India v England, 3rd Test, Mumbai, 4th day March 21, 2006

Chance to rewrite history

At times this afternoon, it was hard to fathom which team was 1-0 down in the series and going for parity
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India did well to claw back on the third day © Getty Images

At times this afternoon, it was hard to fathom which team was 1-0 down in the series and going for parity, but Andrew Flintoff's luck-laced perseverance still allowed England to set a target that has never been achieved in 206 previous Tests on Indian soil. The final day promises much, with India's batting, so brittle and reliant on Rahul Dravid in recent times, needing to be at its most vigilant to keep out an English pace attack that will go all out for the share of the series spoils that they feel they deserve.

You wouldn't have thought that victory was very high on the agenda for much of today, given the 77.2 overs that they dawdled for 160 runs, but with Anil Kumble getting turn and bounce out of the rough from round the wicket and Harbhajan Singh finally bowling as he can, run-scoring was never easy. As Duncan Fletcher admitted later: "It was pretty tough. Each time we tried to have a go, we lost a wicket."

With the pace bowlers, who had thus far carried the wicket-taking burden with Kumble, restricted to short spells with the accent on containment, it was back to the traditional Indian strength of turn-turn-turn on a pitch that held together surprisingly well - not even a distant relative of the dust-cloud-wonder that did for Australia 16 months ago.

Harbhajan was introduced late on, indictment perhaps of the manner in which he has bowled in recent times, but Kumble was the focal point of the action right from the first session, probing away relentlessly. Each time a catch was spilt or an appeal turned down, he would wheel away with a look of exasperation on his face; then steady himself to perform as only he can. With the hype and hoopla surrounding the batsmen, it's easy to forget that Indian cricket has walked on the shoulders of this giant for more than a decade.

England's circumspection produced 107 runs from 55 overs in the first two sessions, and as each over went by, you sensed that they were batting exactly as India would have wanted them to. Owais Shah, who had batted with flair and confidence in the first innings, appeared determined to do a `Dravid' in this knock, only for Sachin Tendulkar's swoop and throw to terminate the plan. With Shah gone and Geraint Jones in such ordinary form with the bat, Flintoff and Paul Collingwood progressed as though another wicket lost would spell doom.

Harbhajan's spell didn't help. Panned after his wicketless showing in Pakistan, and ineffectual for vast tracts at Nagpur and Mohali, he had about him an air of desperation that one would normally associate with a fringe player given one last outing. That he bowled as beautifully as he did was testament to his strength of will, and support from team-mates who celebrated as joyously as he did when the breakthroughs came.

But if India do go on to lose their way on the final day, they may look back ruefully at another shockingly poor display in the field. While both spinners pouched stunning catches, Mahendra Singh Dhoni's fluffed stumping off a Harbhajan doosra - Flintoff was on 14 at the time, and England only 240 ahead - might have meant the difference between an eminently gettable target and an improbable chase.

But in its own way, Flintoff's restraint was as eye-catching as Dhoni's a day earlier. Harbhajan Singh reckoned later that "they were not in a situation where he could attack" - though the lead was already 206 when he walked out - and you could tell from his response that there was grudging admiration for the way he had batted. "When he went for the big shots, he was picking it beautifully," said Harbhajan, perhaps remembering the nonchalant loft that cleared the fence at midwicket.

On current form, Flintoff has strong claims to be the world's most valuable cricketer, with a penchant for turning matches with both bat and ball, and his reputation has been vastly enhanced by the manner in which he has donned the captaincy mantle to coax and cajole an undermanned team to fight India to the finish.

The game's aficionados, and there are many in Mumbai, may be skeptical of India's chances, pointing to dusty Almanacks that speak of how it took a resplendent 111-ball 109 from Viv Richards to propel the West Indies to 276 at New Delhi nearly two decades ago - the highest total chased down in India. But if they can stave off the excellence of Matthew Hoggard, Flintoff and James Anderson tomorrow morning, they may yet show that history is ultimately just words and numbers on a page. For inspiration, they need only look to Ricky Ponting and Australia, who romped past a record 287-run target at the SCG just two months ago.

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo