India on the threshold of victory

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THIS ONE’S MINE: R.P. Singh celebrates after claiming the wicket of Matt Prior.
THIS ONE’S MINE: R.P. Singh celebrates after claiming the wicket of Matt Prior.

S. Ram Mahesh

Zaheer’s magnificent spell and Vaughan’s century highlights of the day

Nottingham: Monday found Test cricket at its hardest; and, at many moments, its finest.

The second Test at Trent Bridge evolved into battle of attrition on day four, India and England grinding against each other, but not once did it turn tedious.

Far from the coarse-grained texture that’s characteristic of close-fought contests, Monday was dramatic, thrilling, and — je june as it sounds — a lot of fun.

Over three days, the Test had arrived at the following juncture: England began on 43 without loss, needing a further 240 to avoid defeat by an innings; India required ten wickets, bought at the cheapest rate on offer, delivered as expressly as possible.

Michael Vaughan, with the Test’s only century, and Zaheer Khan, with his fifth five-wicket haul, were the day’s protagonists. England was dismissed for 355, leaving India with a target of 73. At close India had made 10 without loss.

Zaheer’s eventual conquest of Vaughan for a brave, classical 124 — bowling the English captain off his thigh pad — was representative of the battle between the sides.

England’s session

The first session, however, was England’s, won in inches. Only half an hour before lunch, courtesy a curious choice in tactics from captain Rahul Dravid, did England pull away.

Zaheer, in his first spell of 6-3-9-1, did things with the ball only the great Wasim Akram, among left-armers, has bettered in recent memory; a caveat however: R.P. Singh’s spell after lunch was every bit as prodigious in skill as Zaheer’s.

The solid Alastair Cook was extracted in the third over of the morning. Zaheer, after swinging one away from the left-hander, caught him on the shuffle with a ball that stayed the course.

Fourth in-a-row

Cook’s great gift is his balance during on-side play: even when his head falls out of line, he is usually able to bring his bat around to clip the ball. But, Monday’s dismissal was the fourth successive time Cook has been trapped in front; perhaps a reassessment is in order.

The left-handed Strauss has had his troubles with the full, swinging ball; a bottom hand that’s a little too eager to take control of his driving has given Strauss grief. But, Sreesanth allowed Strauss an early short ball, and he cut it with a near vertical bat for four.

Encouragingly for Strauss, a slight modification in outlook and technique was helping him deal with the swing. When driving, Strauss played the outside half of the ball, covering for away-swing; the absence of a short leg freed him from the worries of the inside edge.

Gladiatorial combat

Vaughan ’s combat with Zaheer was gladiatorial. Swinging the ball both ways -- sharp, taut swing -- from around the wicket without any readable change in wrist position, Zaheer tormented Vaughan. The ball continued to swing after passing the stumps, giving M.S. Dhoni hell, but making the spectacle arresting.

Vaughan survived and looked elsewhere for sustenance. Sreesanth drew an edge, but it raced for four; a cover drive followed. It was to repeat through the day.

Vaughan ’s driving was perfection itself, not sterile perfection, but graceful, embroidered perfection. He can start stiffly, but once he settles, his strokes are liquid.

Ideal balance

Though essentially English — Yorkshire-bred to be specific — Vaughan ’s driving has enough of the individual to make it interesting. The shift in balance is ideal — front foot grounded, front knee bent, back toe raised and resting lightly on the ground. The arms, led by the top elbow, course through the ball.

Anil Kumble, disappointing with his line on Monday, had a close shout against Vaughan, but thereafter, the English captain mastered India’s best-ever match-winner.

Vaughan used Kumble’s drift to wrist thrice through mid-wicket — each sweetly-struck. Delectable late cuts either side of lunch put every dish on the Trent Bridge buffet to shame.

Zaheer had Strauss the second over after lunch to break the 81-run partnership. The ball was short and wide, and moving further away, but Strauss’s bat was drawn to it.

Sreesanth, when he concentrated on bowling rather than nettling the batsmen, wrought outswingers at good pace -- and the odd spearing inswinger from wide on the crease. His biggest contribution, however, was unsettling Pietersen with a beamer that looked unintentional.

Stirring response

R.P. Singh capitalised. Denied a caught-behind appeal against Pietersen, his response was stirring: the ball swerved into Pietersen from around the wicket, like a car careening round a corner; the batsman shouldered arms, and walked.

Collingwood’s brief back-lift and thrusting hands allow an economy of stroke to deal with pace; against swing, however, the inside edge is constantly threatened. But, he worked around it to help Vaughan wipe out the deficit before Zaheer struck with the second new ball.

Dravid’s captaincy, though largely sound, had two perplexing moments.

His use of Tendulkar before lunch allowed England space, and jeopardised his bowlers’ chances of swing, with Tendulkar’s deliveries scuffing the shine. And Dravid allowed the game to drift before the second new ball. But, first Zaheer and then R.P. Singh, with a jaffa to Prior, made amends. Through it all, England maintained a run-rate of over three an over.

SCOREBOARDEngland - 1st innings: 198.India - 1st innings: 481.England - 2nd innings: A. Strauss c Dhoni b Zaheer 55, A. Cook lbw b Zaheer 23,M. Vaughan b Zaheer 124, K. Pietersen lbw b Singh 19, Collingwood c Karthik b Zaheer 63, I. Bell lbw b Zaheer 0, M. Prior b Singh 7, C. Tremlett c Singh b Kumble 5, R. Sidebottom (not out) 25, M. Panesar c Karthik b Kumble 4, J. Anderson b Kumble 1, Extras (b-7, lb-6, w-9, nb-7) 29; Total (in 104 overs) 355.Fall of wickets: 1-49 (Cook), 2-130 (Strauss), 3-175 (Pietersen), 4-287 (Vaughan), 5-287 (Bell), 6-304 (Prior), 7-323 (Collingwood), 8-329 (Tremlett), 9-333 (Panesar).India bowling: Zaheer 27-10-75-5, Sreesanth 21-2-60-0, Singh 18-6- 52-2, Kumble 25-2-104-3, Ganguly 6-0-22-0, Tendulkar 7-0-29-0.India - 2nd innings: D. Karthik (batting) 6, W. Jaffer (batting) 3, Extras (lb-1) 1; Total (for no loss in three overs) 10.England bowling: Anderson 2-1-6-0, Sidebottom 1-0-3-0.

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