Fortune favours the cautious
It is such a great pity that England's Test series with India is almost over before it has begun. At the end of a year that will forever be associated with the Twenty20 boom, the game's oldest and greatest format has been enjoying a timely spike in popularity in recent weeks, thanks to two of the finest matches in recent memory, at Chennai and at Perth. But up at Mohali, the embers of a contest are dying as quickly as the wintery evening sun, thanks in no small part to an itinerary that has encouraged a closed-shop mentality from the hosts.
A two-Test rubber was always going to sell this series short, but only now do we get an idea of quite how short. Kevin Pietersen's world-weary demeanour at the close of the third day's play was revealing, not only for the clear emotion he felt at squandering two late wickets, but also for the knowledge that England's last chance in the series had been and gone. One-nil up and with a sizeable lead in the bank, India's approach on the fourth day was understandable but disappointing. Double or quits is not a game worth playing if the rewards of pushing for a series clean sweep don't outweigh the risks of being pegged back to 1-1.
On the one hand, England made a rod for their own backs. Notwithstanding the brilliance of Pietersen's century, his side still contrived to lose their last six wickets for 22, a collapse of mid-1990s proportions from which they should not really have been able to escape. And had this been the second match of a five- or even a three-Test series, you can be fairly certain that Mahendra Singh Dhoni's response would have been swift and to the point. Momentum is there to be seized upon in Test cricket, especially when you've got a batting line-up that drips with quite as much class as India's.
Alas, the rules invariably change in two-Test series, which are abominations on two counts. Either they are hideously uncompetitive, unenthusiastic affairs designed to fulfil the requirements of the Future Tours Programme, or they are over so quickly that the established rhythms of Test cricket are not given time to take hold.
Right now, this series should be at fever pitch. England would be down but quite clearly not out, a fact best epitomised by the delicious rivalry between Yuvraj Singh, Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff, which would have enough friction to ignite even the deadest of rubbers. Today, however, Yuvraj faced only two deliveries from Flintoff before his spell had to come to an end. It was the single biggest anticlimax of the day, not least because we know that their battle might not be properly rejoined until India tour England in 2011.
Having avoided that mini-battle, Yuvraj went on to put the decisive stamp on the day's play. His innings bristled with the sort of point-to-prove aggression that Pietersen had himself shown on Sunday, and carried India clear of a potential embarrassment at 80 for 4. Their approach up until then, however, had been incoherent. There was no central strategy underpinning their approach, especially when Virender Sehwag, their most clear-headed batsman, ran himself out cheaply. Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar seemed to forget they were back in form with a pair of geriatric performances, while Gambhir the anchorman ground along diligently, waiting in vain for a colleague to dictate the pace
India took much the same attitude at The Oval in 2007, when they followed a whopping first-innings advantage of 319 with a panicky scoreline of 11 for 3, and ultimately ground through a further 58 overs to set a target of 500. Partially, of course, their approach, then and now, must be seen as a sign of respect. Pietersen scored a trouble-free century as England eased to 369 for 6 in that chase, and recent events have confirmed the suspicion that fourth-innings targets aren't as daunting as they used to be. Even so, fortune ought to favour the brave in Test cricket. Right now it favours the cautious.
There is still time, of course, for England to lose this match, in which case India's approach will be amply justified by hindsight, but it's hard to see that happening now. England themselves turned South Africa over in two sessions at Johannesburg in 2004-05, although that feat required both a sensational morning of declaration-inducing strokeplay from Marcus Trescothick, and of course the urgency of a side that had lost the previous Test by 196 runs and was hungry to make swift and decisive amends.
You don't sense that hunger has come into India's thinking very much in this Test, and the net result is that everyone will go home slightly empty. So many strands of the narrative are crying out for development, but instead they will have to be scraped into the recycling bin. Has Yuvraj really cracked Test cricket? Is Flintoff back to his best? Are Dravid and Tendulkar holding their team back or providing the ballast to drive it forward? All these questions and more could have been answered over the course of a proper old-school Test series. Instead, they seem destined to remain obscured in Mohali's fog.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo