At Nagpur, March 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 2006. Drawn. Toss: England. Test debuts: S. Sreesanth;
I. D. Blackwell, A. N. Cook, M. S. Panesar.
This was a match destined to be remembered for what went before and what nearly
was. An ultimately futile run-flurry from India in the final session roused their
supporters, but failed to hide that they had been second-best for vast tracts of a game
played out in hot and dusty conditions supposedly to their advantage. After a diffident
start, England had scrapped tenaciously to set India a pursuit of 368, a startling
achievement given that putting out a starting eleven had once appeared beyond them.
Marcus Trescothick had departed in tears, followed by Michael Vaughan and Simon
Jones - two knees out of joint, along with England's best-laid plans. When the hastily
promoted Flintoff joined Dravid for the toss at Nagpur, the geographic centre of India,
it was a case of throwing new boys into the fray, and desperately hoping they would
keep their feet. One of them, Alastair Cook, had left England's A-team on the Caribbean beaches
for a three-day journey across the continents. He was immediately pencilled in, alongside
two more debutants, left-arm spinners Mudhsuden Singh Panesar (Monty to everyone,
including a voluble crowd who became the first to be tickled by his unathletic fielding)
and Ian Blackwell. With hardly any time to reflect on his change of fortune - "almost
the best way", he said with a boyish smile - Cook unveiled a compact technique and
tremendous temperament. Those around him struggled, however. India's own newcomer,
Shanthakumaran Sreesanth, a seamer with bird's-nest hair and quirky mannerisms,
castled Pietersen with a beauty to grab the early plaudits, and, when Pathan produced
a stunning delivery to bowl Cook at 136 for four, 300 looked ambitious.
But where his more celebrated mates failed, Collingwood succeeded gloriously. After
playing himself in sedately, he masterminded a rearguard action that would have made
Steve Waugh proud. His resolute footwork and energetic chip-and-charge tactics unnerved
the Indians and, by the time Sreesanth finished off the tail, the last three wickets had
added a whopping 149. Collingwood remained unconquered on 134, a maiden Test
century and deserved reward for a spirited individual who had seen two superb inningsin-
crisis fall tantalisingly short of the landmark in Lahore three months earlier.
After Wasim Jaffer, back in the fold for the first time since touring England in 2002,
and Dravid had seen off the pace threat on the second afternoon, the game swung
England's way - literally - next morning. Hoggard may not be a poster boy like Flintoff
or a clotheshorse like Simon Jones, but his controlled swing bowling has been an
immense factor in English cricket's renaissance. On a slightly overcast morning, he was
peerless, moving the ball at will and showing his mastery of both traditional and reverse
swing. A gripping spell of three for five in 11 balls wrenched out the heart of India's
batting, though its soul for so long, Tendulkar, was the first Test victim of a deliriously
happy Panesar, who could scarcely believe what his arm-ball had accomplished.
With the scoreboard on 190 for seven, and a couple of dozen stragglers outside the
ground protesting at the exclusion of former captain Sourav Ganguly, India needed a
hero or two; it found them in a nearly man and a leg-spin legend. Mohammad Kaif
had been the middle order's man-in-waiting for half a decade. Now, with Ganguly
gone and Yuvraj Singh nursing a sore hamstring, he got his chance, and a ninth Test
cap six years after his first. After a jittery start littered with horridly timed jabs and
numerous misses, Kaif found something like fluency once he reached 20. As for
Kumble, he rediscovered his defiant spirit and stolid strokeplay to reach his first
international fifty for nearly nine years.
Their partnership was seldom pretty and often dour, but it ate up precious time. By
the time Panesar stopped Kaif, nine short of a maiden hundred, with a gorgeous flighted
delivery from round the wicket, the deficit was below three figures. Even so, England
were fortified by a 70-run buffer, and needed to press on. Cook - ever more assured
against the turning ball - opted for the patient crawl at one end, while Pietersen chose
the strongarm route so natural to him. Aided by the generosity of third umpire Shivram,
who incensed Kumble by refusing to grant a caught-and-bowled appeal off the toe end
of the bat, and some slipshod Indian fielding, Pietersen galloped to 87 before Kumble
had the final word.
The biggest statement, though, was made by Cook. He eased his way to a classy
yet unhurried century, becoming the youngest Englishman to reach a Test hundred in
67 years, and earning a marriage proposal - offered on
a placard - from a pretty girl in the stands. The fact that
the hundred took him 243 balls delayed Flintoff 's
declaration, but chasing the target never looked a realistic
option once Hoggard cleaned up Sehwag, whose wretched
run since he romped to 254 in Lahore seven weeks earlier
was becoming a concern.
Jaffer, combining solid defence with wristy elegance
when driving and working the ball off his pads, and Dravid set about making the game
safe. They did so with some ease, which said much about the placid nature of the
pitch, and the inexperience of England's spin duo. Shortly after tea, with 200 needed
from 25 overs, the Indian batsmen suddenly opted to tilt at windmills. Dravid departed
after injecting the innings with some urgency, and Jaffer followed to a standing ovation
- for another maiden century - but there was still time for a bewitching cameo from
Tendulkar, whose audacious strokeplay suggested he was not best pleased at Pathan
and Dhoni being sent in ahead of him.
But like the intermittent spring showers in these parts, it did not last. And ultimately,
the match said little about the relative strengths of the teams. A patchwork-quilt English
side, which Flintoff led with spirit and no little imagination, had been more than a
match for their hosts, who seemed so below par that it was hard to believe Steve
Waugh had spoken of them as potential world-beaters only two years before.
Man of the Match: M. J. Hoggard.
Dileep Premachandran is associate editor of Cricinfo