India v England, 1st Test, Nagpur, 2nd day March 2, 2006

End games

Across the border cleaning up has been the eternal woe.

Deja-vu: Indians stung by the tail © AFP

Before the beautiful Wasim Jaffer blossomed in his comeback Test innings, before the sun vanished so miraculously into a wet auburn wind that play was called off for bad light at 5 pm in a central Indian summer, India had one of those days again. Stung by the tail - you know, those pesky buggers who are meant to miscue a boundary each with a wonky grin before returning to the hut with their Dunce caps readjusted.

Given that most no. 7s now tend to be quality batsmen, let's consider contributions after six down and keep it recent. At Harare last year Zimbabwe went from 83 to 161 and 85 to 223; at Bulawayo from 197 to 279 and 67 to 185. At Mohali Pakistan climbed from 191 to 312 and 243 to 496. At Dhaka Bangladesh got up to 184 from 106 and 202 from 100. More obviously, of course, the work by Simon Katich and Kamran Akmal with the lower orders at Sydney the first week of 2004 and Karachi a month ago each probably thwarted what could have been famous overseas series victories.

Typical proceedings are pretty easy to sum up. A set batsman is joined by a chap of dubious batting distinction. The field is spread for the set batsman. Soon it is learnt that the bunny is less a bunny than hoped. Simultaneously it emerges the set batsman, now supplied with further confidence, is set well enough to pick boundaries or farm strike against defensive fields. Finally, it becomes apparent that the bowlers have lost heart, perhaps even interest.

England's last two wickets added 126 today. It was guileful stuff. Countering a field which for a large part had all leg-side men posted on the fence, Collingwood provided a masterful exhibition of charge-and-chip, lifting spinners and seamers above or well short of the boundary riders. Steve Harmison came with his long levers and swept and reverse swept and cover-drove and took 39 from 42 before he was stumped and got blown a kiss by Harbhajan Singh. Who then became the first Sikh in Test history to be taken for an untroubled single by Mudhsuden Panesar, who stuck around for another sixty four minutes.

Perhaps no thing has been more worrying for Indian supporters this season than Anil Kumble's and Harbhajan's impotence in unhelpful conditions. To be fair, Kumble did have strong leg-before shouts against both Harmy and Monty early on. Yet, India's failure to round it up has been a chronic affair. You either know how to finish the tail or you do not. Wasim and Waqar made Dobermans out of the most luxuriantly endowed Setters with the merest look. Nowadays twisty Danish Kaneria carries the flag. Across the border cleaning up has been the eternal woe.

The thinking in the camp nowadays seems lateral enough to contemplate accommodating a fifth bowler as an antidote not to the opposition batsmen as much as their bowlers. The types who appear to do the job are those who can bowl fast and full or else make a cunning googly. India has both options available. There is Piyush Chawla, whose other ones have been impressively difficult to read. There is also VRV Singh, not express but fast and with a good yorker from high up. Outside, there is also Munaf Patel, probably of Sreesanth's pace and gifted with the old ball. None is a mug with the bat.

Otherwise India are on course in what could turn out to be a tight if unspectacular match. Freddie Flintoff had a flattish first day in the field as captain. Replays ought to be studied before breaking him with the news, but word has it that there were not, in fact, ten lads behind him as he stepped across the white line, as he was very very sure there would be two days ago. Again, don't tell him, but the lad sneaking out in front is rumoured to have been his great mate Harmison, who made amends by focussing his deliveries at the dressing-room gate behind fine-leg. Then again, he'd done his bit with the bat.

Rahul Bhattacharya is contributing editor of Cricinfo Magazine and author of Pundits from Pakistan: On Tour with India, 2003-04