NEW DELHI: It was a significant moment that almost went unnoticed. Harbhajan Singh halted in his tracks as Rahul Dravid tossed the ball to part-time slow bowler Yuvraj Singh. It appeared to be a desperate move rather than a well-thought one.
The seamers, apart from Irfan Pathan, had been clobbered and Harbhajan too had been treated with disdain. It was indeed a difficult phase for Dravid. England was well on course while India was in a daze clueless and helpless. The Englishmen then lost their way, and eventually the match.
The 39-run victory on an eventful afternoon that saw India grab the opportunities created by some unbelievable complacency in the English ranks set the tempo for the seven-match TVS Cup series, with the emphasis clearly on the ability to exploit the conditions as Harbhajan did so wonderfully on Tuesday.
England, opting to field, failed miserably after smelling a win when Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen strode the arena like titans, whipping the Indian attack mercilessly.
Yuvraj's precious strike
Then came the magic moment for Dravid and his boys. Yuvraj broke the partnership with an innocuous full toss and the stadium erupted in a frenzy. Pietersen's dismissal provided India a glimmer of hope and when Flintoff left, playing across to Harbhajan and getting trapped in front, one could sense a thriller building up. Some reckless batting left England embarrassed on a day it had India crawling in the first half.
The two-paced pitch was a challenge, if not the England bowlers. The Indians too had their share of indisciplined strokeplay, beginning with an awfully out-of-touch Virender Sehwag perishing to an ugly shot and Gautam Gambhir, who just refuses to learn, throwing away yet another racy start.
The famed Indian batting line-up was put to test. Dravid escaped a zero against his name when Owais Shah grassed him in the slips. But the skipper responded with some imperious strokes, the ferocious pull a pleasant reminder of the times when he used to play the shot with authority. He departed to a baffling delivery from Liam Plunkett at a crucial juncture, leaving the stage to the young brigade.
Though the youngsters tried their best, they fell short of expectations with Suresh Raina, Irfan Pathan and M.S. Dhoni paying for their indiscretion.
Harbhajan stepped in with a load of pressure, which he conceded was close to the one he felt on the eve of the home Test series against Australia five years ago when his place was under scrutiny.
A thorough professional, Harbhajan backed himself and came good with the bat. His 37 was the highest score of the Indian innings. It was a meaty show indeed. "Long overdue," he said later.
And then the chirpy man from Punjab dazzled with his spin, not magical but immensely effective to fetch him the `man of the match' honours.
The England batsmen lacked self-belief. Pathan performed his now customary act of two scalps in the opening over. The contest was intense no doubt, and India saw an opening.
A brief recovery by Matt Prior and Pietersen was halted by Gambhir's fine catch at mid-wicket. He was to pick up two more catches a sensational one to dismiss Ian Blackwell off Harbhajan as England showed enough generosity.
There was a pattern to the English debacle. The batsmen were more keen on clearing the short boundaries than graft for runs. This impression was created by none other than Flintoff and Pietersen, who, however, made the seamers look out of place. Sreesanth struck a poor length while R.P. Singh looked pedestrian. Run-making looked a joyous exercise, but not for long.
Setting a benchmark
Even as he returned for his second spell, Harbhajan knew that he had to set himself a benchmark for the season. In hindsight, though it may appear a misplaced idea, the off-spinner was under severe pressure to secure his place in the team. He hit back with a career-best exhibition of clinical bowling that should boost his confidence for the season ahead.
Pietersen was amazing as he walked down to the seamers and hoisted them. It was sensational stuff in the middle as Flintoff joined the act with some characteristically robust shots.
But once Pietersen fell to needless aggression, Harbhajan took over, packing off four batsmen in a row to put India on the victory path. The task of restricting the visitors below 203 was achieved in style and with plenty of runs in hand. Fittingly, it was Pathan who finished the job that he had begun in the first over of the England innings, inducing an edge from Plunkett.