Deep into this series, if these two teams are level and if the injury list gets too long, we could have just Stuart Broad go against Rahul Dravid, and it would be a contest just as engrossing. On the second day of the Test, Dravid showed impeccable discipline, courage and skill in scoring his third century in the last five Tests before Broad brought England sensationally back, with a hat-trick and a spell that read 5.1-2-5-5 to keep India's lead to just 67. Dravid's support cast was stronger on the day, though: VVS Laxman charmed 54, Yuvraj Singh timed 62, and Ishant Sharma removed Alastair Cook before stumps to leave India ahead. For how long, though, is difficult to say in this Test with massive swings of fortune.
While there was much for both sides to be pleased about, there were major concerns too. England had trouble with injuries: Graeme Swann, who took a blow on the left hand while batting, remained ineffective after he came on to bowl in the 56th over, and Jonathan Trott might not be available to bat after he hurt his shoulder while fielding. India, on the other hand, lost wickets in two clusters: the first three for 46, the last six for 21.
All that with sun out, which made the conditions a touch easier, but it was hardly what batsmen would queue up to get a chance at. Two batsmen, though, the grand old men of Indian cricket, love exactly such challenges. And if injuries have put them in unusual batting positions, it becomes twice the fun. Dravid and Laxman came together when Abhinav Mukund fell first ball of the innings yesterday, survived the torturous last hour, and then played some blissful cricket in the morning, adding 69 in the first hour and a half, 56 of those in boundaries.
Their partnership was much more crucial and beautiful than the 93 runs might suggest. India's batting order was in disarray, they were coming off a disaster at Lord's, and the conditions were demanding. The two responded with positive yet tight cricket. Laxman played some gorgeous drives and mere pushes for fours through the off side, and Dravid exploited the vacant third man region. Laxman kept on pulling; it mattered little that the same shot resulted in his crucial dismissal in the second innings at Lord's. Dravid kept on leaving outswingers even marginally outside off, making sure he didn't repeat his crucial Lord's dismissal.
Both James Anderson and Broad swung the ball either way. However, the India batsmen, unlike yesterday, were not going to let them bowl where they wanted. The two hit four consecutive boundaries in the second and third over of the day; those 16 runs in four balls followed 24 off the first 100 legal deliveries of the innings.
The next hour was a masterclass, from Laxman in timing and placement, and from Dravid in holding one end up. Singles weren't bothered about. The first time they changed ends was in the 12th over of the day, when Laxman flicked one straight to fine leg. Only Anderson came close to getting a wicket, but the Hot Spot didn't register an edge off an outswinger.
The scoring-rate and the mesmerising stroke-play might have created an impression that the bowlers were not in the game had the England quicks not kept asking questions with the occasional inswinger or the extra bounce. The bat kept coming down in time for the inswingers, and although one of the short ones hit Dravid on the wrist, the two negotiated the bounce well. They had built a solid base for India before Tim Bresnan bowled the perfect outswinger to send Laxman back for 54.
Dravid, having popped a painkiller after the blow to the wrist, kept up the vigil. England showed they would keep fighting as they took out Sachin Tendulkar and Suresh Raina to turn 93 for 1 into 139 for 4. Dravid, despite all the funny bounce, movement and momentary physical discomfort, stood resolute at 51 then. It was a clever effort. Out of those 51, 40 came in boundaries, fully utilising the attacking fields.
In a crucial spell for the match and for Yuvraj's career, Kevin Pietersen dropped Yuvraj on four. Unlike at Lord's India made England pay for that drop with a 128-run partnership, the biggest of the match. Apart from that drop, Yuvraj was authoritative and opportunistic against every loose delivery, especially against spin - 41 of his 62 came against Swann and Pietersen. For Dravid, the fields finally fell back, and he started working the singles. As the new ball approached, Dravid reached his third century past the age of 38, and India attained the lead.
Already in arrears, with six wickets to take, England needed some magic. A first-ever hat-trick against India would surely qualify as magic? Who else to turn to, then, if not Broad? He began with Yuvraj's wicket in the sixth over with the new ball. The ball both seamed away and kicked at him. In his next over, he drew one loose shot from MS Dhoni. Harbhajan Singh hit the leather off the next ball, but was given lbw, which reiterated what a stupid deal his board had brokered in the ICC meeting. Of course Harbhajan wasn't allowed a review.
On the hat-trick, Broad bowled the perfect delivery for Praveen Kumar, who doesn't like getting behind the line of the ball. Through the bat-pad gap it rattled the off and middle stumps, kicking off Broad's much-deserved gun-slinging celebrations straight from a Western. Dravid, helpless at the other end, now looked for quick runs and upper-cut straight to third man.
Fifteen entertaining runs later, Ian Bell ended the Indian innings with a special short-leg catch. India took a quick wicket to pull some of the momentum back. Over all, India, who pride themselves on making comebacks, were up against a side matching them on that count. Promising days lay ahead.