A draw, but not a dull one

The first Test at the VCA Stadium was like one of those avalanches that start as the merest pebble rolling down a snow-laden slope. Things built up nicely; and the balance in power was such that neither side could run away with the game, writes S. RAM MAHESH.

S. RAM MAHESH.

WASIM JAFFER'S polished hundred in the second essay was quite valuable for India.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

A few days ago, Alastair Cook was just another English left-hander sunning himself in Antigua; Wasim Jaffer was a has-been domestic glutton, back from Pakistan without playing a Test; Matthew Hoggard was more honest bear-the-brunt trier than shock striker; Paul Collingwood and Mohammad Kaif looked better in blues than whites; and Mudhsuden `Monty' Panesar and S. Sreesanth, the Northampton Sardar and the Kerala break-dancer respectively, were attractions more for novelty than skill.

A few days ago, England's cricketers were doing passable impressions of the walking wounded and the harried tourist — few flights that plied between the two countries in the lead-up to the first Test were deprived of serving an English cricketer as the squad sheet went under the pen. Michael Vaughan — leader of men, innovative thinker, and class act with bat — departed, and suddenly Andrew Flintoff — regular lad, and class act all round — was addressing his first press conference as captain, tackling weighty issues such as the consumption of chicken.

A few days ago, the mention of England winning (gulp, stare, titter) would have brought with it the well meaning advice to have one's noggin checked. And a few days ago, Ganguly and Chappell couldn't stand each other's sight, and their sordid spat had hacks and camera crews salivating. Well, at least some things don't change.

The first Test at the VCA Stadium was like one of those avalanches that start as the merest pebble rolling down a snow-laden slope. Things built up nicely; each day the means to an end rather than an end in itself, and the balance in power was such that neither side could run away with the game. Under-strength and under-dog, England had occasions, when it could — if it wanted it bad enough — have seized the moment.

India did the early running, reducing the visitors to 246 for seven on the first day. Cook, fresh off a flight, struck an assured 60 looking compact and efficient. For someone unaccustomed to quality spin, the Essex 21-year-old handled Harbhjan and Kumble with panache. More was to follow, history was to be made. Reverse swing, an important character set to make a few encores, introduced itself through Pathan. Freddie batted with authority until a poor decision late set his side back.

But, first there is the little matter of Paul Collingwood's brilliance to be dealt with. The man from Durham completed his maiden hundred on the second day, the first of three in the match. As Indian shoulders drooped, and heads dropped, the right-hander in the company of reputed bunnies Steve Harmison and Panesar turned the game on its head. Harmison has been known to hit the long ball; Panesar rumoured to have difficult in finding the right end of the bat. They ensured Collingwood took England near 400, a first-innings total they would have taken on bent knee had it offered itself before the match. Harmison was particularly belligerent. Sreesanth, who bounded in, in two different-sized sneakers hit the mid 80 mphs and finished with four on debut.

ALASTAIR COOK'S unbeaten hundred was the highlight of England's second innings.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Then India replied as Jaffer and Dravid took the team to perceived safety building perhaps a platform from which to launch an offensive. Jaffer was magnificent — disciplined and beautiful. The cover drive was banished as the Mumbaikar convinced England's bowlers to shift their line from outside off to off and middle. If the batsmen leased out days one and two, Hoggard bagged ownerships rights for the middle day. In a sensational spell of 6-3-6-3 (Hingis and Sharapova anyone?), the tousle-haired Yorkshireman broke India's back through reverse swing, not an art he's credited with, much to his indignation. When Sachin Tendulkar left, Panesar's first in Tests, India was under the cosh. Dhoni and Pathan didn't register, and when Kumble joined Kaif, India — 190 for seven — was staring disaster in the eye. Neither man blinked.

The pair resisted stoutly — coarse, compelling batting — and India looked to have turned the corner when both departed. A Panesar special drifted lazily into Kaif, before challenging the laws of physics on pitching. The fourth morning saw India's innings wind up, 70 adrift and England had a sniff.

This should have been when England should have floored the pedal. But, the wicket was getting slower and lower, and Cook was nearing a hundred on debut, so England dithered in declaring. Kevin Pietersen had a moment of luck as third umpire I. Sivaram made a howler in spotting a bump ball when there was none. KP promptly took charge as India's fielding fell away. Cook was let off twice, Pietersen himself got lucky again.

Cook, an accomplished saxophonist, got to his hundred, and the moment warmed the cockles of all who saw it. Perhaps, even Trescothick who rushed off in anguish for reasons undisclosed found it tough not to smile. Kumble toiled manfully. At the receiving end of leg-before decisions and the KP caught-and-bowled, the master leg-spinner visibly smarted.

Four intriguing days had led to culmination. England finally declared, and left India three sessions to bat out. Jaffer and Dravid played defensive innings of the highest pedigree to make things safe for their side; Jaffer, who'd barnstormed the team on the basis of domestic performance that couldn't be ignored, had his century as India tried to scare England with a late charge. But, the asking rate of eight in the last 25 overs despite Pathan, Dhoni and Tendulkar biffing and bashing was too high.