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December 12, 2008
You wait nine years for your first Test wicket, then two come along all at once. Whatever pre-conceived notions Graeme Swann developed during that hiatus between his first England tour - to South Africa in 1999-2000 - and his maiden Test cap, they were soundly trounced in six extraordinary deliveries before tea on the second day at Chennai.
"I thought Test cricket was meant to be boring," said a breathless Swann immediately after the close. Not a bit of it. A first-ball long-hop, a second-ball appeal, and a third-ball breakthrough would have been quite enough excitement for most cricketers. Swann, however, did not finish there, and by the time he had snaked the sixth delivery of his debut over into the back pad of the legendary Rahul Dravid, England had taken firm control of a contest that, as recently as last week, might never have taken place at all.
For a player who's been sat on the Test periphery since the turn of the millennium, Swann's arrival on the highest stage has come in a manic rush. "I was determined to enjoy whatever happened in this game," he said. "I'm not stupid and I realise that finger spinners don't get that great a chance in Test cricket, especially in England, so I was going to enjoy every minute I could get out here. I think my mum could have hit the first ball for four, it was a terrible delivery, but after that my head was spinning. I felt like I'd scored a goal at Wembley."
Coincidentally, the last bowler to grab two wickets in his first over of Test cricket was also made to wait an eternity for his big moment. At Chester-le-Street in 2003, almost eight years after missing the tour of South Africa in 1995-96 with a back injury, Richard Johnson nailed the Zimbabwean pair of Mark Vermeulen and Stuart Carlisle (also lbw) with his third and fourth deliveries. There Swann will hope the similarity ends. Though Johnson picked up Man-of-the-Match awards in each of his first two Tests, he was jettisoned for good only one game later.
It's hard, however, to envisage the same fate befalling Swann. For it wasn't just the identity of his victims that caught the eye but the manner of their dismissals. Gautam Gambhir was the stand-out batsman in last month's destruction of Australia with a century and a double-century in consecutive innings, while Dravid - for all his current woes - remains arguably India's most significant player of the decade. Yet, both were undone by a bowler who trusted himself, even after a rank first-ball loosener, to bowl with loop, dip, guile and bite - four key factors that his senior partner, Monty Panesar, seems to have discarded in his endless quest to locate that elusive right area.
Backed up with aggressive fields from a captain who trusted him to enter the attack ahead of Panesar, Swann's variety was the precursor to his success. Both his victims fell lbw, but in subtly different manners. Gambhir was partially undone by an appeal for a bat-pad catch from the previous delivery, which in turn primed umpire Harper to uphold an even louder appeal when Gambhir offered no stroke on off stump. Dravid, from over the wicket this time, was deceived first by subtle drift from off to leg, then pinned by sharp purchase off the wicket. Harbhajan Singh, who questioned the quality of England's slow bowlers, would have been hard-pressed to better such a double-whammy.
Harbhajan will have an opportunity to back up his chicken-counting words with deeds when he resumes on 13 tomorrow, but in fairness his comments were aimed less at Swann and more at Panesar, whose return to India - the scene of his own Test debut in 2005-06 - was expected to be the slow-bowling highlight of England's bowling performance. And though he did grab a vital, and slightly bewildering, caught-and-bowled to remove VVS Laxman, Panesar's stock delivery was once again too flat and fast through the air to create any real problems for his opponents.
After a hyper-charged start to his international career, the stagnation in Panesar's game has been a nagging cause for concern for the England camp. His average against India has now drifted to an unflattering 53.21, and he has not bowled in tandem with a frontline spinner since the Mumbai Test in 2005-06 when, as Duncan Fletcher pointedly observed in his autobiography, he was also outbowled by his then-partner, Shaun Udal. At the close of play, he reappeared in the middle almost before the stumps had been drawn, under the tutelage of the entire England coaching set-up.
Panesar, it should be stressed, did not have a bad day at all, but he was by a distance the least inspired of a bowling quintet who could yet ensure that this Test is remembered for more than just the horrific circumstances of its inception. Steve Harmison and James Anderson - who did not manage a single wicket in a dismal one-day campaign - responded to the responsibility of the new ball with magnificent opening salvoes. Harmison stalked to the crease with that elusively menacing rhythm to extract unsettling lift from the surface, while Anderson generated genuine pace and subtle natural swing with which he curbed the excesses of his nemesis, Virender Sehwag.
But England's unsung star, inevitably, was Andrew Flintoff, whose importance to international cricket will never be measured in statistics alone. His cool return catch to remove Sachin Tendulkar was the tangible reward for his efforts, but it paled compared to the hug of unstinting gratitude that Harmison gave him after the late, and vastly significant, dismissal of Yuvraj Singh.
Throughout the one-day series, Yuvraj was a colossus. England did not have a clue how or where to bowl to him, as he banished them for a brace of centuries in the opening two games and 325 runs from 251 balls all told. Today, with Flintoff fizzing past his edge at will, and reminding him of his frailties between deliveries to boot, he was a player constrained by the expanse of possibilities that exist in Test cricket. Mahendra Singh Dhoni at the other end did his best to calm his jumpy colleague, but it was all to no avail. A perfect full-length, late-swinger from Harmison grazed the edge, Flintoff himself claimed the catch, and the seal was set on a day that belonged unequivocally to England.
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