S. Ram Mahesh

England left hanging on by a tendril, nine down and 338 behind

London: India finished each of the third day’s sessions strongly, making up for poor to indifferent starts and middles, as England was left hanging to the third Test — and the series — by a tendril.

The bowlers plucked two wickets before lunch, strangled one at the stroke of tea, and ripped four towards close to reduce England to 326 for nine, 338 behind India’s considerable first-innings score.

Six sessions remain: Rahul Dravid’s decision with regard to enforcing the follow on will be of both importance and interest.

A warm, cloudy Saturday had earlier organised conditions for swing. But, India’s fast-medium bowlers couldn’t channel it as skilfully as they had at Lord’s and Trent Bridge. Both Zaheer Khan and Sreesanth were getting their respective outswingers to start outside off-stump, and their inswingers to duck down leg. Bouncers were sprayed, as if through a mouthful of blancmange.

The presence of night-watchman James Anderson addled strategy. The bowlers — confronted with a non-regular batsman and a specialist, opener Alastair Cook — tried different lengths to the two. The position of leg-slip — though justified in hindsight — added to the confusion. The position works best when the bowlers don’t contrive to get the batsmen caught there.

Instead, Zaheer and — in particular — Sreesanth tried too much, shifting too often from their stock deliveries. Loss in control was inevitable. Consequently, the batsmen left most balls well alone; many of these deliveries tested, and subsequently evaded wicketkeeper M.S. Dhoni.

Cook let off

Frustratingly for India, Cook was dropped twice at leg-slip within the first hour. The first miss was down to inexperience, naiveté even. Dinesh Karthik, being a wicketkeeper, can’t have manned the position too often in his young career. He stood too close to the batsman; worse, Cook’s crumpled stance didn’t allow him a transparent view of the ball. Cook’s glance off Sreesanth came hard. Karthik made three grabs at it, but the moment had passed.

The second drop at leg-slip was off Kumble; Cook had reached his first half-century of the series by then. Sourav Ganguly fell to his left, but never looked like catching it. Interestingly, the left-handed Cook continued to be troubled by the ball outside leg stump. When the ball was on or outside off-stump, he kept his shape, driving R.P. Singh though mid-off and cover. From middle-stump, he worked felicitously to leg; his head did drop, and his eyes weren’t in line with the ball, but his body was sufficiently in control.

Almighty tangle

But, to balls outside his leg-stump, Cook got in an almighty tangle. He bent at the waist, trying to access it around his front pad, and ended up twisted as a pretzel. It was how he would eventually be dismissed, but India got to Anderson first.

R.P. Singh bowled lefty outswingers at Anderson, drawing him further and further towards off-stump. Having got the left-hander where he wanted, R.P. Singh held one straight (it was of interest that the ball went with the shiny side; through the day ball swung more often against the shine, i.e. conventionally). The 21-year-old bowler set Cook up similarly, but was denied the plumb leg-before by Ian Howell.

Michael Vaughan wasn’t made to play often enough early, though it must be said that both R.P. Singh and Zaheer chivvied him from around the wicket. He settled, pulling Sreesanth off a ball that didn’t deserve such high-handed treatment. With Cook, Vaughan seemed set to take England to lunch two down.

But, Kumble, who used change in angle, pace, and spin cannily on a firm yet flaking track, struck. Cook endeavoured to turn him to leg — the ball popped off the back of his bat in a gentle arc to mid-off.

Highest deception

Then came the highest deception: Kumble bowled Vaughan a googly, held between thumb and fore-finger, and launched with a flip of the wrist (the telegraphed version with the obtrusive little finger has been put to pasture). It evaded the bat’s middle and returned to the bowler off the inside-half.

Kevin Pietersen and Paul Collingwood — who should have been given out leg-before to Kumble — helped England claw back as the tea cakes were laid out. Pietersen, for the most part, showed admirable restraint. A slap through cover off Kumble allowed his bottled offensive skill to briefly escape.

But, Rahul Dravid, in a moment of inspiration, brought Sachin Tendulkar on before tea. A side-spinning leg-break, floated to taunt Pietersen’s ego, was driven rashly at. Dravid caught the edge at slip.

While it was a fine bit of captaincy, Dravid persevered too long with Tendulkar after tea, allowing Collingwood and Ian Bell deliveries to fatten their confidence and score.

Collingwood, with his short-arm jabs, and Bell, with more classical strokeplay, added a bold 86, but the second new ball accounted for both. Sreesanth’s one exceptional over in the day till then had been to Collingwood after lunch — outswingers had been followed by one that snaked in, but the leg-before was compromised by the height at which ball struck pad. This time, Sreesanth won a marginal decision from Howell.

Zaheer then had Bell touching a flaccid cut to Dhoni. A short ball (Zaheer’s) sufficed for Sidebottom and one of esteemed line and length (Sreesanth’s) did for Matt Prior.

SCOREBOARDIndia — 1st innings: 664

England — 1st innings: A. Strauss c Sreesanth b Zaheer 6, A. Cook c R.P. Singh b Kumble 61, J. Anderson lbw b R.P. Singh 16, M. Vaughan c & b Kumble 11, K. Pietersen c Dravid b Tendulkar 41, P. Collingwood lbw b Sreesanth 62, I. Bell c Dhoni b Zaheer 63, M. Prior c Tendulkar b Sreesanth 0, R. Sidebottom c & b Zaheer 2, C. Tremlett (batting) 18, M. Panesar (batting) 0, Extras (b-16, lb-10, nb-10, w-10) 46; Total (for nine wickets in 96 overs) 326.

Fall of wicket: 1-12 (Strauss), 2-78 (Anderson), 3-119 (Cook), 4-124 (Vaughan), 5-202 (Pietersen), 6-288 (Collingwood), 7- 303 (Bell), 8-305 (Sidebottom), 9-305 (Prior).

India bowling: Zaheer 22-13-32-3, Sreesanth 21-2-80-2, Kumble 26-7-86-2, R.P. Singh 14-1-63-1, Ganguly 5-1-8-0, Tendulkar 7-0-26-1, Laxman 1-0-5-0.

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