This morning, when Mahendra Singh Dhoni fell in the second over of the day, talk was of England pushing for a win. By evening, an Indian win seems almost inevitable -- and that has to constitute one of the more dramatic turnarounds in recent times.
The credit goes entirely to the bowlers -- who came to the party first with the bat, and then with the ball. The current team management has talked, often, of wanting to create a mindset where everyone, right down to number 11, contributes with the bat. They are getting there -- now they only need to get some in the top order to contribute as well.
Okay, on that last bit, I was joking. I think.
Watching tail-enders bat is not the equivalent of ringside seats at a beauty pageant but increasingly, the Indian tail is getting to be not merely entertaining, but damnably obdurate -- and extremely effective.
If you slot Irfan Pathan in as an all-rounder (and the management clearly considers him one), the tail really was exposed when he left -- in the 77th over, with the score on 260.
From that point, nine, ten and jack stuck it out for a good 26 overs, added a further 78, took the score past England's, frustrated the heck out of the fielding side, and did their bit to ensure that an England win has been factored out of the equation. Good stuff.
The new ball was taken right on schedule, and Harbhajan Singh got going -- a whipped four off Hoggard in the first over; then a defensive dab to a rearing bouncer that Sehwag and Dhoni must have watched with much interest; then an elegant back cut past point for four
Flintoff figured he had the better chance, rotated himself in for Hoggard, and watched with some bemusement as Bajji flicked to fine leg for four; stood tall and cracked the next one past backward point for four more; then defended another bouncer with more than adequate technique.
An interesting thing about the offie is the way he can produce absolutely orthodox cuts and drives, and punctuate them with the most shocking flashes -- one of which looped high to deep third man for Matt Pryor, the reserve keeper substituting for Ian Bell, to grass it.
The two clearly took their job seriously, judging by the length and earnestness of their frequent mid-wicket chats; results showed when the hauled India past England's first innings total and into the lead before a Bajji flash outside off landed in the gloves of Geraint Jones (36/41 Harbhajan; 313/8 India; a partnership of 53 very useful runs at a remarkable 4.5 -- remarkable, considering that England was throwing the kitchen sink at this pair.
Piyush Chawla came out for his debut knock. It was brief, but during his short tenure, he indicated he is no stereotypical tail-ender -- he moves into the line of the ball not away from it, and seemed quite willing to play shots. Hoggard, whose ploy against left handers is to angle it across and let impatience do the rest, got him with a slower ball the youngster cracked to backward point.
Enter Munaf, a batsman in the Nehra/Balaji mould. Anil Kumble, who seemed to fancy his chances of getting a second successive Test 50 here, shepherded him along for a bit, farming strike, talking earnestly to his partner
Humor is never far away when a genuine tail ender is out there. Anil Kumble took a single off the second ball of a Hoggard over, realized he had exposed Munaf, walked the length of the pitch to talk more at his partner, walked back to the non-striker's end, and watched with some bemusement as Munaf pulled his legs out of the way, cleared room for free expression, and wafted Hoggard off good length back over the sightscreen, then beamed at his partner like a searchlight.
Ian Plunkett finally ended England's misery when he fired in a yorker; Kumble stepped pre-determinedly to leg to try and whack through the off side, lost the length and the plot, and was bowled to end India's innings on 338, giving the home side a lead of 38.
With 53 overs in the day, and a further 98 tomorrow, England came out knowing they their winning chances had evaporated and that they would need to bat with a lot of application to make sure India didn't sneak ahead.
England understandably opened cautiously against some accurate bowling by the Indian seamers -- and Munaf Patel struck early. Going around the wicket in his third over Patel, who in this burst bettered his top speed of the first innings and clocked one at 145.3 kmph (first innings 144.2k), swung wide of the crease, hit the very full length to bring Cook forward pushing, and moved it just enough to find the thick edge for Dhoni to hold with ease (7/1 England, Cook 2/20).
Harbhajan Singh came on immediately after at the other end, India giving the offie the advantage of a hard ball, a left hander to bowl at and three round the bat catching. Each time out, the offie has bowled quite well; inexplicably, though, the fizz seems to have gone out of his demeanor at the bowling crease. At his best, he is all over the batsman, buzzing around, looking aggressive, clearly enjoying himself and in the process creating a lot of pressure just by his body language. These last few games, the toys are all in place, but that extra fizz appears to have gone missing -- a case, perhaps, of needing one good outing to get that confidence going again.
Patel's first spell (5-2-10-1) was by far the best he has bowled with the new ball in this debut Test -- consistently quick, more often than not hitting the bat than the other way around, and with a fair share of potentially wicket-taking deliveries.
Once India teamed its two spinners together after a brief second spell for Pathan, survival became the name of the England game.
A chance came with England on 48/1, when a doosra found Bell's leading edge for the ball to balloon, only to fall just short of cover.
England during this period pretty much played into India's hands, with an overtly defensive attitude that allowed the bowlers, seam and spin, to pretty much bowl as they liked. England took 18 overs to wipe out the deficit, and had just about inched into the lead when Anil Kumble broke through.
Strauss, in trouble against Kumble and looking to get to the other end, tried a controlled sweep, but managed to hit the ball onto his boot and pop it up, via his pad, up into the air for Dhoni to hold.
Again, a referral to the third umpire was needed; again, the third umpire viewed endless angles though the very first replay confirmed he was out -- Kumble must, during the wait, have had nightmares about the Pietersen episode from the last game. But eventually Strauss got the red light for a labored 13 off 64, and England 50/2 or more to the point, 12/2 in 24 overs.
Kevin Pietersen played one push inches wide of the diving Kumble's hand off the sixth ball he faced; at the other end, found himself in some strife against Harbhajan -- and lost his wicket to umpiring error.
Some credit is due to planning that produced an extraordinary field -- leg slip, short square, and two short midwickets one straight the other square, with no one up close catching on the off. Two men in his face and one visible in the corner of his eye was more than Pietersen would tolerate; he went into a full-blooded sweep to a tossed up arm ball from the off spinner, missed, got it on the forearm very close to the wristband of the glove and Dhoni held (55/3; Pietersen 4/13).
The replays we got to see remain inconclusive; Pietersen pointed to his forearm even before the umpire ruled, but the replay could not clearly tell whether it hit the wristband, which is part of the glove, or the arm just above it.
Bajji almost struck again in his next over, when he caught Collingwood's pad, then glove to an off break, only for the ball to elude a diving Sehwag at leg slip. At the other end, Ian Bell was lucky to survive as Kumble fired a flipper full and quick, Bell got pad then bat on it in front of middle but it was way too tough for umpire Taufel to call which noise came first, and the benefit went to the batsman (Bell 40/87 at that point, England 67/3).
Harbhajan Singh's extended spell of 14-3-28-1 was the best he has bowled in a while; most significantly, the offie for once looked a happy chappie at the bowling crease, getting a bit of his old buzz going.
There are two distinct ends here -- the one with some grass on it, the other not; for obvious reasons, spinners would prefer bowling into the end where there is none. Once Kumble was rotated in for Harbhajan at that end, he began making things happen; a superb leg break beat Collingwood; two deliveries later, he found the edge, Dhoni put a finger tip in the way and diverted the ball a fraction, Dravid got a hand to it but let it go not as simple a chance as the one he dropped in the first innings, but a drop nonetheless.
At the other end, Ian Bell fought his way to a hard working 50 (83 deliveries); Collingwood played with a polygonal bat, all edges and no middle, used up all the luck for a lifetime without quite finding the fielders, until finally the one edge too many found Dravid at slip, this time without Dhoni's intervention (88/4 England, leading 50; Collingwood 14/36).
Anil Kumble then bowled probably the best over of this last year, to Andrew Flintoff -- the batsman played for turn which wasn't there, then played for the straight one and was beaten by the turn, got turned inside out and wrong way round; the bowler did everything a bowler can do to a batsman short of taking a wicket.
To his credit, the England skipper seemed completely unruffled, survived the testing spell, and slowly eased himself into the innings. Just when the visitors seemed to be getting a toehold again, Ian Bell undid all his hard work in a moment of madness.
Kumble dragged one down, flat and quick; it was probably the worst ball he bowled in the entire innings. Bell had a plethora of choices where to hit it -- he opted inexplicably to get cute and try to nudge to third man, only to find the edge to Dhoni (57/137 Bell, 109/5 England).
Play ended with four overs left, and England on 112/5 off 51 overs, and a slender lead going into day five of 74 runs and 98 overs left in play on the last day. India for once was consistent through the day, winning each session handily to pull away into pole position.
If England finds itself neck deep in hot water, the fault lay entirely with bad strategy in the second innings. Granting the need for a certain amount of caution, keep in mind that on this pitch Monty Panesar, who can turn the ball as well as any, looked good but not particularly threatening; it was pace and swing that did all the damage.
Equally to the point, keep in mind that India's tail scored at the rate of over four runs per over on the selfsame pitch.
Put together, these facts underline the idiocy of England's overly defensive approach in the second innings it was as if the team decided during the changeover that since it couldn't win, it would simply block both ends up and play for the draw.
In settling for such pre-determined defense, the visitors essentially allowed the Indian bowlers, first seam then spin, to climb all over them; the two lead spinners wheeled away for endless overs bowling pretty much where they wanted to, without any fear of getting hit.
India made that mistake against Panesar in Nagpur; here, it was England's turn -- and barring miracles, it is likely to cost them a game that, this morning, you could swear was heading for a dull draw.
In passing, a side issue -- it is likely to be Dhoni's fate to draw cheers only when he walks out to bat, but on the day, he merited a round of applause for his keeping. They say the good keepers are the ones you don't notice -- if that is true, Dhoni today was the invisible man, keeping to two spinners who were getting the ball to spin and bounce at varying speeds and on varying lines and never once putting a foot, or glove, wrong. He has visibly grown as a keeper from his early days; unfortunately, it's a facet of his game that will likely go unrecognized.