Rahul Dravid may not have been the most positive batsman in the world during his tenure at the crease yesterday, but declaring the Board President's XI innings closed on the overnight total of 361/3 was a move that promised to transform the tour opener from plain-and-simple batting practice into a more competitive fixture.
Zimbabwe's openers, however, reacted as if they were not quite sure what to make of this move. As he had mentioned in an interview, captain Stuart Carlisle promoted himself to the top of the order. But he proved shaky in that position, poking tentatively at many deliveries from left-arm seamer Ashish Nehra and confident only when the ball was short enough to be seen early and played comfortably.
Nehra posed many problems for the batsmen, maintaining an impeccable line just outside the off-stump and returning first-spell figures of 6-2-5-0. Tinu Yohannan too was tight, barring one over that the batsmen pounced on for 15 runs. But neither of them had any success, and spin was duly introduced into the attack; it had the desired effect almost immediately. Carlisle, who had looked better against the slow bowlers, misread a Sarandeep Singh delivery, inside-edging the ball for MSK Prasad to take the catch.
Giving the tourists a foretaste of what probably awaits them throughout their tour, Dravid was quick to bring on spin from both ends, Haryana leg-spinner Amit Mishra bowling in tandem with Sarandeep. Both spinners proceeded to bowl with misery, conceding only the rare boundary, flighting the ball and turning it enough to cause problems for Trevor Gripper and Gavin Rennie.
To their credit, however, the visiting batsmen set their jaws and hung in there, gradually learning to read the spin and play their shots. Gripper reached his fifty with a confident stroke, using his feet to get to the pitch of a Sarandeep Singh delivery and lofting it over mid-on for his seventh boundary. In a similar attempt, however, he did not get the elevation needed, playing it tanely to Yohannan at mid-on and departing for 52.
Rennie seemed in particularly good touch, and his occupation of the crucial number three position means that Zimbabwe will look to him greatly for pivotal knocks. He got to 50 off 107 balls with four fours, but his innings was much more notable for the manner in which he sensibly rotated the strike, easing the ball into the gaps and running hard.
His dismissal, then, came against the run of play. Brought on for a fresh spell, Mishra had Rennie (52, 136 b, 4x4) top-edging a sweep to Pravanjan Mullick at short fine leg. Four runs later, Misha struck again. Tatenda Taibu, trying to force the ball on the back foot through the covers, played the ball in the air, and Abhijit Kale took a fine catch diving to his right.
With Alistair Campbell inexplicably still in the pavilion, Heath Streak walked out to bat, only to depart three balls later. Launching into a predetermined slog-sweep, he hit Mishra straight into the hands of Gagan Khoda at square leg. Three wickets had fallen for four runs, and Zimbabwe went in to tea foundering on 180/5.
But Zimbabwe still had their Old Reliable at the crease, and Andy Flower, after tea, proceeded to live up to his reputation. His side's numerous collapses over the past year have seen Flower play many lone hands, but he does not seem to have become fed up of constantly holding fort at one end. Flower's innings today will no doubt give some Indian players flashback nightmares about his Bradmanesque tour of India just over a year ago. Then, as now, he was at absolute ease against the spinners, and his lean patch in Sri Lanka, a stark contrast to his recent prolific run, seems to be behind him.
His presence at the other end acted as palpable inspiration for Travis Friend, as was borne out by an incident that occurred towards the end of the day. Bogged down by the spin of Sarandeep Singh, Amit Mishra and Y Venugopal Rao, Friend repeatedly tried the lofted drive, each time mis-hitting it just wide of a catching fieldsman. After a few reruns of such strokes, Flower took Friend aside at the end of an over and took him through the motions of the lofted drive.
The next over, from Venugopal Rao, saw Friend finally connect with the ball. Using his feet beautifully, and in the manner just prescribed Dr Flower, he hit the off-spinner for consecutive boundaries.
With Friend also getting into his stride, the efficacy of the spin attack started to wane. A Flower sweep-pull off Mishra to the mid-wicket fence seemed to be the final straw, and Dravid asked for the new ball after 87 overs.
Both speedsters had bowled well but without luck in this match, and Yohannan finally broke the drought with the new ball. Shortly after Friend reached his fifty, he became the third batsman in the innings to be dismissed on 52. Ending a partnership of 110 runs for the sixth wicket, he flicked a delivery full and on the pads into Gautam Gambhir's hands at square leg.
Flower took Zimbabwe through to stumps without further mishap, ending the day on 89 off 138 balls, his team having made 292 for the loss of six wickets in the day. The Old Reliable was in evidently superb nick, his demeanour that of a man grimly determined to reprise his role in a one-man show. If it turns out that he can rustle up a supporting cast this time around, India will have to come up with a few star attractions of their own in this series.