Defensive Dhoni stalls Pietersen's charge
After 50 overs of their innings, England had made 221 for 4, 95 runs more than what India had managed at the same stage. It told you something about how well Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff had batted, with switch-hits for six, clean strikes down the ground and unmistakable intent against pace and spin alike.
In the previous series against Australia, there had been a similar passage of play in Nagpur, though neither Simon Katich nor Michael Hussey had been quite as imperious as the English duo. Mahendra Singh Dhoni's response then was an 8-1 field and wide bowling that stemmed the run-rate, allowed frustration to set in and eventually fetched wickets. It wasn't good to watch, but with cricket's rules so often so hazy when it comes to separating the defensive tactic from the illegal one, it had the desired effect. Australia fell away and India went on to clinch a 172-run victory. According to Dhoni, the scoreboard was all the vindication he needed.
After that 50th over, Dhoni switched back to Nagpur mode to deny England even more momentum in the final session. Neither Zaheer Khan nor Ishant Sharma got dramatic reverse-swing and it's doubtful whether it would have been a factor anyway with so many deliveries from Zaheer short and slanting well away from the right-handers. At the other end, Amit Mishra went round the wicket and aimed at the rough, hoping that the odd one would kick off a length and induce the mistake.
The runs did dry up. Flintoff steadfastly refused to take the off-stump bait, and though Pietersen kept the Barmy Army entertained with the odd switch-hit against Mishra, India were able to slow things right down. In the 21 overs that followed, only 59 runs were made, a tempo you'd equate with Rahul Dravid and not two of the most attacking batsmen in the game.
Had England gone to stumps with just the four wickets down, Dhoni would most likely have been excoriated for his negativity. His luck though remains his strongest suit. With the first ball of the day's penultimate over, the hitherto lacklustre Harbhajan Singh came round the wicket and trapped Pietersen in front with one that straightened. For England, it was a sickening blow. As weighty as the 144 runs had been Pietersen's sheer presence, and it left the onus firmly on Flintoff to steer the good ship to safety.
Then, in the final over, with Daryl Harper's light meter out and the umpires deciding that it was fine enough to continue, Mishra dealt a game-changing blow. Back in October, it was Michael Clarke that he got with the googly off the final ball of the day. On Sunday, it was Flintoff, inside-edging the wrong 'un on to his pad and to Gautam Gambhir at short leg. In the space of 12 balls, 280 for 4 had become 282 for 6, and the whip was once again firmly in Dhoni's grasp.
|I'm afraid we are out of the Test. It's difficult to win the game. If we could have batted a session into tomorrow, we could have forced ourselves into the game. Now, we'll be happy to get a draw out of itKevin Pietersen|
Pietersen was understandably downcast at the end of it all, despite a 15th century in just 45 Tests. "It's frustrating to lose wickets at the end of the day, to lose myself and Freddie was very very frustrating," he said. "My decision could have gone my way and with Freddie … well, it's amazing how the light changes in a couple of minutes."
Pietersen seemed to be of the view that the two late wickets had killed off any chance of a series-levelling win. "I'm afraid we are out of the Test," he said. "It's difficult to win the game. If we could have batted a session into tomorrow, we could have forced ourselves into the game. Now,we'll be happy to get a draw out of it."
Gary Kirsten, India's coach, was also of the opinion that India were now in control, though he stressed that there would be no gung-ho tactics with the Chennai win enough to give them the series. "Being one up, we can play into a situation where we make sure that we are in a strong position," he said. "We would like to play winning cricket.
"The two late wickets were significant for us. Both of them were playing unbelievably well and it was one of Pietersen's greatest Test centuries."
But with Dhoni's luck continuing to hold, it might turn out to be no more than a consolation.