It wasn't pretty but, as ever, Dravid's return to form was mighty effective © AFP

In cricket, the line between hero and zero is infinitesimally fine, and nowhere is that truth more accentuated than in India. Rahul Dravid, who has endured the slings and arrows of a fickle sport for more than a decade, knows this better than almost anyone. But after a sapping day in the field, England's cricketers also have a much greater understanding of what it takes to succeed in a country that has long been regarded by visiting teams as the ultimate challenge.

Test cricket is a cruel game. Had it not been for England's last-gasp meltdown at Chepauk, where they failed to defend an Indian record-target of 387, today's diligent and disciplined performance might well have laid the groundwork for their first series victory in India for 23 years. Instead, they were locked out of the day's honours by an indomitable alliance of the in-form and form-less - and hard as they might try, their hopes of regaining that lost ground are, to judge by their recent history in India, slim in the extreme.

One-hundred-and-nine Tests and more than 9000 runs separate the careers of Dravid and Gautam Gambhir, but today they batted as equals - the junior elevated by the sheer weight of runs he has accumulated in 2008 (964 from eight matches to date), and the senior brought low by the plague that has beset his game in the same period. Since his recall for the Sri Lanka tour in July, Gambhir hasn't made less than 19 in any of his 15 visits to the crease. Dravid, by contrast, had fallen for 14 or less in 11 out of 16.

And to judge by the awkward whispers in the media and selection corridors, Dravid's slump was becoming more than just an aberration on a mighty career. The Wall, to use the popular image, was crumbling, but today he was not too proud to stoop to his knees, and pile the pieces back into place, brick by brick. The net result was a fluster-free stand of 173 that demonstrated just how freakish that first Test result had been. India did all their chasing, to spectacular effect, in Chennai. Today all that was required was a confident stroll.

Confidence, however, is precisely what Dravid's game has lacked all year, and who knows what might have happened, both to his career and India's innings, had a loose top-edged pull off James Anderson not landed in no-man's land at midwicket when he had made just 1 run from 17 balls. Dravid did not permit himself a similar extravagance until he had crept along to 7 from 45 balls. Then Anderson dropped short again, and a well-set batsman whistled him ferociously through the leg-side for a nerve-soothing boundary.

Once upon a time, 11 from 46 balls would have been a more than acceptable starting point for an innings, and Lord knows, Dravid has been there or thereabouts often enough in his long and illustrious career. And yet, something strange has happened to his game this year, as has also been the case with the other great stonewaller of the modern era, Jacques Kallis. Perhaps it is the proliferation of Twenty20s - both men endured abject seasons in the IPL - but somehow graft isn't appreciated as it once was.

To be accused of being boring by opponents is one thing, but to be shown up by one's peers must be something else entirely. Perhaps it is significant that Dravid has not made a Test century since Chennai in March, a performance in which even a man with more than 10,000 runs to his name must have wondered at the futility of his existence. In almost the identical number of deliveries that Dravid needed to grind to 111, Virender Sehwag at the other end belted an Indian record 319, with more than three times as many boundaries and infinitely more accolades.

Speed is everything in the modern game, and even the greats must feel slip-streamed from time to time. Today, however, was much more to Dravid's liking. Maybe Sachin Tendulkar felt a similar sense of catharsis last week, when he resumed the Chennai run-chase safe in the knowledge that Sehwag's inimitable hurricane had already blown itself out, and he needed only to do what he does best to win the day for his side. Dravid's first instinct has always been survival, an echo of a former era when India were not habitual victors in Test matches and had to dig deep for their triumphs, as at Headingley in 2002 or Adelaide in 2003-04.

More recently, at The Oval in 2007, Dravid responded to a second-innings scoreline of 11 for 3 with a hugely maligned go-slow that forfeited India's prospects of a second victory in the series, but ensured they would not squander their ultimate series triumph. Much of that mindset was in evidence today. Having won the toss, India's only realistic prospect of defeat was to push too hard and risk being bowled out cheaply. So they did not. The upshot was not pretty, and the din of 35,000 fans at Chepauk felt like a distant dream as the murmurs of maybe a tenth of that number echoed around Mohali. But, as it always is when Dravid is undefeated at the close, it was undoubtedly effective.

England did not bowl badly. With Stuart Broad back in place of Steve Harmison (whose appetite for the struggle was tacitly questioned by Kevin Pietersen at the toss), they found seam movement off a full length, handy reverse swing late in the day, and stifled the tempo throughout thanks to Sehwag's hasty departure. Had it been they who held the 1-0 series lead, that alone might have been sufficient to turn pressure into wickets. Instead, where Sehwag had used brute force to grasp the match momentum at Chennai, Gambhir and Dravid used stealth and application. By the close, they had slammed the door on England's prospects of a share of the series, and were a couple of good sessions from turning the key as well.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo