India v England, 3rd Test, Mumbai, 3rd day March 20, 2006

Serious problems to ponder

This was a grim reminder of the days when a capable pace attack would arrive at the Wankhede and make India's much-vaunted batting line-up appear second-rate

Mahendra Singh Dhoni today displayed his responsible side © Getty Images

This was a grim reminder of the days when a capable pace attack would arrive at the Wankhede and make India's much-vaunted batting line-up appear second-rate. But for the grit and application shown by the lower order, India's embarrassment would have been as acute as it was when South Africa rolled them over for 225 and 113 (February 2000), and Australia repeated the dose a year later (176 and 219).

Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Irfan Pathan had to navigate their way out of the top-order wreckage, and Anil Kumble and S Sreesanth then exposed their more esteemed colleagues on a pitch that offered bowlers little more than good bounce and reward for hitting the seam. England's bowlers stuck to their task admirably, with James Anderson tirelessly accurate on an outside-off-stump line, and they were aided by short selection that was indifferent at best and diabolical at worst.

Dhoni's 64 was a revelation not so much in terms of the shots that he played, but for those he didn't. He had enough good fortune, with catches going down and edges flying fortuitously wide of the fielders, but the manner in which he knuckled down to lead the slow trek to respectability showcased his responsible side. He may be an exhilarating stroke-player, but at times during his brief career, he has shown a remarkable capacity to adapt his game to the situation.

This morning, he reined in the cavalier instinct to nudge the ball around when Monty Panesar and Shaun Udal, neither especially threatening, both enjoyed lengthy spells. The big biffs would have been the popular choice with a crowd that expected nothing less, but by choosing the discrete path to run-getting, Dhoni also helped use up valuable time on a pitch that may yet turn capricious.

Pathan's ability to resist in times of strife had been revealed as early as October 2004, when he delayed Australia's emphatic victory at Bangalore, but a restrained rearguard action from Dhoni was utterly unexpected. His dismissal, after several inconclusive replays, highlighted the ambiguities that still exist in the laws 129 years after the first Test was played. Law 38 says the batsman is out if "his wicket is fairly put down by the opposing side". What that means is open to interpretation.

In general, the rule of thumb has been that at least one bail has to be completely dislodged from the groove. If that was the criteria, Krishna Hariharan was a brave man to give Dhoni out. But while there may be ambiguity over the laws, there are no such grey areas when it comes to India's abysmal top-order batting for much of this season. With only Rahul Dravid showing any semblance of consistency, tough times lie ahead.

The luminaries at the top could do worse than to watch tapes of Kumble and Sreesanth getting into line against pace bowlers armed with the second new ball. Kumble's spirit has never been in question, and if even half of the others had his heart and commitment to the cause, India would have had a great team. Sreesanth followed his lead, and the moment of the day was undoubted his powerful hoick over mid-off after Andrew Flintoff had thudded one into the peak of his helmet. Between them, he and Kumble saw off 123 balls, after Dhoni and Pathan had stuck around for 200. With the exception of Dravid, the others in the top order lasted just 130.

Sreesanth continued the revival with a splendid spell of outswing bowling, and with Munaf Patel also looking menacing, India may yet pull off a heist on a pitch that will undoubtedly aid Kumble and Harbhajan Singh.

However, even the prospect of a great escape shouldn't be allowed to deflect attention from the very real problems that have bedevilled the team here. The catching, or lack of it - exemplified by Yuvraj Singh's goof-up in the evening shadows - has been atrocious, and the batting frailties can't be wished away. How ironic it would be if a much-maligned tail and inexperienced pace bowlers were to bail India out in a series that they haven't deserved to win, against an English side that has overcome every adversity to show that a little Bulldog spirit can go a long way.

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo