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

Men show the boys value of experience


'With 196 runs in this contest already, Strauss has chugged along throughout at an easy rate of one run every two balls, giving no thought to anything other than his continued presence at the crease, and India's continued frustration' © Getty Images
 

Ever since David Gower ditched England's net sessions during their ill-fated tour of the Caribbean in 1985-86, the notion of just turning up and playing without putting any thought to preparation has, by and large, been frowned upon. Gower's rationale back then was that his team was being subjected to such horrors every time they took the field, they might as well forget all their worries in between whiles and sit on the beach instead. Sadly, their eventual 5-0 pummelling effectively crushed the less-is-more lobby for evermore.

In Chennai, however, England are showing just what is possible when the mind is freed of its clutter and instinct is left to run the show. If their performances on days one and two of this Test match were impressive, their third-day efforts were unquestionably the best yet. Andrew Strauss and Paul Collingwood have ground the team into a position from which to push for their second against-the-odds victory in consecutive Tests in India, but more importantly, the team as a whole has managed to regroup - not once but twice - from decidedly dicey situations.

England know from bitter and regular experience that when things start to go wrong in the subcontinent, there is often no way to reverse the loss of momentum. Nasser Hussain, for instance, still harbours regrets about the third session of England's 2001-02 campaign, in Mohali, when Harbhajan Singh effectively sealed the series with five wickets in eight overs. And it was Harbhajan, with the bat this time, who was the first obstacle to England's ambitions today, while he and Mahendra Singh Dhoni were bashing their way to a 75-run stand for the seventh wicket.

With Andrew Flintoff sick and Steve Harmison sore from his previous evening's exertions, England failed to claim a wicket in the critical first hour of the day, yet recovered to capture a vital first-innings lead of 75. Then, having slumped to 43 for 3 in their second innings - a scoreline that would have been worse had Dhoni clung onto a thin edge when Strauss had made 15 - they somehow regrouped once again to reach the close with no further losses and even fewer alarms. It was ballsy batting of the highest order, but the preparation for the fightback was done entirely in the heads of the protagonists.

Only two of England's batsmen, in fact, have looked anything other than totally attuned to the unfamiliar challenge posed by this Test match. One is Ian Bell, whose flaccid departure - albeit to a delivery that did leap a touch more than he might have anticipated - was nothing more or less than might have been expected from him in a pressure situation. The other, however, was the captain, Kevin Pietersen, whose harassed performance has been the exception that proves the rule.

Nobody in the England team did more to ensure this contest went ahead than KP, whose personal influence was the deciding factor in a full tour party returning to India. While the rest of the squad had countless hours in limbo in which to visualise the scenarios that they have been acting out for the past three days, Pietersen - like his predecessors during their respective Zimbabwe crises - found his waking and sleeping hours interrupted by political hassles.

Pietersen's match total of four runs is the lowest he's ever produced in a Test in which he has batted twice, and only once, in fact, has he mustered fewer in a completed contest - he made 3 in his solitary innings against New Zealand at Lord's in May, when he was also pinned lbw by a left-arm spinner, Daniel Vettori. However, Yuvraj Singh, who dismissed him in a similar fashion in the second ODI last month, may yet have cause to regret the bunny ears signal he gave Pietersen as he turned to the pavilion. After the first-innings working-over he received from Flintoff, he's not in the strongest position to cast the first stone.

If Pietersen was guilty of over-zealousness in his approach to this contest, then he could certainly learn a few relaxation techniques from Strauss, who has himself attracted bunny jibes for his approach to spin bowling - from Shane Warne in 2005. Once again, Strauss was superb. With 196 runs in this contest already, he has chugged along throughout at an easy rate of one run every two balls, giving no thought to anything other than his continued presence at the crease, and India's continued frustration.

So far in the second innings, India's spinners have managed a solitary maiden in 30 overs - a testament to Strauss's cool gap-finding ability - and at one point a ratty Harbhajan demanded that he stop nudging off the back foot and start driving through the covers - to which Strauss responded with a brilliantly inane grin, and another dabbed single. He has been anchored so far into his crease that every nuance of flight, turn and bounce has been watched onto the middle of his back-footed bat - and if he can carry on doing that for another session on Sunday, there may be no way back for his opponents.

One wonders, incidentally, what Duncan Fletcher might have to say about Strauss's batting. England's former coach always advocated the forward press when taking on slow bowling, and sagely likened the technique to a man running for a bus. If you aim to get to the bus stop on time, you run the risk of being late, so why not set off a little bit early, and buy yourself some time? That explanation, however, assumes you're actually stressed out enough to care. Strauss has always been his own man, and in this contest so far, he has been so chilled out, and rooted so far back in his crease, that might as well have sparked up a fag and waited for the next bus to come along.

Collingwood, on the other hand, has been forward at every opportunity - sometimes uneasily, but always with utter commitment. He is forever doomed to be under-rated because of the innate scratchiness of his best efforts, but no man was more likely to pull on his game-face at a moment's notice. A poor decision ended his first innings before it had got started, but Collingwood shrugged that off and proceeded to play the sidekick role to perfection. His last great innings was at Edgbaston last summer, when he made light of a season's tally of 96 runs in ten innings to club a brilliant 135 to save his career, and all but save the Test. Mental strength has always been Collingwood's forte. With two days to go, and India quite capable of reversing the momentum once again, this match is beginning to separate the men from the boys.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo