Rahul Dravid has a rare gift for nurturing ailing innings, and he was at it again on Saturday.
The great man's wonderful, unconquered 102 — his first century at Lord's and his 33rd overall — revived his side on the third day of the first Test. But so frequently hurt was India by England's bowlers that it managed only 286 before being dismissed, well short of the score the morning's sound start deserved.
With the weather set fair, Lord's awaited the contest many suggested would determine the series: India's richly talented batting against England's first-rate bowling. Adding context to the contest was the game's state, India 457 behind England's 474 for eight declared.
The openers — both diminutive, both left-handed — began suitably. Gautam Gambhir seldom over-reached. Abhinav Mukund was more adventurous though less secure.
Batting deep in his crease to allow himself the extra split-second, Abhinav made several crisp flicks off his legs and hip. Every opener needs a stroke he can use with minimal risk against top-flight bowling to sustain himself — the 21-year-old showed he has one.
Vitally, Abhinav was quick to transfer his weight forward when the length was fuller (and the line straighter). A straight-drive off Stuart Broad, the shape of his body frozen in a moment of rare elegance, was as dishy as any of the grand strokes made later in the day.
The lifter from back of a length and the full ball directed wide troubled Abhinav. But he didn't shrink from the challenge; indeed he seemed to savour it, running a sharp single to reclaim the strike against Tremlett, showing he wasn't worried about the 6ft 8in bowler's pace and bounce.
Abhinav's 49 ended unkindly. A sloppy drive dragged the ball onto off-stump. It was Broad who provided the teaser ball from around the wicket, exploiting the batsman's anxiety for the 50-making run.
Broad had earlier bowled Gambhir with a splendid delivery. The angle from right-arm over and the delivery's full length drew an attacking stroke in which bat left front pad. The movement into the left-hander exploited the gap created.
Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar chose the hour after lunch to stage a master-class, striking 12 fours between them.
Dravid was decisive in leaving balls, air-tight in defence, and certain — if slightly jerky — in stroke-play. He adjusted to the out-swing when the length warranted a stroke, by playing with an open-faced bat that followed the movement — high-level batsmanship demanding a sharp eye and dextrous hands, qualities of Dravid that aren't always appreciated.
Tendulkar was imperious. The square-drive off the back-foot which he plays so well for a man who isn't tall had the crowd gasping. A flick off James Anderson was a stroke of genius, the balance and wrist-work otherworldly.
But Broad returned to the attack, this time from the Nursery End, and forced Tendulkar to nick one to second slip. Graeme Swann took an excellent low catch. The length brought the wicket: it's the sort that sometimes troubles Tendulkar, catching him as it does before he can commit his footwork either way.
Broad could have had V.V.S. Laxman (on 0) and Dravid (on 42) in an over, but his slip-catchers failed him. The first miss wasn't costly. Tremlett, who had till then bowled well without reward, had Laxman helping a bouncer to long-leg.
When Swann trapped Suresh Raina in front with a ball that skidded and straightened from around the wicket, the touring side had lost two wickets in four balls.
India needed rescuing. M.S. Dhoni played patiently, not afraid to let the bowlers set the terms. Dravid settled into a nice batting rhythm, his feet clicking briskly into position. Although his choice to play Swann almost exclusively off the back-foot created some worrying moments (and two magnificent cut-strokes), Dravid's innings, for most part, contained the calm and complete mastery that has built his legend.
The second new ball damaged India. Tremlett broke the sixth-wicket partnership of 57, tempting Dhoni outside the off-stump.
Harbhajan didn't fancy Tremlett's pace or bounce, and it was left to Praveen Kumar and his robust strokeplay to help Dravid get India past the follow-on mark.
His task done, Praveen left. Dravid, on 94 with ten and jack for company, knew he was running out of time.
A stylish back-foot cover-driven four, the ball hit at the top of its bounce, and a worked two to leg took him to three-figures. The vicious uppercut he threw in celebration showed just how much it mean to him.
If India, 193 behind at stumps, is to make something of this Test, it will need all the fight it can muster.
Keywords: India's tour of England