India v England, 1st Test, Chennai, 3rd day December 13, 2008

Bold England defy the script

Both wickets and runs have had to be earned in this match. Which is how it should be in Test cricket


Andrew Flintoff alone has beaten the bat more times in one innings than all Australian bowlers did in the whole Test in Nagpur © Getty Images
 

The cyclonic rains that preceded this Test have been a blessing. They have prevented the curator from laying out a batting beauty. The previous Test here had been a perversion, the kind that would persuade bowlers to become nuns: it produced 1498 runs for 25 wickets, and at no point threatened to throw up a result.

There has been little time to prepare the pitch for this Test, and the result has been a slow, two-paced, and mildly dusty pitch that has produced tense and gripping cricket: not the pulse-racing kind, but of the slow and subtler variety that is ultimately more satisfying. A result is now almost guaranteed and, though England are way ahead at the moment, theoretically either team can win it.

Run-making isn't easy on this pitch, but why must it always be so? Not that it is a mine-field. It has demanded graft and vigil, which Andrew Strauss has been able to supply, but it has also rewarded flair, which Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman put on display for a while on the second day. Equally, it is not a pitch for wickets to fall in a heap - Graeme Swann's two wickets in an over was an aberration - but one that has yielded to sustained excellence.

To sum it up in one sentence, both wickets and runs have had to be earned. Which is how it should be in Test cricket.

So far, England have defied the script resolutely and with spirit. There was a period on the first day when they seemed to have bottled it, for the normal template for a Test win in India is: win toss, bat fast, and bat big. England batted four-and-a-half sessions, consumed 129 overs and managed only 316. By Harbhajan Singh's estimates, that was at least 100 short. But they also did well to get that far after looking like imploding when they lost Andrew Flintoff early on the second day.

It was refreshing, however, that they didn't unduly worry about the might of the Indian batting. Already they had been bold in selection, picking a second specialist spinner over a batsman - it took Ricky Ponting till the final Test of the recent series to pick one - and it was a relief not to see a deep point at the start of the innings.

Kevin Pietersen has been invisible with the bat in this match, but his influence is evident on the team. It is no secret he played a massive hand in getting the team, all of them, back to India. Once here, they haven't lingered on the goodwill aspect of the tour. Intent is the first step to success in sport, and it has been evident from the beginning that the England captain has had the belief that his bowlers could bowl India out. And that's how they have bowled, at the stumps, at the ribs, and to fields designed to catch batsmen, not to stop them from galloping away.

 
 
Intent is the first step to success in sport, and it has been evident from the beginning that the England captain has had the belief that his bowlers could bowl India out. And that's how they have bowled, at the stumps, at the ribs, and to fields designed to catch batsmen, not to stop them from galloping away
 

Once again, Flintoff has been towering. The wickets column doesn't quite capture the magnitude of his contribution. He alone has beaten the bat more times in one innings than all Australian bowlers did in the whole Test in Nagpur. Overall, the English quick bowlers have looked more hostile than the Indians.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni has shown himself to be an admirable leader in the short time he has captained India and he is a man likely to stick by his beliefs irrespective of what the world makes of them - he has obviously spotted something in Pietersen's batting that makes him vulnerable to Yuvraj Singh's non-spinners - but he might be developing an over-reliance on the old-ball and reverse-swinging abilities of Zaheer Khan. As a result, the new-ball is in danger of being regarded as a nuisance rather than an advantage.

Zaheer was excellent against Graeme Smith and Matthew Hayden with the new ball but once again left-handers have returned to haunt India. Ishant Sharma has struggled in this Test to get his line right against Strauss and Harbhajan Singh, whose natural ball spins away from the left-hander, has always been far more comfortable bringing the ball in to right-handers. And once again in this Test, he has struggled to find the right pace, often firing the ball in at a trajectory not designed to deceive the batsman.

Almost out of nowhere, India's onward march as a Test team has been imperilled. Only once has a score of 300 been reached on the last innings at this ground - India scored 347 on final day in 1986 to tie the Test against Australia - and it is now quite probable that they will be chasing more.

England should win from here and, given that they were seen as winners just by deciding to tour, it will count as a double victory. Who would have envisaged such a situation when they boarded that flight from Abu Dhabi last week? That cricket continues to spring such surprises remains a large part of its appeal.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo

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