Rahul Bhattacharya is author of Pundits from Pakistan: On Tour with India, 2003-04
At Mumbai, March 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 2006. England won by 212 runs. Toss: India. Test debut: O. A. Shah.
Andrew Flintoff asked for a "monumental effort" from his team before this match, and they delivered a monumental victory - England's first Test win in India in 21 years, and their biggest by runs on Indian soil. It squared the series 1-1, a fine achievement for any party touring here, but a marvellous one for a side missing half their first-choice players. This was the complete performance from England: debutants, comeback kids and ancient journeymen were galvanised in the liquid heat of Mumbai by Flintoff, a cricketer who could now simply pass by the title "The Inspiration". While an estimated 3,000 visiting English fans celebrated with uncontained joy at the Wankhede Stadium and in the bars of South Mumbai, home supporters were mutinous. No sooner had the presentation ceremony commenced than the arena resounded with chants of "Bring back Sourav", and Ganguly's successor as captain, Dravid, had to admit his decision to bowl first was a mistake. Earlier, a small section of the crowd had booed Tendulkar, Mumbai's most famous son, after a dismal first innings, and the crass abuse thrown at some England players had prompted Farokh Engineer, the former Indian wicketkeeper turned Lancastrian, to make a public apology.
The spectators' behaviour indicated how impossible India's defeat had seemed. England were meant to roll over, as they had at Mohali; their personnel woes had grown even worse, as Steve Harmison was forced out by a shin injury and the impressive Alastair Cook with a stomach bug. Owais Shah made his Test debut, while England recalled Anderson and added a second spinner - Udal, on his 37th birthday, in place of Plunkett. Meanwhile India welcomed back Sreesanth after illness. Before the game, they heaped honours on their heroes. Dravid was playing his 100th Test match (including one for the ICC World XI); Tendulkar beat Kapil Dev's Indian record of 131 Tests; and Kumble had reached 500 Test wickets a week earlier. Felicitations arrived thick and fast, and on the opening morning these three accrued a tableful of silverware at a ceremony to which the England team, so their management claimed, were not even invited until it was too late.
England had all day to laugh. The previous Test had confirmed that they were vulnerable on a wearing pitch. Yet Dravid, who won the toss for the first time in the series, strangely chose to forego the opportunity of bowling fourth, at a venue where no side had won a Test chasing more than 163. It is unclear whether the motive was defensive, born of the fear of exposing a tentative line-up to Hoggard and Flintoff on a bouncy pitch, or attacking, prompted by India's own selection of three fast bowlers. It is irrelevant, anyway: fielding five specialist bowlers was itself a tenuous decision; at Mohali, India's fifth bowler was underused and the batting looked thin. While India were sitting on a 1-0 lead, the strategy was simply foolhardy.
A grateful England, given their third opportunity to bat first, finally made it to 400. The big score Flintoff had demanded from his top five was delivered by Strauss, an understated 128 which broke his streak of eight Test innings on the subcontinent without a fifty. His main partner was his Middlesex colleague Shah, whose crunching strokeplay, particularly against spin, matched his hyperactivity. India's catching grew indefensibly ragged as they put down at least six chances. England themselves spilled half a dozen, and it is in this context that six catches, three of them outstanding, by the muchmaligned wicketkeeper Jones must be appreciated.
England were already sniffing their opportunity in the first 12 overs of India's reply, when Hoggard highlighted his versatility by dismissing both openers with bouncers - and changing ends between the two wickets. The story of the innings, though, belonged to Anderson, who made a memorable return to the side with four for 40 from 19 overs. His wickets included Dravid and Tendulkar, whose one from 21 balls extended a patchy run that was becoming a matter of serious debate. The top score was 64 from Dhoni, which was ended by a run-out. It was a controversial dismissal made more controversial when the giant TV screen gave him out while the third umpire, Hariharan, was still asking for another angle; Hariharan apparently insisted he would have made the same decision anyway.
England built on a lead of 121 with a caution that bordered on the bewildering. Seeking to ensure that they did not fail because they tried for too much or left India excessive time in the last innings, they accumulated 160 runs from 77.4 overs on the fourth day. Though the Indian fielding once more fell below standard - Flintoff was let off three times on his way to his second fifty of the match - the home spinners found enough bite from the surface to bowl out England for 191, setting up a chase of 313 from 98 overs.
The final day will linger in the memory as one of the most frenetic and dramatic bouts of Test cricket between these nations. From 75 for three at lunch, India crumbled to 100 all out in another 15 overs. Flintoff, hurling thunderbolts, finished with the remarkable analysis of three for 14 from 11 overs; Udal, whose off-spin had brought him three wickets at 92.33 in his three previous Tests, went one better than his captain with four for 14. Dravid later described the collapse as "a collective lapse of reasoning". That lapse was illustrated vividly when Dhoni made a madman's swipe off Udal to Panesar at mid-off - just three balls after Panesar had somehow failed to get his hands around an identical chance.
Flintoff said afterwards that the team had roused themselves during the lunch interval by singing along and thumping their feet to Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire", and not even the drenching humidity could douse the flames around India thereafter.
Man of the Match: A. Flintoff.
Man of the Series: A. Flintoff.