More than a consolation win

As meaningless as dead rubbers are, this was a crucial match for India. They hadn't won a match against decent opposition since the tour of Pakistan in March, except for one nail-biter in Sri Lanka which was merely a prelude to a thrashing in the Asia Cup final. And as poor as their recent form had been, few had expected India to roll over and play dead as abjectly as they did at Trent Bridge and The Oval. With the Champions Trophy looming ever closer, it was imperative that the team finish their preparations with a morale-boosting victory.

This is a team that built its reputation on a torrent of runs, from batsmen considered to be among the very best in the business. But since the kits emerged out of mothballs in July, the batting had been a pallid imitation of that seen in Pakistan in March. Poor shot selection was compounded by pathetic running between the wickets, and a lack of initiative that didn't become a side once considered second only to Australia.

The gamble with VVS Laxman at the top of the order didn't work today, but it was a refreshing sign that the team management had realised that a failure to mix-and-match would leave them even further behind the competition. Despite his five one-day centuries this year, Laxman's recent performances have only provided ammunition for those who reckon he's a one-day misfit, though those voices have been stifled somewhat by the murmurs over Virender Sehwag's dismal displays.

Rahul Dravid was another who had stumbled into a trough after starting the Asia Cup promisingly. His half-century was among the most sedate and staid that he'll ever make, but it was also a remarkable exercise in perseverance. Though fans humiliated by the capitulation in the first two games won't have found it easy on the eye, England's meek surrender later in the day said much about how valuable Dravid's obduracy had been.

But on a day that cried out for an Indian hero, it was another man - who had made his Test debut with Dravid here eight years ago - that answered the call. Plenty of questions have been raised in recent days about Sourav Ganguly's captaincy skills and his worth to the side as a batsman. He chose the best type of riposte, overcoming a hesitant start and some shambolic running between the wickets to stroke his way to 90 before succumbing to an adrenaline rush.

In keeping with their recent decline though, India's other batsmen did nothing at all, though Mohammad Kaif should be absolved of any blame for being stranded mid-pitch after Ganguly's ludicrous call. Much of the credit has to go to Steve Harmison, whose spell of 4 for 22 was as menacing and miserly as anything that Glenn McGrath dished out in his prime. Darren Gough and Alex Wharf were tidy, while Ashley Giles probed away with the confidence of a man who has left the trundling years behind.

Though he is no longer anything more than a foil for the impressive Harmison, Gough deserves special mention. In these feel-good times for English cricket, it's easy to forget just how wretched they used to be, especially in the one-day arena. In his prime, Gough - who reached 200 ODI wickets when Vaughan, his former Yorkshire team-mate, caught Harbhajan Singh at point - was largely a lone candle of hope, and a record of 1.5 wickets a match suggests that he deserves to be remembered as one of the better practitioners of the limited-overs-bowling craft.

Without Andrew Flintoff though, there was nothing remotely intimidating about the English batting. As in the NatWest Series against New Zealand and West Indies, England were half the side without Flintoff's talismanic presence. When four wickets went down quickly, with no Flintoff to follow, India's fielders started strutting around like men who knew they had the inside lane to the finish.

Only a patchy innings from Vaughan - which had everything from dropped edges and leg-befores-not-given to fluent drives and powerful sweeps - and a determined effort from Giles threatened to abort the Indian renaissance, but Harbhajan Singh, who bowled quite beautifully once again, produced two deliveries to ensure that there would be no whitewash.

Ever since the season started, there had been talk of Harbhajan's mystery ball, but nothing could have been more magical for Ganguly than the full toss that sent back Giles and the leg-side delivery that had Vaughan brilliantly stumped by Dinesh Karthik. It was a debut moment to savour for Karthik, after he had reprieved Vaughan early off Anil Kumble's bowling, and been reduced to a strokeless wonder by Harmison's pace.

England won't lose too much sleep over this loss, deprived as they were of Flintoff's services. But like India in the late 1990s, they have to guard against depending too much on one individual. Sri Lanka, the form side behind Australia, will certainly offer the sternest of tests in the Champions Trophy.

As for India, they won today without Sachin Tendulkar, but they did it the hard way. They have a fortnight to take stock and, provided they can avoid an upset against Kenya, a tantalising winner-takes-all clash against a rejuvenated Pakistan awaits. For the moment, it's too early to talk of corners turned.

Dileep Premachandran is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.