First Test

India v England, 2005-06

At Nagpur, March 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 2006. Drawn. Toss: England. Test debuts: S. Sreesanth; I. D. Blackwell, A. N. Cook, M. S. Panesar.

This was a match destined to be remembered for what went before and what nearly was. An ultimately futile run-flurry from India in the final session roused their supporters, but failed to hide that they had been second-best for vast tracts of a game played out in hot and dusty conditions supposedly to their advantage. After a diffident start, England had scrapped tenaciously to set India a pursuit of 368, a startling achievement given that putting out a starting eleven had once appeared beyond them. Marcus Trescothick had departed in tears, followed by Michael Vaughan and Simon Jones - two knees out of joint, along with England's best-laid plans. When the hastily promoted Flintoff joined Dravid for the toss at Nagpur, the geographic centre of India, it was a case of throwing new boys into the fray, and desperately hoping they would keep their feet. One of them, Alastair Cook, had left England's A-team on the Caribbean beaches for a three-day journey across the continents. He was immediately pencilled in, alongside two more debutants, left-arm spinners Mudhsuden Singh Panesar (Monty to everyone, including a voluble crowd who became the first to be tickled by his unathletic fielding) and Ian Blackwell. With hardly any time to reflect on his change of fortune - "almost the best way", he said with a boyish smile - Cook unveiled a compact technique and tremendous temperament. Those around him struggled, however. India's own newcomer, Shanthakumaran Sreesanth, a seamer with bird's-nest hair and quirky mannerisms, castled Pietersen with a beauty to grab the early plaudits, and, when Pathan produced a stunning delivery to bowl Cook at 136 for four, 300 looked ambitious.

But where his more celebrated mates failed, Collingwood succeeded gloriously. After playing himself in sedately, he masterminded a rearguard action that would have made Steve Waugh proud. His resolute footwork and energetic chip-and-charge tactics unnerved the Indians and, by the time Sreesanth finished off the tail, the last three wickets had added a whopping 149. Collingwood remained unconquered on 134, a maiden Test century and deserved reward for a spirited individual who had seen two superb inningsin- crisis fall tantalisingly short of the landmark in Lahore three months earlier.

After Wasim Jaffer, back in the fold for the first time since touring England in 2002, and Dravid had seen off the pace threat on the second afternoon, the game swung England's way - literally - next morning. Hoggard may not be a poster boy like Flintoff or a clotheshorse like Simon Jones, but his controlled swing bowling has been an immense factor in English cricket's renaissance. On a slightly overcast morning, he was peerless, moving the ball at will and showing his mastery of both traditional and reverse swing. A gripping spell of three for five in 11 balls wrenched out the heart of India's batting, though its soul for so long, Tendulkar, was the first Test victim of a deliriously happy Panesar, who could scarcely believe what his arm-ball had accomplished.

With the scoreboard on 190 for seven, and a couple of dozen stragglers outside the ground protesting at the exclusion of former captain Sourav Ganguly, India needed a hero or two; it found them in a nearly man and a leg-spin legend. Mohammad Kaif had been the middle order's man-in-waiting for half a decade. Now, with Ganguly gone and Yuvraj Singh nursing a sore hamstring, he got his chance, and a ninth Test cap six years after his first. After a jittery start littered with horridly timed jabs and numerous misses, Kaif found something like fluency once he reached 20. As for Kumble, he rediscovered his defiant spirit and stolid strokeplay to reach his first international fifty for nearly nine years.

Their partnership was seldom pretty and often dour, but it ate up precious time. By the time Panesar stopped Kaif, nine short of a maiden hundred, with a gorgeous flighted delivery from round the wicket, the deficit was below three figures. Even so, England were fortified by a 70-run buffer, and needed to press on. Cook - ever more assured against the turning ball - opted for the patient crawl at one end, while Pietersen chose the strongarm route so natural to him. Aided by the generosity of third umpire Shivram, who incensed Kumble by refusing to grant a caught-and-bowled appeal off the toe end of the bat, and some slipshod Indian fielding, Pietersen galloped to 87 before Kumble had the final word.

The biggest statement, though, was made by Cook. He eased his way to a classy yet unhurried century, becoming the youngest Englishman to reach a Test hundred in 67 years, and earning a marriage proposal - offered on a placard - from a pretty girl in the stands. The fact that the hundred took him 243 balls delayed Flintoff 's declaration, but chasing the target never looked a realistic option once Hoggard cleaned up Sehwag, whose wretched run since he romped to 254 in Lahore seven weeks earlier was becoming a concern.

Jaffer, combining solid defence with wristy elegance when driving and working the ball off his pads, and Dravid set about making the game safe. They did so with some ease, which said much about the placid nature of the pitch, and the inexperience of England's spin duo. Shortly after tea, with 200 needed from 25 overs, the Indian batsmen suddenly opted to tilt at windmills. Dravid departed after injecting the innings with some urgency, and Jaffer followed to a standing ovation - for another maiden century - but there was still time for a bewitching cameo from Tendulkar, whose audacious strokeplay suggested he was not best pleased at Pathan and Dhoni being sent in ahead of him.

But like the intermittent spring showers in these parts, it did not last. And ultimately, the match said little about the relative strengths of the teams. A patchwork-quilt English side, which Flintoff led with spirit and no little imagination, had been more than a match for their hosts, who seemed so below par that it was hard to believe Steve Waugh had spoken of them as potential world-beaters only two years before.

Man of the Match: M. J. Hoggard.

© John Wisden & Co.