Adjusting the sights
England's proud home record has not yet been brought to an end, but after a cloudless, relentless day's cricket at The Oval, they have just 12 sessions left to fashion the victory that they thought, after Lord's, was theirs for the taking. History suggests it is not impossible - England need only to rewind to the events of 2003, when the team fought back from a first-afternoon scoreline of 290 for 1 to rip a remarkable nine-wicket win from South Africa's grasp - but the resolve shown by India's batsmen today suggests that it'll take something equally remarkable to save the series now.
"It was a tough day at the office for the lads," said England's coach, Peter Moores, who must be used to such days by now, after wading through a week of jelly bean-induced innuendo in the media. "The bowlers stuck to their task well and came back after a very tough first session, but all credit to the Indian batters. It was a good toss to win, and they fought very hard."
It wasn't just a good toss to win, it was a crucial toss to win. The baked-bare strip of The Oval isn't quite as daunting for bowlers as, say, a first-morning belter at Adelaide or Cape Town, but given the balance of the series and the long-overdue arrival of England's summer, the opportunity was there for India's batsmen to grind England into submission. In the end, a scoreline of 316 for 4 represented a worthy day's toil from a four-man attack that has punched above its reputation all series, although they needed a little luck in the dismissal of Sourav Ganguly - and gave a large slice back in return.
"It's frustrating to drop a chance," said Moores on behalf of his protégé, Matt Prior, who could hardly have picked a worse Test to produce the biggest clanger of his career to date. Prior, it is fair to say, did not emerge from Trent Bridge with many plaudits. His reputation as a trash-talker, and his central role in the controversies of that game, meant he had no choice but to back up his many words with deeds. Instead he found his feet stuck in gelatine as an edge from Sachin Tendulkar flew his way, and the moment was lost before he could even remember to mind his language.
Tendulkar may not be the batsman he once was - how could he be after 18 years on the road? - but giving him a let-off still ranks as perhaps the single biggest sin in the game: all the more so in this latter phase of his career when caution and patience have become his greatest allies. In a reprisal of his Trent Bridge performance he managed just two scoring shots in his first 35 balls, and was still far from any sort of fluency when Ryan Sidebottom found his edge with an inswinger. "That's the game, and Matt will have to take it on the chin," said Moores of the missed moment, but the crushing disappointment wasn't limited to his wicketkeeper.
|In the end, a scoreline of 316 for 4 represented a worthy day's toil from a four-man attack that has punched above its reputation all series, although they needed a little luck - and gave a large slice back in return|
For Sidebottom especially it was a cruel misfortune. He has, by a distance, been England's leading bowler in the series, and yet he has managed just two wickets in his last 66 overs, both here and at Trent Bridge. Left-arm swing has been the weapon that has given India control of the series, and it has been India - perhaps because they have two of their own against whom they can groove their responses - who have coped best with what has been thrown back in their direction.
Dinesh Karthik was a case in point. Happily, given the lynch-mob that was being prepared for umpire Howell after his sawing-off of Ganguly, Karthik freely admitted to edging the ball from Sidebottom that had failed to register on Snickometer, but up until that point his footwork against the bowler had been superb - with his toe pointing straight down the wicket, he opened his stance to enable late adjustments against the big inducker or the one that fizzed straight on.
England will need to emulate such adaptability when their own turn comes against Zaheer Khan and RP Singh, but for the time being they are braced for a session that could decide the series. "Wickets will make a good morning," said Moores. "We've got a new ball, and the lads will have to dust themselves down, come in with a positive frame of mind and have a real red-hot go."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo