff will have few complaints with his team's performance in the field. Despite dropping a couple of chances, England put in a wholehearted performance - the fast bowlers were aggressive and disciplined, with James Anderson leading the way on his return to the side, while the spinners played a vital hand, bowling a crucial 21 overs at a stretch in the afternoon for just 46 runs and a wicket, allowing the fast bowlers an extended period of rest before they returned with the second new ball. Geraint Jones came up with three excellent catches behind the stumps and finished with five for the innings, while Flintoff maintained a happy balance between defence and attack throughout the day, keeping enough fielders in the ring to save the runs even as he searched for wickets.
Resuming at 89 for 3, India were looking up to Yuvraj Singh and Dravid, the last specialist batting pair, but the batsman who made the most significant contribution was Dhoni. Playing with a restraint most uncharacteristic, Dhoni shook off a blow to the head from Flintoff, batted with admirable composure and responsibility to make 64, but then threw it away in a moment of madness, dashing off for a single after having clobbered Flintoff for three successive fours off his first over with the second new ball.
In fact, India's batting was characterised by long periods of circumspection, but the few rushes of blood were their undoing - Irfan Pathan made 26 from 80 balls, in the process adding 44 for the sixth wicket with Dhoni, before deciding to charge down the track to Shaun Udal, handing him his first wicket of the series. Yuvraj's flash outside off was a needless stroke too, while Dravid battled hard for a half-century and then touched a ball down leg side after being reprieved at the same score.
England, on the other hand, kept up the intensity throughout. Flintoff and Anderson bowled superb spells in the morning, with Flintoff's bouncer battle with Dhoni being particularly memorable. A well-directed short ball clanged Dhoni's helmet when he was on 14, and then followed an exhilarating tussle, as Dhoni crashed a couple of boundaries, including a hook, and further riled Flintoff by taking plenty of time between overs, and sometimes even deliveries. After one such delay, a charged-up Flintoff responded with a wayward bouncer that flew past both batsman and keeper for four byes. It was fiery, aggressive stuff, but at the end of it all, Dhoni was still standing.
The afternoon session was less exciting, but England's spin duo of Monty Panesar and Udal did a crucial tie-up job, restricting the runs and ensuring that the Indians didn't snatch back the momentum. Dhoni's run-out - a marginal decision from the third umpire, for replays didn't conclusively show that the bail was off the groove completely in time - should have signaled the end of India's resistance, but Sreesanth and Anil Kumble did another defying act, adding 55 for the ninth wicket. Sreesanth - with a first-class batting average of 5.42 and a previous highest of 19 not out - mixed studious defence with meaty blows to ride up to 29 before running out of partners.
A deficit of 121 was a huge minus to come back from, but India put in a spirited performance in the field, with Sreesanth - suitably inspired after his knock - putting in a particularly fiery spell. The openers departed cheaply, but the first-innings cushion means England hold all the aces going into the fourth day.
Andrew Strauss c Dhoni b Munaf 4 (5 for 1)
Edged a slower ball, fine catch diving in front
Ian Bell c Dhoni b Sreesanth 8 (21 for 2)
Nicked one in the corridor
Yuvraj Singh c Jones b Flintoff 37 (94 for 4)
Flashed at a wide one, taken brilliantly in front of first slip
Rahul Dravid c Jones b Anderson 52 (142 for 5)
Gloved one down leg side, neatly taken by a diving keeper
Irfan Pathan c Hoggard b Udal 26 (186 for 6)
Down the pitched and lofted, caught at deep mid-on
Mahendra Singh Dhoni run out (Anderson) 64 (212 for 7)
Direct hit from midwicket, but doubtful if bails were completely off the groove in time
Harbhajan Singh c Jones b Anderson 2 (217 for 8)
Fished outside off, another excellent diving catch by the keeper
Anil Kumble lbw b Panesar 30 (272 for 9)
Missed a sweep
Munaf Patel b Anderson 7 (279 all out)
Done in by a yorker
S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo