SPORT

Andrew Strauss comes good

TWICE MISSED: Andrew Strauss, who dominated the day, was let off once by Rahul Dravid and again by M.S. Dhoni.   | Photo Credit: Photo: S. Subramanium



S. Ram Mahesh

Alastair Cook out with stomach bugAdditional time with coach helps Strauss

Mumbai: Test number 1791, consecrated by milestones of longevity, didn't quite have the first day one of its protagonists would have hoped for. Amid the fanfare of felicitation, Rahul Dravid in his 100th match won his first toss of the series and chose to bowl. It was a decision founded on the composition of his team new-ball operator Sreesanth replacing leg-spinner Piyush Chawla and an intention to "put pressure on them early."

The air at the Wankhede here had early bend, the track offered cut for the new ball, and wicketkeeper M. S. Dhoni started off collecting deliveries beside him, an indication of carry. But India's bowlers struggled with the calibrations on their radars, and a gelatinous first session yielded 63 from 25 overs. Not barn-storming by the highest flight of fancy just honest bread-and-butter batting to set things up.

For, when Andrew Flintoff and Paul Collingwood walked back at the end of the day, wiping off beads of perspiration, England had taken baby steps towards levelling the three-match series. Chastised for not displaying the patience required for succeeding in the subcontinent, England's batsmen "booked in for bed and breakfast" a recipe Kevin Pietersen of all people suggested to finish on 272 for three.

After the tourists' chock-a-block injury list grew to include impressive opener Alastair Cook out with a stomach bug thus pencilling debutant Owais Shah in, Andrew Strauss took over. The left-hander has been a striking symptom of England's top-order problems. He has failed to convert starts this series, often contriving to get himself dismissed.

Magnificent

But, on Saturday he was magnificent. Strauss had spent additional time with coach Duncan Fletcher before this Test, working on what from behind grills looked like the position of his trailing shoulder. Whatever it was batsmen often indicate the glitch is mental it worked. The 29-year-old cut and clipped, tucked and flipped his way to his eighth hundred (128, 240b, 17x4, 1x6), a knock of deliberation and considerable skill.

The only noticeable change in Strauss's batting was his decision to play straight early with a vertical bat sired by his top hand. Ian Bell, who was pushed up a spot to open, was becalmed before driving slackly at one from Sreesanth that hinted away to be held at point. But Shah managed the transition from cold storage to frying-hot oil with aplomb as India went a session without a wicket.

The Karachi-born Shah bends forward at his waist in his stance, peering at the bowler, on a base that involves his feet being closer together than usual. The set-up intimates an intention to prop forward, and prop forward he did. He stepped down to the first ball he faced from Harbhajan and cut the next for four.

Speeding up

This intention to speed things up was confirmed in a Pathan over after lunch. Shah gave the left-armer the wanton wind-up and follow through, the back of his bat thudding into left shoulder blade as ball sped straight. Then he flicked delectably off his toes before conceiving a more considerate straight drive. Strauss opened up as well, pulling Pathan from outside off, and even pulling Kumble for six, as the Middlesex duo made 95 from 30 overs in the middle session.

But Shah had started cramping and didn't resume after tea, retiring hurt on an even 50. Strauss didn't let up and though he flirted with peril on 92, flashing so hard at Harbhajan the edge fled through Dravid at first slip, he followed it with a flat sweep to reach three figures.

Munaf Patel then harried both Strauss and Kevin Pietersen with a mixture of reverse-swung yorkers and a couple of sharp bouncers, but it was Harbhajan who broke through. The off-spinner had on occasion lathered his deliveries with such over-spin, they jumped like trouts. But he couldn't quite find the consistency needed.

Strauss had nicked Kumble, who toiled through the day without luck, but Dhoni hadn't been able to close his gloved fingers around it.

But the wicketkeeper hung on as Strauss edged a back-foot push off Harbhajan's bowling, and Pietersen during a phase where his bat was all edge showed why feckless is the word that recommends itself to a description of his adventures.

Dravid's decision to bowl, viewed in judgmental hindsight, might seem incorrect. Some might go so far as to call it a blunder. But there is yet some cricket to be played. Four full days of it.