Monday, March 06, 2006

England 393 & 297-3 dec India 323 & 260-6 (Match drawn)

As followers of the England cricket team we ought to know better by now - England rarely, if ever, play a Test match that peters out into a boring draw.

Yet the first Test against India looked to be heading that way yesterday as Wasim Jaffer and Rahul Dravid repelled everything England's bowlers threw at them. India, chasing an improbable target of 368, were on 160 for 1 with only 26 overs remaining.

But then it all changed. Dravid, the Indian captain, came down the wicket to Matthew Hoggard and clipped him to fine leg for two, and in the next over he reverse swept Monty Panesar for four. For a man whose ability to blunt bowling attacks has earned him the nickname of "The Wall", these were two atypical strokes.

Dravid's improvising was the first sign that India were going to have a little go at pulling off one of the most remarkable run chases in the history of Test cricket. And my, they gave England a fright. Irfan Pathan clobbered 35 off 25 balls and Sachin Tendulkar looked in worryingly good form during his 19-ball innings of 28.

India's charge ultimately failed, and the Test was declared a draw when Tendulkar and V V S Laxman accepted the umpires' offer to leave the field for bad light with 11.4 overs of the game remaining - but 100 runs had been scored and five wickets lost in 80 minutes of rich entertainment.

After controlling the match for more than four days, this was not the finale Andrew Flintoff and his tired bowlers needed. The second Test in Mohali is only four days away and the England captain would have wanted his team to retain the confidence gained from outplaying India here.

India's late flurry was brave and calculated. Bad light was always going to act as an insurance policy, in that it would allow India to leave the field when they wanted, but the cloud cover hanging over the stadium could have disappeared and left the hosts facing a nervy final 30 minutes.

The approach of the Indians also sent a message to England. In 200 overs of cricket, India's stellar batting line-up had scored at less than 2.5 runs an over, and the onslaught notified England that they were not going to get things all there own way during the remaining two Test matches.

Despite this, England should travel to Chandigarh today feeling proud of what they have achieved over the past five days and, when Flintoff called his players in to a huddle at the end of the match, he told them this.

Nobody had given England much hope in the build-up to the Test, and understandably so. Michael Vaughan, Marcus Trescothick and Simon Jones had returned home for their differing reasons and England were fielding a side containing a new captain, three debutants and no player over the age of 30.

Ironically, three of England's star performers replaced those who went home. Alastair Cook showed astonishing maturity on his Test debut. He rarely looked troubled during the nine hours he spent at the crease and he became the fourth youngest player to score a Test hundred for England when he cut Harbhajan Singh for four on Saturday evening.

Paul Collingwood batted with similar composure during his first Test century, and without his unbeaten 134 the outcome of the match would have been different. The batting of this pair was crucial but it is the bowling of Monty Panesar that won over the Indian crowds.

The crowds over here worship spinners in the same way West Indian crowds love their fast bowlers, and Panesar's wickets were cheered almost as loudly as those taken by the home side. Panesar may have been born in Luton but Indian fans are now claiming him as their own.

England's star performer was Hoggard, who had match figures of 7 for 86 in 47 overs. He deservedly won the man of the match award and can never have bowled better for England.

Views vary on whether England should have batted more positively at the end of day four in order to have five or six overs at the Indian openers before the close. The hard-nosed, win-at-all-cost brigade believe Flintoff should have declared before Cook reached his century. The romantics, of which Flintoff is one, thought differently.

The dismissal of Virender Sehwag in the fifth over of the day gave England the perfect start. Sehwag played a horrible shot which was capitalised on by Hoggard, who knocked back his off-stump. England's bowlers made life uncomfortable for the Indian batsmen and Dravid should have been caught by Geraint Jones off the bowling of Ian Blackwell when he was on 19. Jones had an excellent tour of Pakistan but this was his second important miss - he dropped Anil Kumble on nine in India's first innings - of the match.

Jaffer is an elegant player who times the ball beautifully off his legs. He played his last Test for India four years ago and, at the age of 28, knows that this is likely to be his last chance. Jaffer was on 96 when Dravid was bowled by Panesar and he completed a maiden Test hundred before chipping Flintoff to extra cover.

By sending Pathan and Mahendra Singh Dhoni in at four and five, India had made their intentions clear. Flintoff reacted by placing six fielders on the boundary. The tactic failed to stop Pathan, who hit the opposing captain straight back over his head for six. Flintoff gained revenge when Andrew Strauss caught the left-hander in the deep and the pair appeared to have a little exchange as they passed each other.

Dhoni was caught at long off four overs later and his departure finally allowed England to relax. The rest will be brief. On Thursday morning, England have to go through it all again in Mohali, and they will need to play just as well.

Ball of the day

* MONTY PANESAR England's debutant spinner can now boast two of cricket's biggest names as his scalps. Breaching Rahul Dravid's defence is a difficult task yet Panesar managed to do this with a superbly-directed delivery that pitched on middle and uprooted his off-stump.

Shot of the day

* IRFAN PATHAN Very few players hit Andrew Flintoff back over his head for six but Pathan did just that as India suddenly chased an improbable victory. England will see a lot more of this when the one-dayers start in three weeks.

Moment of the day

* GERAINT JONES If Jones had caught Rahul Dravid on 19, would England have gone on to win the Test? It is unlikely but errors like this fuel the debate over whether England should play their best wicketkeeper regardless of his ability to add runs.

By Angus Fraser at the Vidarbha Stadium
Published: 06 March 2006


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