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Andrew Flintoff was as hostile as ever, but England may already need a miracle to win this Test
December 20, 2008
As India demonstrated in Chennai last week, and as South Africa may also prove in Perth tomorrow, nothing in cricket is impossible any longer. No target is unobtainable, no position impregnable, although such is England's current plight that even their best bowling effort of the series may not be enough to make up the ground they lost to Gautam Gambhir and Rahul Dravid over the first four sessions at Mohali.
To claim nine wickets for 123 would be a triumph in any form of the game, but unfortunately the small matter of that second-wicket stand of 314 puts England's fightback into its full context. With three days of the tour remaining and nothing less than victory sufficient to rescue the series, England's only remaining hope is to bat forcefully and fast, to put runs on the board and inject time into the contest, to give themselves an outside chance of bowling India out twice.
Unfortunately for England, today's success points to tomorrow's failure, precisely because it was India's urgency in the face of tight (and at times downright hostile) bowling that ultimately led to their downfall. Often the greatest efforts are only appreciated in hindsight, and so it is with the six-hour stand that Gambhir and Dravid compiled. To Johnny-come-lately fans of Twenty20 cricket, their caution was anathema, and Cricinfo's feedback servers buzzed with indignant fury. But, the moment they tried to up the tempo, the innings came tumbling down.
For Gambhir and Dravid here, read Andrew Strauss and Paul Collingwood at Chennai. Then, as now, the loss of the established centurions ruptured the remainder of the innings, as a succession of batsmen (most of them mightier than anything England had left to offer last week) found themselves unable to hit the ground running in the manner that comes to them so naturally in the 20-over game. VVS Laxman's 24-ball duck was a collector's item, while Yuvraj Singh and Mahendra Singh Dhoni - neither of whom would ordinarily be described as boring - scratched around for scores in the mid-20s, at strike-rates lower than either Gambhir or the serially-abused Dravid.
That India were stretched to such an extent was ultimately down to two men, both of whom have been immense for England this series. Andrew Flintoff's magnificent bowling was once again under-rewarded, though his analysis of 30.2-10-54-3 does, for once, stand out from the crowd thanks to his perfunctory docking of the tail. However, the man he most deserved to dismiss once again eluded him. Yuvraj Singh had the last laugh at Chennai when he treated the final day like a one-day run-chase, but when snapped back into a Test-match environment, Flintoff tormented him with his fastest spell since last summer's Edgbaston duel with Jacques Kallis.
Flintoff was straight, he found swing, he followed up his deliveries with wry grins and subtle remarks, and the threat of unlimited short balls reduced Yuvraj to a latter-day Michael Bevan, shackled to the crease and suspectible to wafts outside off stump. Alas for England, when the trap was finally sprung, Alastair Cook in the gully managed to shell one of the easiest chances that can ever be offered in that position though Flintoff's unfeasibly cheery grin made clear this was not exactly a rare occurrence. Aside from a single astonishing Test at Hamilton in March, Cook has perhaps the worst pair of hands in the world game. How he is preferred to Collingwood in such a key catching position is a mystery.
All the while that Flintoff was pummelling India's middle order, his spinning sidekick was wheeling through a tireless, probing and unbroken afternoon spell. He found flight, variety and sharp turn, and drew his batsmen far enough forward to get them reaching for each delivery, but not so far that they were able to rock back and slap him past point. For the second match in a row, however, that man was not the familiar figure of Monty Panesar, but instead Graeme Swann, whose stock is rising so rapidly that, at this rate, it will be he and Jason Krejza who will go head to head at Cardiff in the Ashes next summer.
Panesar has too much class to be written off as a force just yet, and with the West Indies tour looming in February, he has plenty of opportunities to make amends and find his elusive form. But the correlation he makes between wickets and morale is scary for a bowler of his experience. Swann bowled as if he expected to break through, and sure enough, did. Panesar, addicted to the thrill of success, bowled as if he needed a breakthrough before he could relax, and didn't.
Not until late in the day, at any rate, and his relief was palpable as he collapsed gratefully into the arms of Kevin Pietersen. Up until that point, he had been handed a solitary over before the new ball, in which two long-hops were thumped for four. Then he was ignored until three overs before lunch - when he once again offered length and width, and easy runs - before being left to ruminate in the outfield for the entire afternoon session.
Swann too went for boundaries - five in 12 balls at one point as Gambhir and Dravid looked to up their tempo - but he provoked risks in doing so, particularly from Gambhir, who late on in his innings developed a penchant for staying leg-side of the ball and flailing through the off. It was an approach that helped him past 150 for the second time in three Tests, but ultimately it caused his downfall and triggered India's collapse.
England will need similar risks if they are to get back into this match, but no-one should blame them if their first instinct is survival. At Test level, you cannot reap until you have sown - unless of course you are Virender Sehwag, and even then you run the risk of the occasional third-ball duck. If they are still batting by the close tomorrow night, with wickets in hand and minds clear of clutter, they have a chance to turn the game around. But don't bet on it. Three miraculous matches in a week would be too much to wish for.
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