India v England, 1st Test, Nagpur, 5th day March 5, 2006

Kicking against expectation

It was a bizarre end to a bizarre match: brilliant in its own sort of way, always kicking against expectation, writes Paul Coupar

Exactly whose match was that? Both teams were in the game till the very end © Getty Images

The Nagpur Test, which began with England fans in dungeons of despair, ended with the bizarre sight of the man-of-the-match Matthew Hoggard zipping round the outfield on a newly won motorcycle, locks flowing like something out of Easy Rider.

(After a couple of laps he was quietly gestured down: England have enough problems with medial knee cartilages, mucked-up backs and Marcus without adding motorbikes.)

It was a bizarre end to a bizarre match: brilliant in its own sort of way, always kicking against expectation. But trying to analyse it is like trying to wrestle a jellyfish.

The bare facts were that it ended as a draw, after India's astonishing attempt to chase 368 to win was halted by bad light and falling wickets with 11 and a bit overs to go.

So England ended up in exactly the position many predicted: back against the wall. But they got there via the strangest route: over the allotments, round the gas-works, up hill and down dale. It looked in turn like being an Indian win; England win; draw; Indian win; draw.

The strangest turn was saved till last. At tea, as back home the early Sunday risers were fetching the coffee, India had crawled to 131 for 1, and England supporters' main worry was staying awake. The chance of an improbable win had long since evaporated; the chance of a draw seemed about the same as the same sun rising tomorrow morning.

But then the match exploded. The fuse was lit with the wicket of Rahul Dravid, the latest A-list scalp for Monty Panesar, as he ripped one out of the rough to take out the off stump. Then the tannoy blared. The crowd roared a high-pitched roar. And in the heat and confusion out strode not the placid Tendulkar but Irfan Pathan, a hitter from the lower order.

The task looked improbable: 25 overs to go, 200 to get. Then Pathan whacked England's fall-back man, Flintoff, for four and, next ball, hit a masculinity-insulting six into the sightscreen. India needed eight an over; Tendulkar panned Ian Blackwell for 16.

As soon as you felt it, you knew it: it was that Edgbaston feeling again. The feeling of a game you had in the bag wriggling like mad to get out. Ever since the grip of the Church slackened, the British Sunday morning has been a lazy affair, newspapers and coffee; sleeping off that bottle of plonk and curry from the night before. But for cricket fans they are becoming ordeals of nervous terror.

It wasn't any of the big guns, But Wasim Jaffer who did the damage with the bat for India © Getty Images

India's blitz was only the last example of how, just when you thought you'd got it sussed, this match did something very odd indeed. This was a game where Alastair Cook and Paul Collingwood, two men who wouldn't have played but for England's troubles, made more than half their runs from the bat. Where everyone thought India's spinners would prey on England's batsmen, but managed just four wickets between them. Where a player (Alastair Cook) said: "The jet lag probably helped a bit." Where no bowler could get it off the straight until the third morning when Hoggard produced one isolated cyclonic spell of reverse swing. Where MS Dhoni got louder cheers than Tendulkar, and the quiet man, Jaffer, got more runs than both of them together. Heck, no-one was even sure when it was over, with the flunkies bringing the presentation stage onto the outfield before rapidly being told to remove it, in case the players came back on.

But, for England, when they wake tomorrow, some hard facts emerged from the dust and mirrors. That they relied too heavily for wickets on one wicked but freakish spell. That they have depth in batting. That they don't panic under fire. That they could do with using the short ball a bit more. Oh, and that Matthew Hoggard rides a motorcycle better than you'd expect.

Paul Coupar is assistant editor of The Wisden Cricketer and will be covering the first two Tests for Cricinfo