At Mohali, March 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 2006. India won by nine wickets. Toss: England. Test debuts: P. Chawla, M. M. Patel.
The defeat predicted before Nagpur was delayed only for a week. Pushing a boulder uphill all tour, England's weakened side finally slipped on the fourth morning, and went downhill fast. Eight days' hard work was undone in three sessions as they slithered towards defeat, their third in five Tests since the Ashes. Six months before, Flintoff had presented the new image of English cricket - arms and legs thrown back in starshaped celebration, head nodding with self-assurance. Back then, he was puffed out with pride. By the end here, red-faced and impotent at slip, he was just puffed out. After the previous week's charge of the lightweight brigade, England began quietly confident of holding their own. That optimism grew when all but 65 overs of the first two days disappeared in rain and murk, which left a bouncy pitch favouring their seamers. When Harmison removed Dhoni with a throat-bound bouncer on the fourth morning, India were unravelling at 153 for five. But then England's decline began.
The damage was done by India's bowlers. First, they whacked 185 runs for the last five wickets, leaving England ripe for collapse. Then Kumble gave the necessary shove. With 501 Test wickets and a Sunday crowd of fearsome noise and partiality behind him, he pulled at frayed English nerves: five top-order batsmen fell for 112 in 51 nightmarish and almost strokeless overs. Humbled in the morning, England were Kumbled in the evening.
For once, India had a quick bowler to finish the job. The debutant Munaf Patel, wrongly rumoured to be as wild as the remote corner of Gujarat where he grew up, demolished the lower order. His verve and reverse swing brought match figures of seven for 97 - the best by an Indian quick on debut. But the real difference was Kumble, who approached perfection. On a bouncy pitch suiting his over-spinners, he fizzed down 58 overs in all for nine wickets. On such a surface, few sides in history have had a spinner to match him; England had only Panesar, a naïf in his second Test. The pressure on the two batting line-ups differed vastly.
Victory was reward for bold team selection by India. They dropped an in-form batsman, Mohammad Kaif, for a fifth bowler, the 17-year-old old leggie Piyush Chawla. Patel replaced the virus-stricken Sreesanth, and Yuvraj Singh returned from injury to displace the fading Laxman. Meanwhile England dropped a spinner, Blackwell, for the seamer Plunkett. They still chose to bat, but the early mizzle and regular interruptions did not make things easy, and they eked out 300. At one point, Pietersen looked like scoring that on his own. But just as he threatened to snatch the game away, he spliced a return drive to Patel. An innings of 64, full of disdainful thwacks through midwicket, was his fourth in six to founder between 34 and 87. The first day ended early, with England 163 for four and wearing gloomy faces.
The next brought only 14 overs and another wicket. Flintoff and Jones provided respectability with a century stand, their fifth in two years. But the innings belonged to Kumble. Two immortal balls - a googly that trimmed Bell's off bail and a ripper that bruised Collingwood's edge - had already taken him to 498 Test wickets. On the third day, in sweeping away the last three in four balls, he reached 500 in his 105th Test. Only Muralitharan had got there in fewer, and not even he could match Kumble's quiet diligence. Dravid caught it best: "I read once that as a boy he only went out to play cricket after finishing his homework. As a cricketer he is the same..."
The batsmen's failure only awoke England's quick bowlers. Muted in Nagpur, they bossed the third afternoon. On a pitch still good for strokeplay, India reached 149 for four by the close: Sehwag and Tendulkar fell cheaply attempting desperate selfpreservation, Yuvraj Singh to a once-in-a-career catch by Bell, one-handed at extra cover. Facing Harmison or Flintoff was like standing next to a kicking horse. Even so, with just 196 overs to bowl, the pitch still true and India's giant - Dravid - yet to fall, most backed the draw.
That changed on the pivotal fourth day. As the sun broke out, so did India, though Dravid, studious as ever for his ninth Test score in the nineties, added only 35 of the 189 runs scored. With each missed opportunity (Pathan was given not out on nine after tickling down the leg side, Harbhajan Singh dropped at third man on 30), England's anxiety grew.
They eventually set out for safety 38 behind, opposed by a frenzied capacity crowd and by Kumble. Dropping his arm to achieve more side-spin than usual, he bowled fast leg-breaks of just enough turn - almost exactly a bat's width. He took three of the five wickets to fall before the close. Two were a touch lucky: Strauss under-edged on to his boot; Pietersen was caught off the forearm. But England did not help themselves. Every run scored was another for India to cancel out, and therefore two steps toward safety, but the innings crawled. One writer compared it to an anxiety dream: the sort where you're late for an exam and desperately trying to run, only to find your legs tied together.
On the last day, England looked once again to Flintoff and Jones, but the breakdown recovery service had been called out too often. With the fifth ball of the morning Patel bowled Jones via an inside edge, in a searing spell of Waqar-esque reverse swing (9-2-16-3). Appropriately Flintoff, England's top scorer and wicket-taker in the match, was last to fall.
There would be no more fluctuations. The game dribbled out, with England resting their quick bowlers and feeding Collingwood's dobbers to Sehwag, who smashed 76 in 89 balls to make sure of victory by tea. It was a flat end to a topsy-turvy match that had flummoxed almost everyone - even the professional gambler who had infiltrated the press box and was removed shortly before the end, perhaps just before he jumped out of the window.
Man of the Match: A. Kumble.
Paul Coupar is assistant editor of The Wisden Cricketer