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Dileep Premachandran

Turning to the talisman

Abetted by the bounce that makes him such a fearsome proposition in the final stages of a Test, Kumble was back in his element. Not surprisingly, with their talisman to the fore, so were India

Anil Kumble: probed, hustled and tormented the batsmen with turn and bounce © Getty Images
After eight days of largely errant cannon fire across the bows, this series exploded to life on a mild but sunny Mohali day when the old Indian formula of aggressive batsmanship and relentless spin attack propelled the team into the ascendancy in a match that was supposed to peter out into a nondescript draw. And as has usually been the case in the 35 Indian victories in which he has played a part, it was impossible to keep Anil Kumble out of the strobe lights.
Clearly energised by that 500th Test wicket, Kumble first left his imprint on proceedings during an entertaining 53-run stand with Harbhajan Singh. While Harbhajan flashed the bat around with unfettered enthusiasm, Kumble held one end up, defying the second new ball and playing a couple of punishing strokes for good measure. By that stage, with India having recovered from the early-morning doldrums of 153 for 5, every run was a bonus, an extra inch of rope with which to tighten the noose later in the afternoon.
The hard yards, and there were more than a few after Sehwag, Tendulkar and Dhoni contributed just 31 between them, had been run earlier, by a man who knows better than most the loneliness of the long-distance runner. Ricky Ponting may be the world's most destructive batsmen, as he showed again today at the Wanderers, but as a master of the defensive arts, Rahul Dravid is peerless. Once again, when his team needed it most, he was there to pick up the pieces and glue them back together.
But for brief splashes of colour when he'd play two or three shots in quick succession, this was a dour, grey innings, and exactly what was required after the Champagne Charlies had hurriedly exited the party. The 77-run partnership with Wasim Jaffer in the final session yesterday had given the innings a platform, but after a terrific fightback from England, it was the 76-run association with Irfan Pathan that altered the balance of the Test. Darrell Hair reprieved Pathan when he was still to reach double-figures - the faintest of edges, which only a snick-o-meter could detect - and as a hitherto dormant run-rate suddenly came alive, England slowly lost the plot.
Dravid and Pathan stretched the field and started to find the gaps regularly while dealing, convincingly and otherwise, with the short-pitched deliveries that had snared three of the first five. But for a magnificent delivery from Andrew Flintoff, which kept low in addition to darting back, Dravid may well have got the century he so richly deserved. As for Pathan, his uninhibited 52 was further evidence of a precocious batting talent susceptible only to the blistering pace and steepling bounce that Steve Harmison and Flintoff extracted in spurts.
After the hit-and-giggles from the lower order - 109 runs were added after Dravid's departure, in just 24.1 overs - India came out with a genuine sense of purpose, and both Munaf Patel and Pathan could have had more than the one wicket during the course of disciplined and fairly incisive spells.
The battering ram, however, was always going to be Kumble. With Harbhajan getting the ball to bounce and spin viciously at times, England's scoring rate never put any pressure on the fielding side. It was the sort of situation that Kumble has exploited ruthlessly down the years. A becalmed batting side scrapping its way out of trouble finds itself confronted by half a dozen unplayable deliveries, and the confidence disappears like the lacquer from a new ball.
Andrew Strauss, worked over by Harbhajan, was roughed up further, and his unfortunate dismissal was an accident waiting to happen. Paul Collingwood fared little better, and with the exception of Ian Bell, who rattled the cage now and then with sweetly struck fours, Kumble had every batsman prodding forward uncertainly.
The slow and low surface at Nagpur was supposed to have favoured India, but given that both their frontline spinners are far removed from the classical mould, this livelier pitch has been much more to their liking. Abetted by the bounce that makes him such a fearsome proposition in the final stages of a Test, Kumble was back in his element. Not surprisingly, with their talisman to the fore, so were India.

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo