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At Chennai, December 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 2008. India won by six wickets. Toss: England. Test debut: G. P. Swann.
A historic occasion, and a magnificent match, culminated in the highest fourthinnings run-chase ever to succeed in an Asian Test, enabling India to win with about an hour to spare. The start came only two weeks after the terrorist attack on Mumbai, and the Test was staged amid "presidential-style" security, but by the end the most famous of all Mumbaikars had gone some way to erasing the memories. In a century he dedicated to all Indians, Sachin Tendulkar masterminded the run-chase after Virender Sehwag had snatched the initiative from England's grasp with batting of equal brilliance.
England went into the game without a warm-up (their first-class game in Vadodara had been cancelled when they flew home after the Mumbai attack) and only three days of nets in Abu Dhabi. Their lack of match-practice, it could be argued, was decisive, but Pietersen and his players never advanced it as an excuse. Their bowlers had not bowled long spells for months. Panesar, who had been due to play a three-day game for the England Performance Squad in Bangalore as well as in Vadodara, had not had a match since September, Strauss not since October. The other nine England players had played at least once in the one-day series, but the tailenders were all short of an innings, while the catching could have done with fine-tuning: Cook, who had taken some dazzling gully catches in New Zealand, missed Sehwag early in his matchwinning assault.
Strauss's last cricket had been in the Stanford tournament (for Middlesex) six weeks before, but he attributed his success - he became the first England batsman to hit a century in each innings of a Test on the subcontinent - to this very freshness of mind. He had been notably decisive about England's duty to return to India, and the same certainty informed his batting. On a slow pitch, where the odd ball leapt alarmingly throughout, he crafted a game plan that played to his strengths: the cut, whenever the ball was short, and the sweep to spin bowling of a full length, without risking the front-foot drive. In each innings, he scored no more than three runs past the bowler. If a criticism could be made, it was that neither he nor Collingwood forced the pace after reaching hundreds in England's second innings, whose meandering nature towards the end - against reverse-swing of the highest quality - let India back into the game.
It was, nevertheless, a fine achievement for England to win so many sessions until Sehwag overwhelmed them. Strauss and Cook put together their fourth century opening partnership in eight Tests, and England reached 164 for one at tea on the first day before Zaheer Khan began their demise. On a spinner's pitch, Zaheer was to bowl 48 overs in all for 81 runs and five wickets, using every trick in the pace bowler's book, and it was largely because of him that England ultimately failed to set the 400-run target to which Pietersen aspired.
Bell fell to a "wicket-taking ball" in each innings; Pietersen was bounced out in his first innings and teased out in his second. In his first overseas Test as captain, having to cope with politics and diplomacy, and a cracked rib which prevented him throwing, Pietersen was as agitated as Strauss was calm. Collingwood was the victim of a flustered decision by Billy Bowden, who raised his right hand holding the bowler's hat.
England's first-innings collapse was partially arrested by Prior, in his first Test for a year, and India then struggled to 102 for five. Dhoni called it "a bad day at the office" when he fronted up for the second-evening press conference: most captains, especially those not out overnight, would have avoided the TV cameras. Graeme Swann became the second bowler, after Richard Johnson in 2003, to take two wickets in his first over of Test cricket: both were marginal lbw decisions by Daryl Harper, but overall the umpires had a good game, save for Collingwood's dismissal and their tolerance of time-wasting. (Bowden was a late substitute for Asad Rauf, who did not have time to obtain another city-specific visa, required for Pakistani citizens visiting India, after the Test was moved from Ahmedabad.) After Laxman and Tendulkar had been caught and bowled in successive overs from checked drives (Tendulkar was Flintoff 's 200th Test wicket for England), Dhoni made his fifth fifty in six Test innings to take India within striking distance, but it was widely considered that a lead of 75 would be decisive on a disintegrating pitch. Only the pitch did not disintegrate. It had been prepared for a 20-over game in the Champions League cancelled because of the Mumbai attack and, although copious dust arose from the red earth, it just about held together.
England slipped to 43 for three when Yuvraj Singh trapped Pietersen with his first ball, adding to a running feud in which Yuvraj - recalled to replace the retired Ganguly - had eyeballed Pietersen after allowing himself to be wound up by the fielders in his first innings. England needed their highest fourth-wicket partnership in Asia, 214 from Strauss and Collingwood, to recover. Together they batted out the third day, added 72 runs off 24 overs next morning, and should have been in a position to ram home England's advantage on the fourth afternoon. Collingwood, unlike Strauss, occasionally came down the pitch to loft the leg-spin of Mishra, who was much slower off the wearing surface than his predecessor Anil Kumble would have been. But the longer England's innings went on, the more Zaheer and his partner in reverse-swing, Sharma, slowed them down - they made only 57 in 23 overs on the fourth afternoon - until Pietersen set India 387 in what would have been 126 overs had his side achieved the required over-rate.
England had been diffident about ramming home the advantage; Sehwag was not. He climbed into the opening bowlers (Anderson's first two overs cost 15, Harmison's first four 33), mesmerised them into bowling short and wide, and spread the field - which was never brought in again to save singles, allowing India's batsmen to rotate the strike and keep the score ticking over. Only one six had come in the first three innings; Sehwag hit four, upper-cutting Harmison over third man, swinging a full toss from Panesar for six and driving him for another, then pull-driving Swann. Two balls later, Sehwag missed a sweep at an off-break turning out of Zaheer's footmarks, but his 83 from 68 balls had asserted India's mental dominance once and for all.
Requiring a further 256 on the final day, India were always ahead of the rate. It might not have suited England that Dravid went early when he was so out of form (he had also missed a straightforward slip catch). Gambhir saw off Flintoff 's opening blast on the final day before steering to gully, and after lunch Laxman pushed a leaping off-break to forward short leg, but that was the end of England's victory bid. They fell back on the defensive, trying to contain with in-out fields which leaked singles, and India had only to bat through the day to knock off the runs. At one point Panesar bowled to Yuvraj without a fielder saving one in front of square on the leg side. Harmison, England's strike bowler, did not start his second spell until the 63rd over.
Scoring a hundred in a successful fourth-innings run-chase was, according to Tendulkar, something he had wanted, the one achievement missing from his CV: in consequence, he rated his hundred as "up there" and "one of the best". It was a masterclass in its conception - of what shots to play, and how often - and in its execution, especially of the sweep in all its forms. Pietersen changed his bowlers with the greatest frequency but never found a pair to stem the flow. Yuvraj did not allow himself to be wound up second time round, and was only reined in when he restrained himself in order to allow Tendulkar to reach three figures. It was a Test which contained some superlative batting, in various styles - and Strauss deserved a share of the match award for shaping the game, before Sehwag redesigned it and Tendulkar unveiled his masterpiece.
The Test was staged amid stifling security, which may have contributed to keeping the crowd down to a few thousand - aside from security personnel - for the first three days. At England's request, armed commandos were placed every five yards inside the perimeter fence. But on the fourth day, a Sunday, and the last, the ground was at least half full and atmospheric. England's players donated half their match fees to the relief fund for victims of the Mumbai attack, and the Indian board donated three crores of rupees (about £450,000).
Man of the Match: V. Sehwag.
Close of play: First day, England 229-5 (Flintoff 18, Anderson 2); Second day, India 155-6 (Dhoni 24, Harbhajan Singh 13); Third day, England 172-3 (Strauss 73, Collingwood 60); Fourth day, India 131-1 (Gambhir 41, Dravid 2).