Great Feat & A Dream Debut

The match, like all SELF-RESPECTING Tests, had its heroes; not all of them were players, writes S. RAM MAHESH.

The English would have felt at home in the first part of the second Test: the clouds clung low; the rain spat annoyingly; and the billiard table-top outfield at the PCA Stadium seen through the mist had all the allure of a quaint county ground in England. One British journalist was so befuddled by the intoxicating mix of climes and conditions, he thought groundsman Daljit Singh, with his European features, was a member of the Barmy Army!

The match, like all self-respecting Tests, had its heroes; not all of them were players. Daljit and his team prepared an excellent cricket wicket, it had bounce and it served many masters — batsmen who looked to score, batsmen who set out stalls, bowlers who hit the deck, bowlers who tweaked the pill. It was also suitably abrasive and conjured reverse swing, which the lush outfield was expected to prevent. Dravid lavished praise on the track, and he is not one to overstate.

The Test was compressed by weather: the first two days saw just 65 overs, consequently the action bubbled and simmered in the cauldron for the next three days, dangerously close to overflowing. In the end, this compaction of the match — so tightly-packed that momentum shifts were accentuated — cost an inexperienced English side. There was no long-drawn phase of contemplation. It happened here, it happened now.

For a long while though, little happened. England entered day three at 200 for five in their first innings. Days one and two were start-stop piecemeal affairs, and some English batsmen will rue what they did those two days.

Andrew Strauss was guilty of a moment of ineptness. The left-handed opener had looked the part, his footwork quick and concise, his bat straight. But, the mental stamina needed for the long haul eluded him.

Kevin Pietersen batted like there was no tomorrow after a considered start, lofting and sweeping the spinners, and sauntering down the track to Pathan. But after making 64 thrilling runs he popped one back to give debutant Munaf Patel his first Test wicket, the first of seven in a mighty impressive outing this match. KP's dismissal tilted the balance, and when Kumble ripped a leg-break past Paul Collingwood in the few overs possible on the second day, there were still no premonitions of a result.

Then came middle Saturday, Anil Kumble's day, unencumbered by the rains forecast. Nine wickets fell for 249 runs, no wicket more momentous than Kumble's 500th.

India did well to round off England after Munaf added Flintoff to his list of scalps and the champion leg-spinner took three wickets in four balls. This prompt termination was one of three major cogs that turned India's victory wheel.

But England struck back through the steepling bounce of Harmison and Flintoff. Sehwag was served a ripsnorter that homed in on his grill and caught glove, Sachin Tendulkar pushed at one that lifted awkwardly. But Dravid was still there, swaying and dropping his hands with alacrity. A magnificent flat-batted cover drive that threaded the field stood out in the knock, which lacked none of his technical mastery and mental fortitude.

The fourth day saw cogs two and three. India lost M. S. Dhoni early, but Pathan's strokeplay melded with Dravid's denial. The left-hander had some anxious moments against the short ball, but got into better positions once he decided to hook and pull. Dravid chopped one on five short of a hundred, and later called the knock "one of my most satisfying because it was played against some of the best seam bowling in Indian conditions."

England persisted with a length that was short, a length it obviously thought best for the track, but in so doing deprived itself of reverse swing. Pathan, Harbhajan and Kumble took advantage of this missed trick as the last four wickets added 109 runs in 24.1 overs. As crucial as the volume which enabled India steal a lead of 38 was the rate of scoring, which bought the home side time.

Time Kumble exploited late on the fourth evening. He coerced Collingwood to edge low to a pumped up Dravid at first slip before getting Bell caught at the wicket. The man from Karnataka ripped vicious, fast-spun leg-breaks through Flintoff's forward press defence, but the English captain survived. The tourists had lost five.

Kamran Akmal and Abdul Razzaq had bailed Pakistan out of a similar position the last time India played in Mohali, and England would have wished for a repeat act. Munaf had other thoughts.

In an eight-over spell of high pace (he touched 90mphs in the match) and screaming reverse swing he blasted out three. Geraint Jones was done for bounce, Plunkett and Hoggard were done for air-speed and swerve.

The big boys, Flintoff and Harmison, denied the Indians for over an hour before alert glove-work from Dhoni ended big Steve's stay. The other debutant Piyush Chawla got a big first wicket when he induced a mistimed sweep from Flintoff, and India needed 144 for the win.

Virender Sehwag batted himself back into form in the chase, and it was fitting victory that came in captain Dravid's presence. The man from Bangalore has been magnificent in the series thus far, battling to save the game in Nagpur, and batting with thought and assurance in the first innings at Mohali.

Perhaps that's why he's shelled a few in the slips. Even he can't get everything right. His dropping Flintoff in the first stint didn't prove costly this time. The perfectionist Dravid is, the little chink will be set right soon.