Dileep Premachandran asked yesterday in a well-written Cricinfo article if India would be able to step up and cross that last hurdle in the 3rd Test against England at The Oval. It was a question that was posed yesterday on this blogsite too. So often — most excruciatingly in Steve Waugh’s final Test — India have not managed to cross this last hurdle.
But India did the right things right on Day-1 of Test 3. India won the toss, elected to bat and came out in a sensationally positive frame of mind. If this mindset was evident in the mercurial nature of of Wasim Jaffer’s batting, it was palpable in the purposefulness of Rahul Dravid’s stride. This team meant business and they would have reached a much more satisfying destination at the end of Day-1 but for the fact that a certain Ian Howell appeared to have got up on the wrong side of his bed! After giving a marginal caught behind decision to send Dinesh Karthik back to the hut, he chopped Sourav Ganguly at the knees with a shocker of a decision! India ended the day at 316 for 4. India had had a good day, but England are still in the game.
Karthik was playing extremely well and had composed his 91 runs in style; with confidence and energy. On that score he wafted with minimal footwork at a ball from Sidebottom for Matt Prior to pounce on the catch. The England players went up as though they had just won the lottery or a date with Catherine Zeta-Jones, or both! Ian Howell, the umpire, lifted the dreaded finger and Karthik had to make the slow long walk back. I did not hear the snick. Snickometer did not think there was a snick either. However, Karthik did say at the end of days’ play, “there was a small nick, there is no doubt about that“! Phew! One less effigy to construct and then destruct for the folks in Kolkata! The Ganguly decision, however, will have generated a few thousand effigy orders!
Up until that lapse in concentration, Karthik had batted very well. He was all poise, determination, inventiveness and concentration. A step down to caress Andreson through extra cover as well as an inside-out six off Panesar were special shots.
In the morning, after Rahul Dravid had won an important toss and elected to bat, proceedings ran against the normal script. Karthik, the normal aggressor was quiet while Wasim Jaffer, the dour accumulator was in his elements! It was a very different Wasim Jaffer that came to the crease this morning. Indeed, it appeared as though Jaffer and Karthik had reversed roles! We saw a quiet Karthik and a different player to the Jaffer, who normally plays well within himself. Instead, he was playing out of his skin! There were some great leaves by both Jaffer and Karthik initially. Of course, the bowling was shocking to start with. Karthik and Jaffer were served some dross by James Andreson, who gave both the openers ‘ample opportunity to have a look at the ball and what it was doing’. Both Anderson and Tremlett had poor opening spells and they did not make batsmen play enough. Although Sidebottom bowled tightly, he slid too many across face of the batsmen. The openers settled down and slowly opened their shoulders.
I liked the way the openers saw off the new ball. A shot by Jaffer to send an Anderson ball for 6 over third man was so Sehwag that one wondered if Sehwag himself would have been able to execute that shot any better!
The only way Jaffer was going to get out was through a brain explosion. And it did happen. He played a shot that would have done Sehwag proud! It was a strong statement from Jaffer, but I’d think he needs to work on his square-off-the-side strokes to do well in Australia.
India went in to lunch at 117-1 off 28. It was an innings that was paced well. India were well-placed with Karthik on 50, Dravid on 25 with Dravid looking very very determined.
Dravid’s stride to the crease was purposeful. He opened with two fours and looked extremely focussed, determined and positive. If he had a message to convey to the team, he did so with panache. In the days leading to this Test match, he had already telegraphed his positive intentions. He had said that the previous two Test matches were-result oriented even though they only featured 350 overs. He said that with 450 overs expected to be bowled at The Oval, he expected a result. This was positive and tone-setting stuff from the captain.
The hour after lunch saw some awesome batting; perhaps even the best batting-phase of the series from either teams. Dravid and Karthik were scoring at will. They took nearly 70 runs in 17 overs. In this passage of play it was interesting to note that England maintained a very good over rate too. One particular shot by Dravid was really special. Panesar had two men in front of Dravid — one at short extra cover and one at short mid off. The two fielders were really close to each other — within hand-shaking distance. A flighted ball from Panesar invited the cover drive. Dravid leaned into a classic cover drive and threaded the ball through these two fielders with unforgettable panache and sheer style.
He really did look set for a 100 or even higher! After all, the last time he played at The Oval, he had scored over 200 runs! And then suddenly the ball started moving around quite a bit. Although Dravid was bowled by Anderson off a beauty — and normally, it is a beauty that gets Dravid out — it was really the previous over from Sidebottom that probably set up the dismissal. It was a fantastic and searching over; an over in which Sidebottom swung the ball away and asked a few questions. Dravid had played and missed a few times in that over and was clearly annoyed with himself. The first ball of the next over was a terrific yorker length ball that moved slightly away. Dravid lost his middle stump!
Although the ball was a good one, but for the previous over, Dravid may have, on most occasions, presented a straight bat to the ball. Instead, he closed the face and tried a cute flick to leg, perhaps in an effort to score a few off Anderson to compensate for the tightness of Sidebottom’s line, movement and length that did not afford any “gimme” balls.
Soon after Karthik was out too. How Howell could have given that out, I really do not know. There was no sound of a nick. Nor was there any deviation. The benefit of doubt should have gone the batsman’s way. It did not.
All of this happened during a phase in play when it was a wee-bit gloomy and there was some swing around. Andreson was in the middle of a good spell of fast swing bowling. The 50-over old ball was suddenly seaming around. Was it the overcast conditions? Or was there some jelly beans involved too?
Ganguly and Tendulkar set about the reconstruction job. Once again, Tendulkar appeared shaky while Ganguly was playing reasonably well, albeit with some initial scares. I thought England bowled badly to Tendulkar. They overdid the “chin music” stuff to Tendulkar when fully pitched outswingers that invited the drive may have been a better option. Matt Prior, who was asked to “put a sock in it” had a forgettable day. He let through some 20 byes and dropped Tendulkar off Sidebottom! A costly lapse perhaps?
But both teams are still in the game. I’d say that India won 2 sessions (session-1 and session-3) with the middle session being called an even one.
The new ball is only 8 overs old. So, Laxman and Tendulkar will need to see off the first 10-15 overs and then start to play their shots. The stage is set for a crucial 1st session on day-2. If one of Tendulkar, Laxman or Dhoni make a big hundred, they can put the match beyond Englands’ reach. But if England manage to get 1 or 2 quick wickets, they are right back in the game. All of this makes for a fascinating day-2.