England v India, Second Cornhill Test, Lord's

Golden debuts

R. Mohan

Toss: India. Test debuts: R. Dravid, S. C. Ganguly.

Sourav Ganguly celebrates his century at Lord's in 1996, watched by his fellow debutant Rahul Dravid © Getty Images

The chances of India taking the honours in this Test seemed minimal. They had just been beaten in a little over two days by Derbyshire, and a downbeat Azharuddin viewed the Lord's pitch with a great deal of suspicion. But they were able to place England under severe pressure in the closing stages after being put in a strong position by two debutants introduced because of injuries at Edgbaston. Sourav Ganguly made a century and Rahul Dravid fell short of his hundred by just one scoring stroke. Had Dravid succeeded, it would have been the first instance of two debutant centurions in the same team in Test history. Only two Test newcomers (Harry Graham of Australia in 1893 and John Hampshire of England in 1969) had previously attained this distinction at the game's HQ.

But the match will probably be best remembered as the final Test appearance of celebrated umpire Dickie Bird. He had made an emotional entrance through a guard of honour formed by both teams on the opening morning, ruled the England captain out lbw in the very first over, and made his last decision, in his 66th Test, when he gave Russell - the Man of the Match - out leg-before in the final session. He left the Test arena with the same authority and reliable impartiality that distinguished him as one of the greatest umpires in history, while his idiosyncrasies had also made him the most recognisable official of them all.

The fuss about Bird obscured Azharuddin's remarkable decision to insert England for the second time in a Lord's Test - when he did it six years before, Gooch scored 333 out of 653. But the pitch and the conditions were just right for exploitation by seam bowlers, and Azharuddin may have lacked confidence in his own batting line-up. Whatever the reasons, the decision proved the right one, as India's front-line seamers, Srinath and Prasad, had England on the run. At 107 for five, and with clear weather promised throughout, Russell was the chief obstacle to India's hopes of levelling a short series. He frustrated them with his second Test hundred, an innings of pluck and careful shot-selection lasting over six hours and marked by his eccentric mannerisms and posture at the crease, which contradicted the theory that cricket is a side-on game. The weakness of third seamer Mhambrey, the poor form of Kumble, and a traditional weakness in bowling at left-handers held India back.

The scoring was at a funereal pace, and India were not so much out of the game when England's innings finally ended at 344 on the second afternoon as the bookmakers seemed to think. But survival was their primary objective at that stage. Ganguly did most to ensure it, playing with even greater composure than Tendulkar, the master batsman. With the pitch drying out and the heavy atmosphere of the first two days lifting, batsmen had an easier time of it, despite Lewis producing the ball of the match to bowl Tendulkar.

Ganguly, born and brought up in Calcutta, where the ball can move around on very similar slow pitches, was quite at ease. He batted for more than seven hours and hit 20 fours in his 131. The one great strategic error India had made in the First Test was not to play him as a fourth seamer and middle-order batsman. Dravid's home ground is in Bangalore, a city better known for supplying India with bowlers than batsmen, but he showed the soundness of temperament and technique essential for Test success. Progress was held up a little as he neared a personal landmark, but he missed his century by five. Inexplicably, last man Prasad then came out to bat, although India already led by 75 and would have been better employed trying to dismiss England again. Prasad could add little with the bat, and risked a rap on the fingers of the bowling hand.

That failure to take the initiative on Sunday may have been the crucial difference between a moral victory for India and the real thing. England were certainly far from being out of the woods at 168 for six, just 83 ahead. They had only got there thanks to 66 from Stewart, recalled because Knight was injured. Despite public misgivings about playing him ahead of a youngster, he was to ensure that he could not be dropped again in a hurry. Then Russell again came to the rescue with another sterling display of batting under pressure. By the time Bird gave him out, he had batted for nine and a half hours in the match and set up an attritional contest that brought out the nuances of Test cricket on the closing afternoon. It was enough for England to save the game, though referee Cammie Smith fined each home player 45% of his match fee for their slow over-rate. On the Saturday afternoon, play was stopped by the cheering when England's soccer team won a penalty shootout to end their European Championship quarter-final against Spain at Wembley; this tournament completely overshadowed the Test for the domestic audience.

Man of the Match: R. C. Russell. Attendance: 101,299; receipts £2,393,210.

© John Wisden & Co