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KOLKATA: No more are England whingers on the sub-continent. On Friday, in the city of heat and dust Alastair Cook’s men – and you can safely use that phrase considering how he’s led by example – buried MS Dhoni’s India under a resolve so dense it all but gave them ownership of the Eden Gardens Test.
At the very least it ensured England will not leave Kolkata behind in the series.At best it just may give them something that would require some contemplating - a series lead in India.
Once again Cook was the key. He battled to a near double hundred and with his lieutenants – although Kevin Pietersen (54) is bound by nature to scoff at the designation – put England in complete control. Such was their confidence that even when India sniffed a chance back into the match with quick wickets in the last session, the fag end of the batting order thwarted them some more.
England were 509/6 at close - a lead of 193 - as the bowlers failed to dislodge the quick-scoring Matt Prior and Graeme Swann. Jonathan Trott had earlier compiled a polished 87 and with two days to go, India have to emulate their batting counterparts to have any hope of remaining in the contest.
The bowlers had a strange day. It was often their poorer deliveries that met with success. Zaheer Khan leaked runs, Ishant Sharma threatened in spurts, R. Ashwin bowled without success (he did claim his first wicket of the innings in almost 46 overs); one of Ojha's wickets was hard-earned, while the other was a gift. India's bowlers had no answer to the application of England's batsmen and had to wait for mistakes.
England plough on
Exactly a 100 behind as they resumed on the third morning, England put their noses down to the task ahead. But it was really India who shot themselves in the foot – again – when they gifted another reprieve to the man who is now a thorn in their side.
Zaheer was guilty of straying on to the pads, each time conceding a boundary. Ishant caused one to rear up at Cook, but the batsmen - especially Trott – appeared intent on seeing off the first hour. Once the new ball was taken, they opened up: Cook punching Zaheer wide of mid on to reach 150, and Trott clipping consecutive fours off the same bowler to bring up his half-century.
Disaster then revisited India. Cook lobbed a dolly of a return catch to Ishant off a delivery that stopped on him. The lanky fast bowler managed the impossible, closing his hands too early on the ball to grant the England captain another life - on 156. Cook had been dropped by Pujara on 17 on Thursday. England’s record-breaking skipper had by now batted for almost 24 hours in the series. At the other end, Trott too was looking comfortable, and as he walked into Ishant to pummel him through cover, the Barmy Army – whose numbers now rivaled those of local fans – broke into: “He bowls to the left, he bowls to the right, that Ishant Sharma he's bowling shite.”
This was no music to Indian ears. Lunch approached with fruitless pursuits of the first session revealing themselves in stark statistical depression: 32 overs, 80 runs, no wickets, and brains bereft of ideas against the two best grinders in world cricket. Ashwin did trouble Trott, almost slipping through on one occasion, but the breakthrough never came, and the off-spinner's poor returns were another cause for alarm among the many that trouble Dhoni’s side. Lunch was served with England on 296/1, trailing India by 20.
Wickets at last
Spin took over from either end after resumption as Ashwin and Trott begin their own battle. Trott was edgy at times, but a well-connected reverse paddle from about off stump gave England the lead. The 150 partnership came up, making it only the fourth time that England’s first two wickets had each posted such alliances in a Test match. Openers Cook and Nick Compton had earlier added 165.
Cook entered the 180s with an imposing straight six off Ashwin as England looked to build on the lead. Ojha and Ahwin had bowled unchanged since resumption. Their persistence finally paid dividend when the left-arm spinner stopped Trott 13 short of his century. The batsman pressed on at one that turned away and took the edge, allowing Dhoni a sharp catch. The partnership had yielded 173.
Freak run out
In came Pietersen, and he helped himself to another fifty. Yuvraj Singh was introduced as the first bowling change in an eternity, causing left-arm spin to preside at both sides. Soon enough Pietersen made his intent clear when he thrashed a four through the off-side against the part-time bowler, then targeting a long-hop through mid on for another boundary.
Cook was approaching his double century and had consequently dropped heavy anchor. Fittingly, his shocker of a wicket had nothing to with the bowling. Pietersen whipped on the leg side where Virat Kohli fielded and rifled in a return throw. Cook was apparently backing up and when he saw the throw whizzing in, he took evasive action instead of getting to safety, letting the ball rattle into the stumps. The England batsman was sent on his way on 190 after some conferring with the men upstairs.
Two quick wickets of the set batsmen put England on the defensive again as Pietersen tided over a watchful period of play. The solemnity did not last. A majestic strike down the ground against Ojha and a powerfully swept four off Ashwin saw England to tea without further loss, a lead of 65 in hand. India made quick inroads into the middle order soon after tea. Pietersen waded into Ojha with three crisp fours to crack open the last session, and more excitement followed when Ian Bell, for the second time in the series, perished to a loose shot in Ishant's next over.
Bell fished lazily outside off to a widish idelivery that did nothing and edged to Dhoni. Having completed his fifty, Pietersen looked set to accelerate, but he became Ashwin’s first wicket in the off-spinners 46th over of the innings. Looking to repeat his previous shot, a swept four, Pietersen was struck in line and given out leg-before. The lead was 104 now and India had their tail up in the field. The lower order, however, had different ideas.
Patel, Prior pile on misery
Samit Patel struck a few blows against the spinners, before he tried that line of action one time too many and gave his wicket away to Ojha. Prior kept up the good work, targeting Ashwin for boundaries and pulling an impudent six off Ishant. Prior and Graeme Swann added 50 runs to deflate whatever little hope India would have had of dismissing the team within the day.
The 500 was soon up and the lead of 193 that England finished with will surely see some addition on Saturday morning. For India, the Test is fast becoming one they cannot win, and only hope to save, although stranger things than this one turning on its head have been known to happen.