India v England, 1st Test, Chennai, 4th day December 14, 2008

Optimism and oblivion

It would have been thoughtless cricket from England if Sehwag's abilities hadn't been factored into their calculations today, but it was equally thoughtful that they succeeded in avoiding the trap of trying to bat at his inimitable tempo


Virender Sehwag's motto: See ball, hit ball, for as long and as far as possible © AFP
 

Prior to the start of the fourth day's play, Virender Sehwag gave an interview that foretold the carnage that he intended to unleash that very evening. With a mixture of wanton optimism and endearing obliviousness, he declared that India were still in control of the match, and justified his opinion by recalling their aborted victory bid against Australia on the same ground in 2004-05.

Then, the delicious prospect of a last-day chase, with Sehwag again in full flow, was cruelly rained off. "We were chasing 250 [sic] against Australia, so we could easily chase 300-plus against England," Sehwag told Ravi Shastri, with unarguably simplistic logic. See ball, hit ball, for as long and as far as possible. That's the only factor that matters to him. If he gets that aspect right, everything else falls into place, statistics included.

Little nuggets of received wisdom, such as the impossibility of chasing 387 in the final innings of a Test in India, mean absolutely nothing to Sehwag. You can't imagine that he would know, let alone care, that the highest successful chase at Chepauk is a measly 155 for 8 (during India's famous series win against Australia in 2000-01) or that the highest ever achieved at any venue in the country was a Viv Richards' inspired 276 for 5, at Delhi in 1987-88.

On the other hand, he is more likely to recall that, as recently as November, he and his team-mates posted exactly that score of 387 in the first innings of their ODI series against England - and while the circumstances of a 50-over contest are a world away from a fifth-day minefield in the no-holds-barred environment of Test cricket, Sehwag's contribution that day (85 from 73 balls) was uncannily similar to today's breathtaking 83 from 68. All three of England's seamers were on parade that day as well, and their combined figures were 3 for 194 in 28 overs.

With that in mind, it isn't hard to tell why Kevin Pietersen was pacing the paddock like an expectant father while trying to work out how and when to call a halt to England's second innings this afternoon. Win or lose, there is sure to be a lively debate about the approach they took to their declaration, particularly in a deathly second session when 57 runs were added to their lunchtime lead of 319. India, as if rubbing England's noses in the mess they made of that momentum, needed just 6.2 overs to surpass that figure.

And yet, if Sehwag bats with a total disregard for circumstance, you can bet that his attitude has the absolute opposite effect on his opponents. Ordinarily, the idea when setting a target in Test cricket is to balance a sufficiency of runs with enough overs to get the ten wickets required for victory. The problem faced by Pietersen and England, however, especially after the scarring they received in the one-day series, is that no tally would be sufficient to prevent their opponents having a go anyway. Sehwag's last eleven Test centuries, just to reiterate, were breakneck knocks of 195, 309, 155, 164, 173, 201, 254, 180, 151, 319 and 201 not out. To saw him off for a mere 83, in the circumstances, was a pyrrhic victory.

It would have been thoughtless cricket from England if Sehwag's abilities hadn't been factored into their calculations today, but it was equally thoughtful that they succeeded in avoiding the trap of trying to bat at his inimitable tempo. Pietersen tried to go hell-for-leather in the first innings but came hopelessly unstuck over the course of 33 fretful deliveries, so it was to the immense credit of Andrew Strauss and Paul Collingwood that they compartmentalised their performances and stuck only to the shots they trusted best.


Andrew Strauss has reverted to his 2004 mindset of batting within his limitations © Getty Images
 

For long periods it wasn't pretty, but then aesthetics are merely a by-product of great Test cricket. For as long as they endured, grinding India's spinners into gaps and their morale into the ground, England's hold on the game became ever stronger. Strauss' efforts have been amply saluted ever since the first day of this match, not least the reversion to his 2004 mindset of batting within his limitations, but the shot that eventually brought about his dismissal was telling. Having virtually eliminated the cover drive for 477 deliveries and 12-and-a-half hours, he scuffed Harbhajan Singh to VVS Laxman, and trooped off with a self-admonishing grimace.

From the moment of Strauss' dismissal, up until Collingwood's departure 21 overs later, England mustered a frugal 43 runs, which by any calculation was poor - even for a side mindful of making sure India weren't left with too many overs in which to win the game. In that time, however, Andrew Flintoff became the latest player unable to impose himself from a standing start, which augurs well for their final-day prospects.

Ishant Sharma conjured up his best spell of the match to keep Flintoff under wraps, although the curiously top-heavy nature of England's scorecard - two centuries and only one other double-figure score - will give them heart now that the one man who can transcend the conditions is gone. Zaheer Khan's second magnificent effort with the old ball is also an encouraging sign. Reverse swing could yet be the weapon to negate the intentions of the rest of India's line-up.

The other weapon, of course, will be spin, although it was Graeme Swann, rather than their supposed trump Monty Panesar, who got the measure of the requirements. As he revealed in a lucid pre-match interview with Michael Atherton, the length required on this pitch is subtly different to those back in England, and sure enough it was he who unseated Sehwag, and he should have removed Gautam Gambhir as well.

Panesar, on the other hand, looked robotic once again, and prone to malfunctions as well. Criminally he served up two full-tosses to Sehwag, including one from the very first ball he bowled to him, which was launched gleefully into the midwicket stands. His most idiotic moment, however, came when he appealed maniacally for lbw when the ball pitched two feet outside leg stump. Umpire Bowden gave him a look that rarely ventures out of a primary-school classroom, while Sehwag slapped his own forehead at the incredulity of it.

One thing is for sure, England will require greater nous from Panesar on the final day if they are to turn the momentum of this contest back in their favour. The fourth innings of a Test match ought to be a spinner's natural domain, and yet, so far in his career, Panesar has managed only 23 wickets in 11 previous attempts, and only twice - against West Indies at Old Trafford and New Zealand at Napier - has he put in what could be described as the match-winning performance. He too conducts his career with a combination of optimism and obliviousness, but unlike Sehwag, that is turning out to be a weakness, not a strength.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo