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December 12, 2008
After three straightforward victories against the two best teams in the world, Mahendra Singh Dhoni discovered today that Test-match captaincy won't always be a bed of fragrant blooms. Despite losing Andrew Flintoff with no addition to the overnight total, England's tail defied India till mid-afternoon, by which time the behaviour of the pitch had made it obvious that 316 wasn't a total to sneer at.
India's recent successes, under Dhoni or Anil Kumble, have usually had one common factor, a rollicking opening partnership. When Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir get going, they don't just score at thrilling pace. They play with such flair and confidence that the opposition tend to get dispirited. It happened in Galle against Sri Lanka and in Mohali against Australia.
When the opening gambit doesn't work, India look increasingly vulnerable and noticeably less confident. It doesn't help that the man who was once the cornerstone of the batting is going through the deepest trough of his career, and it's almost become a default setting for the positive approach to be abandoned as soon as Sehwag gets out.
"The kind of cricket Sehwag plays, he looks to dominate and you may get out early on," Dhoni said late in the day, when asked whether India were now over-reliant on Delhi's daredevils. "That is part and parcel of it, but we want Viru to do that [dominate]. That's his strategy, game-plan and strength and he has scored lots of runs with that."
While Sehwag chopping a James Anderson delivery on to his stumps was a sickening blow for the dressing room, the real damage was done in a bizarre debut over from Graeme Swann. He started with a ball that "my mum would have hit for four", but finished with Gambhir and Dravid back in the pavilion.
"We were not complacent," Dhoni said. "You're bound to get good players [out] in international cricket. You are bound to go through spells that are good, in which people will be bowling in the right areas. It happens.
"Swann bowled well. If you see the balls with which he has taken the wickets … Gautam got a ball that was going on to the stumps, and Rahul too got a really good one."
A measured 61-run partnership between Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman briefly threatened an Indian revival, but after finishing the day six down and with only the tail for company, Dhoni insisted India hadn't been too cavalier. "At times when you play shots, it does not really pay off. We have also seen the bowlers bowling well, giving opportunities to score boundaries off them. We have had one off day on the field but we have been doing well in Test cricket. At times, you will be outplayed in international cricket. Today, that was the case, with England bowling really well.
"The credit goes to them for creating pressure with the new-ball. They were bowling just back of length and getting good bounce. That's the kind of bowling Fred [Flintoff], Anderson and Harmison do."
|We will look to score 250 when we come here tomorrow with the lower order. It will be tough. In the past also, we've seen Test matches where sides get a 100-run lead and still lose the match|
India's chances of survival weren't helped by the loss of the birthday boy late in the day. Yuvraj Singh appeared to react to some barbs from Flintoff, but his headspace was probably just as messed up by a magnificent spell of fast bowling from round the wicket. Teased and tormented, he then stuck the bat out at an angle when Harmison returned for one final burst.
"I know Yuvraj very well," Dhoni said when asked if the left-hander had been baited into the dismissal. "I don't think he got out because of that chitchat between him and Freddie. You could say it was bad shot selection. But you can also say that it adds a bit of excitement to the game."
Having won at Eden Gardens and Adelaide, scene of one of English cricket's most soul-destroying days, India certainly won't be contemplating defeat just yet. "We will look to score 250 when we come here tomorrow with the lower order," Dhoni said. "It will be tough. In the past also, we've seen Test matches where sides get a 100-run lead and still lose the match. Yes, we are in a difficult position and England have the upper hand right now."
Questions were also asked of his decision not to take the second new-ball. Dhoni though had no regrets. "It was reverse-swinging at that time," he said. "In Test matches, you can see whenever the new ball is taken, runs are scored. The fast bowlers were also a bit tired. When you have an attacking field, the opposition is bound to get boundaries."
India will need a few of their own on the third morning to ensure a match they were expected to dominate doesn't slide too far out of reach.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.