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December 11, 2008
Though he created the odd ripple of laughter with his typically candid answers, it was a subdued Harbhajan Singh that fronted up to the media at the end of the first day. Though he was delighted at the manner in which India had hauled themselves back into contention in the final session, Harbhajan made it a point to thank Kevin Pietersen's side just for being there. There's a Test match to be won and no quarter will be given, but each of the 22 players that stood silently for two minutes at 9:20am appeared to understand that this wasn't just another game.
"Whatever happened in Mumbai was very sad," Harbhajan said. "It was great that England came back. Hats off to these guys. It was good to be back in action and on the field. After the Mumbai incidents, we were all tense and scared but we cannot control these things."
On a pancake-flat pitch, India certainly didn't have it all their own way after losing the toss. After stemming the run flow in the first session, there would have been a few frissons of alarm at tea, with England having added 101 for the loss of Alastair Cook. But as they had against Australia, Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma found reverse-swing when it was most needed, and England's innings listed aimlessly in the final session. Andrew Strauss's wicket, caught and bowled by Amit Mishra, gave India a definite advantage to take into the second morning, when the new-ball should make its appearance.
"Both Zaheer and Ishant have been working hard on reverse-swing and their fitness," Harbhajan said. "They are doing a great job for the side. It's hard to bowl in these conditions." Harbhajan insisted that there had been no dramatic change in strategy for the final session. "We were looking to bowl in the right areas and play to our plan. They helped us by blocking balls and not going for shots. They were not really looking to dominate."
Strauss spoke about the placid nature of the pitch, and while he admitted that he was "still seething" about getting out, there was also an acknowledgement of India's effort in the final session. "Zaheer Khan was excellent, as was Ishant Sharma," he said. "We didn't have all that much luck either. We need to get up to 350 or 400."
Harbhajan pointed to the tempo at which England scored, especially the final session that saw just 65 runs in 33 overs. "If we had batted, we would have got 300-plus," he said. "They went in to defensive mode and got only 63 runs in the first session. We would have collected at least 100. We're really happy with the way we bowled today."
Zaheer was instrumental in India's post-tea revival, bowling six sublime overs for 12 runs and two wickets. The banana swing he got with the old ball was reminiscent of Wasim Akram at his best, and Strauss did exceedingly well to keep a couple of superb yorkers out. When Ishant replaced him and greeted Andrew Flintoff with a bouncer that skimmed past the helmet peak, England definitely knew they were in for a scrap.
Just as Zaheer has grown into his role as leader of India's impressive pace pack, so must Harbhajan now provide guidance to the spinners that play alongside him. "We all need to support him," he said when asked about Mishra attempting to fill the 619-wicket void left behind by Anil Kumble.
"He has got all the variations. He will learn. I am taking responsibility as a senior player to guide both Mishra and [Pragyan] Ojha."
England have handy slow bowlers of their own in Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann, but Harbhajan wasn't unduly worried about the prospect of having to match or surpass whatever England make. After all, India did reply with 627 here when South Africa piled up 540 in March this year.
"I expect the wicket to spin more from the third day onwards," he said. "The weather will be quite hard. They are not used to these conditions. Apart from [Andrew] Flintoff, none of the other bowlers will trouble us much. We have quality batsmen in our ranks to tackle them. They have played against top spinners like Shane Warne and Muralitharan. It is not going to be difficult for us to play Monty Panesar."
Such statements are best avoided though, especially when you look back to Panesar's debut in Nagpur in 2006, a match that England dominated until Mohammad Kaif and Kumble saved Indian face. What is certain, however, is that we have an intriguing match unfolding in front of us. After all the talk of security and lives tragically lost, India needs a few smiles. And if Harbhajan and friends can provide that armed with nothing more lethal than a bat and ball, we should be exceedingly grateful.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.