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December 13, 2001

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Giles has India spinning

Prem Panicker

To attack defensively is in grammatical terms an oxymoron. And England skipper Nasser Hussain, on the morning of the third day, got full marks in the cricketing grammar test.

The morning session saw a display of brilliant captaincy that had you wishing Hussain had more ammunition to work with, if only to see what he could do with a quality attack. As it is, Napoleon went into battle with a popgun -- and held his own wonderfully well.

The bowling, predictably, was seam at one end and spin at the other with first Hoggard and Giles teaming up, then Flintoff and Dawson. The fielding pattern, equally predictably, was 7-2 with an off side bias.

What brought the aggressive edge to the essentially defensive field was the placing of fielders for batsmen -- a short cover for Tendulkar, for instance, or a short midwicket for VVS Laxman. Hussain was figuring that against the line outside off, Tendulkar would want to reach out into his drives -- and the cover up close was the response. Similarly, given Laxman's legside bias, a short midwicket ensured that any attempt to play off to leg with the wrist could put the batsman in some jeopardy.

Initially, it seemed as though Tendulkar had decided, overnight, to take the line on. Against Hoggard, he scoop-flicked one from outside off through square leg; against Giles, he was down on his knee, reaching a long way forward to sweep from line of outside off, against the turn, in front of square leg.

At the other end, Rahul Dravid was content to watch them go. But then, out of the blue, he did the one thing a technician wouldn't do -- pushed at a ball in the off corridor with no foot movement worth the name, got the edge through and walked back with 7 (60 balls) against his name (India 86/3 in the 48th over, still 321 behind).

Saurav Ganguly came out -- and Hussain immediately brought on the off spin of Dawson, and the pacier seam of Flintoff. The latter took out the Indian captain with a display of thoughtful bowling. With slips in place and with the man put out for the miscued hook, Flintoff bowled the full length. Ganguly drove. The next ball was seemingly in the same slot -- but just that bit shorter. Ganguly instinctively reached for the drive, checked when he realised the change in length, and managed only to edge through to Martin Ball, by repute England's best slip fielder. (Inndia 93/3 in the 52nd over, still 314 behind).

Interestingly, the minute the left-hander was replaced by the right-handed Laxman, Dawson was off and Giles back on -- Hussain, all morning, didn't miss a single trick. The fall of wickets forced Tendulkar to choke back, and go on the defensive, and India went in to lunch on 126/4, trailing by 281 with Tendulkar batting 37 (114 balls) and Laxman 10 (36 balls). 28 overs had produced just 55 runs, for the loss of the Indian skipper and his deputy.

Post Lunch Session

The fielding side did not change its strategy after lunch. But Tendulkar did.

The first point of attack with Hoggard's line outside off. Changing to a middle stump guard, the batsman went a long way to off to whip one through midwicket. A ball later, he was again way out on the off, to shut the bat face and flick-drive through long on. And again, this time the flick through square leg for three. Hoggard, predictably, was taken off immediately.

Dawson took over -- and his first ball was greeted with a little skip down the track and an on-drive that powered the ball into the stands. A carefully placed paddle got a brace, then another behind square. And suddenly, the game had changged gears.

With Laxman content to hold his end up and look for the bad ball to hit, Tendulkar farmed strike for a large part of the session. The first 12 overs after lunch produced 55 runs -- with Tendulkar accounting for 49. The 100 of the partnership came up off 176 balls and shortly thereafter, the new ball was taken with India on 200/4 and Tendulkar into his 90s -- a ploy to put pressure on the batsman. The response was two on driven braces, followed by a fiercely hooked four off Hoggard to reach his 27th Test century (184 balls, 12 fours, one six and notably, 24 singles).

Tendulkar's second 50 had taken just 55 balls as against 128 deliveries for his first -- and the innings tempo reflected the change in mindset. India's first 50 had come off 125 balls, the second off 208, the third in 92, the fourth in 80 deliveries. In fact, the batting looked so dominant during this period that the fact that the follow on had been averted went largely unnoticed.

When the wicket came, it was so completely against the run of play that for just a few seconds, there was silence all round. To a Hoggard delivery fullish on off, Tendulkar smashed a drive, hitting just slightly on the rise -- and failing to spot the step down of pace. The shot was played just that fraction too early (and had a touch of impatience to it, given a stream of short-pitched deliveries that preceeded it, and kept Tendulkar from touching the ball), and Nasser Hussain at mid on, finding himself foursquare in the path of that hit, juggled and clung on to the catch (Tendulkar 103 off 197, India 211/5, 196 behind).

Tea was taken with India on 220/5, 187 behind, and Laxman batting 34/110. The post-lunch session had produced 94 runs off 27 overs for the wicket of Tendulkar.

Post Tea Session

They call him the Sachin of Najafgarh, and during Sehwag's 33-ball stay at the wicket it was easy to see why -- Sehwag's two fours, and the one six, turned out to be exact duplicates of shots the man he has modelled his batting on played during the previous session.

First, there was the flicked four off Hoggard, the ball being addressed outside off and whipped easily through midwicket. Then there was the classic off drive, played on the move forward, with the shorter backlift and the high elbow taking the bat easily through the line. And finally, the little skip down the track, tremendous batspeed on the downswing taking a Dawson off-break from line just outside off and picking out the same stand Tendulkar had picked earlier.

The difference was longevity -- Sehwag's innings of 20 (33 balls) showed no sign that the two-Test layoff had upset his rhythm, but against that, it didn't last. Craig White produced a ball from wide of the crease, angling in on off and then darting further in off the seam. Sehwag shaped to play to leg, missed, and was hit on the front pad. The umpire (AV Jayaprakash) ignored the possibility that given the angle of delivery and movement after hitting the deck the ball could have missed leg, and raised his finger. India 248/6 in the 100th over.

Anil Kumble came in and, as per recent routine, settled down to grind it out. It took a superb delivery from Ashley Giles to take him out -- the left arm spinner, going round the wicket, floated one right up, with lots of air, looping it onto a very full length. The batsman was drawn into the drive, the ball hit the deck and turned just enough to beat the bat and clip off -- a classic left-arm spinner's dismissal, Kumble gone for 5 (32 balls) and India 268/7, still 138 behind.

In his next over, Giles made it two wicket-maidens in a row, taking out Harbhajan Singh. The ball was identical to the one that took out Kumble, except that it hit line of off. Harbhajan, who doesn't do anything half-hearted with the bat, swung into an almighty drive -- and managed to pick out cover (0/7, India 272/8, ending a 20 run stand off 51 deliveries).

Javagal Srinath, when batting, probably cannot help but remember that twice this year he has had his left hand fractured -- there is a certain gingerness in the way he does his stuff. Giles needed only to find the right landing zone, around middle stump. Srinath pushed, pad onto glove and straight to silly point for a smart take, and India were 274/8.

VVS Laxman has in recent times caused much heartburn with his pretty -- and pretty short-lived -- cameos and his seeming reluctance to put a price on his wicket. Today saw a complete turnaround, in an innings that was the polar opposite of recent outings. Patience was the mantra as the free-flowing strokeplayer reined back his natural instincts, even when Tendulkar was flowing along. The shot-selection was impeccable, the batsman never once flirting with anything that even remotely spelt danger. This, allied to his gift of divine timing, produced an innings of the kind you wish he would keep a tape of in his kitbag, alongside the ones he played against Australia, and watch over and over before he goes out to bat here on in.

With support drying up, Laxman had no option but to look for the big hits -- and Giles got his five-for when Laxman danced down to a ball outside leg stump, aiming to clear long on but only managing to find Butcher, ending a fine innings of 75 (190 balls), ending India's innings on 291, 116 runs behind on the first innings with two days to go.

Giles was easily the star for England -- very intelligent use of the crease, lovely flight and loop, bite and turn with his deliveries, and very clever in the way he switched between around and over the wicket at the right time and richly deserving of his second Test 5-for. You only need to compare his figures with that of the other spinner, Dawson, to realise how well the Indians played spin here and just how good Giles had to be to bowl with such sustained control throughout.

The other major improvement came in the field -- in the first Test, England had been prodigal in the field; here, the fielders were spot on in their catching and out-cricket, and this leant the sparse bowling resources an extra edge.

England, in the three overs it needed to play out in the day, did just that -- survived, and could count itself lucky one of several edges didn't go to hand. At stumps, England were 15/0 -- overall, 131 ahead and in a very good position now to try and level the series.

For India, meanwhile, it is all uphill -- first restrict England, then bat to save a game, knowing all the time that if it finds itself on the back foot, it has only its own innate frailities of temperament to blame.

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England's tour of India : Complete coverage