NAGPUR: Sometimes it is in striving and not in attaining that we have our closest brush with immortality. MS Dhoni's career is strewn with achievements that glitter like burning stars in the night sky. Yet on Saturday, it was what Dhoni failed to do, rather than what he did, that would eventually etch this performance in memory. One run short of what might have been his most prolonged and memorable Test knock, Dhoni was run out by his counterpart's direct hit on 99. The unfortunate dismissal at the fag end of the day marked the end of a 246-ball resistance, a nose-to-the-grindstone batting reverie that overshadowed even Virat Kohli's third Test hundred.
By close on the third day, India were on 297/8, trailing by 33 runs with just the tail remaining. Kohli (103) and Dhoni had earlier battled for two-and-a-half sessions, thwarting England for 75 wicket-less overs as the possibility of a wishful series-equalizing win materialized tantalizingly in the air. But after the pair had added 198 - India's highest partnership in the four-match competition - the visitors struck back with four wickets in a frenetic final section of play.
Visions of victory were snipped rudely with the quick losses of Kohli, debutant Ravindra Jadeja, Dhoni and Piyush Chawla and India are now left with the lone option of a safe approach - one that entails grinding it out for a draw and ending the series at the receiving end of a 2-1 scoreline. It was really all undone in the last session. The captain and his young Delhi assistant had taken the score from Friday’s ominous 87/4 to a solid 269/5, before Kohli was out leg-before to Graeme Swann after having played 295 deliveries.
Jadeja, who had been shielded from batting duties by his captain late last evening, was done in by James Anderson; Dhoni went to the wretched run out; and Chawla too was castled by England's leading off-spinner. From a purely neutral perspective, it was fabulous to watch the visitors claw back into the contest after almost a day of emptiness. If they take the series - as they should on current evidence - England would look back upon the day's play with great satisfaction, for to come back strongly from such a demoralizing beginning points to a team that has learned to trust its ability.
It was cricket in slow-motion in the morning. Several overs were padded at, played down, and negotiated watchfully by batsmen intent on survival, before Kohli leaned into a rasping drive off Tim Bresnan for the first intended boundary. The hit was one of the few that speckled a first session that saw just 59 scored in 32 overs, on a pitch where scoring was just as cumbersome as getting out. By lunch, the deficit was still an imposing 184. The second day’s sensation, James Anderson, was confined to an opening four-over spell, Alastair Cook ostensibly saving him for the new ball that was due after lunch.
Anderson lured Dhoni into an edge that raced through the vacant slip area, but then a dull phase of play descended upon the stadium. Progress was painful and runs hard to come by, and when the batsmen started haring between the wickets, Sunil Gavaskar and Sanjay Manrekar felt compelled to wax eloquent and endless on their running skills, since there was little else then to sing an Indian paean to. Ravi Shastri too was not to be left behind.
The former India all-rounder nigh exploded in the commentary box as Kohli glanced Swann to the fine leg fence. ‘Super shot’, he thundered, then perhaps realizing that the setting was not one of hit-and-giggle pyjama cricket, toned down just a bit. It was just as well. Kohli edged chancily at a sharp off-break next ball and Shastri receded into his shell, at least temporarily, until another short delivery, this time from Panesar, was cut authoritatively for four through point. Having put in the hard yards in the morning, Kohli was looking comfortable now and Swann was providing a loose, short delivery almost every over. India stood at 146/4 at the first interval, having endured the first wicket-less session of the Test match with a 75-run partnership.
When he returned, Kohli picked up from where he left. He tip-toed to Panesar to scythe a drive through the off-side and reached his first fifty of the series. England threw the new ball to Anderson in the 82nd over and the pacer began with a dolly, short and wide and carved gladly through cover by Dhoni. The hundred of the partnership came up and then a searing square cut off Tim Bresnan took the Indian captain to his slowest Test fifty. This was a fair vindication of Dhoni’s decision to promote himself up the order ahead of debutant Ravindra Jadeja.
Kohli had started to drive like a maniac through the off-side, his only flaw being a risky backtracking maneuver that he enforced on his skipper courtesy an unfulfilled call for a single. A weekend crowd had swelled as news of India’s first decent session in several percolated out, and they were greeted with a towering six that a crease-bound Dhoni thwacked off Swann. The captain then touched his hamstring in discomfort, but all was well after a quick swig on one of the gorgeously-colored fluids that abound in modern dressing rooms.
Kohli hits hundred
Anderson was restricted to just three with the new ball. Bresnan caught Dhoni on the backfoot and shouted imploringly at the umpire, who ascertained it was going down leg and then had a prospective return catch fall tantalizingly short of him. An unscheduled drinks break later Panesar resumed to turn one dangerously past Kohli’s outside edge. The partnership had crossed 150 at the tea break, both batsmen rocking steady in the 70s, still lagging by 103 runs. Boundaries flowed in the last section of play. Kohli’s short-arm jab off Panesar screamed to the fence and a casual flick against Swann took him into the nervous nineties.
A savage thrash through square to the off-spinner brought up his third Test hundred in 289 balls, all three tons having arrived in 2012. The knock also took the young batsman past Australia’s Michael Clarke as the leading international runs scorer for the year. He was out leg-before to Swann first ball after drinks, the ball staying low and rapping him on the leg pad. Dhoni meanwhile had moseyed his way to a 200th delivery for the first time in Tests. At the other end his Chennai Super Kings teammate was giving up the ghost to Anderson’s vicious incoming delivery.
Unfortunate run out
Dhoni was deprived of the strike for a painfully long time by Ashwin, who was insistent on running a single on the last ball of every over he faced. It was a chased single, in the end, that deprived the Indian captain of a monumental hundred. Dhoni played Anderson on the off-side and scampered for life; Cook ran in from mid off and shot in a direct hit as the runner threw in a desperate dive; the third umpire, after what seemed like an excruciatingly long wait, adjudged against the batsman.Dhoni was short of his ground by a fraction of an inch, and became the 15th batsman in Test history to be run out on 99.
Chawla strutted to the wicket bare-headed, with a swagger that conveyed the confidence of a man having mountain of runs under him. He lasted two balls, before Swann clipped his off-stump with a ball that turned moderately. India ended the day marginally better that they had begun it. Not quite out out it, not quite in it, the only hope a tame draw and a morale-crushing series loss, despite the best efforts of their captain and their most promising young batsman.