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Disbelief swept through the ranks of English cricket followers on Saturday as Alastair Cook’s men stood on the brink of what would be a unforgettable victory at the Eden Gardens. That the win was not achieved on Saturday itself has a lot to do with R. Ashwin, who held firm and unbeaten on 83 at stumps on the fourth day, India's lead a paltry 32 runs, and one wicket barring England's way to a massive result in the third Test.
India were 239/9 at close, with very little hope of saving the match, with Ashwin and last man Pragyan Ojha delaying the inevitable. When that happens - and I'm putting my money on well within Sunday's first session - the loss would be the first time in 12 years that India has lost successive Test matches on home soil.
It has been a remarkable turnaround for England in the series. From being one down at Ahmedabad, to pulling level at Mumbai, to emphatically dominating in Kolkata - their growing confidence was mirrored in their approach when India had marvelous beginning to the third day.
MS Dhoni’s team did not put a foot wrong in the opening two hours. They took England’s four remaining wickets quickly to confine the lead to 207 and closed out the difference rapidly through openers Virender Sehwag (49) and Gautam Gambhir (40), who added 86. But England hit back fatally after the interval, and in the span of 17 calamitous overs routed six Indian wickets.
Save for Ashwin, it was a grave batting failure for India after an almost perfect start to the innings. Sehwag played a lazy shot first ball after lunch; Gambhir ran out Cheteshwar Pujara (8), then attempted an eyesore of a drive; Sachin Tendulkar (5) was clueless against Graeme Swann; and Yuvraj Singh (11) was undone by low bounce. Skipper Dhoni (0) was out fishing outside off, and although Virat Kohli (20) hung in there like a corpse on a rope, his downfall too was derived from an uncalled drive that led to the fatal edge.
The sessions swung like a licentious couple. For once one- the first - belonged all to India. They shot out the tail in under five overs for just 14 runs. Sehwag - who was dropped on 7 by Swann - and Gambhir blazed along at over four-an-over to bring the arrears down to 121. A calamitous second session awaited India and the swing in fortunes was sharp. Seventeen terrifying overs claimed six wickets for 36 runs after lunch, which appeared to have had contrasting effects on players.
In Sehwag it induced a pleasant stupor. In Swann a tightness in length that could have resulted from the painful knowledge of a dropped catch. Swann spun the first ball through Sehwag’s gate, clipping the off stick as the batsman’s lazy prod met with nothing. India lost Pujara, Gambhir and Tendulkar within 11 balls of each other. With Sehwag out, runs dried up, and it was chasing an impossible one that Gambhir (yet again!) got his partner run out. This time it was Pujara who responded to the foolish call – following a tuck off Finn on the leg side – with a dive that was beaten by a foot by Ian Bell’s lightening throw from mid wicket.
Gambhir was again involved in a bizarre incident. Jonathan Trott at slip claimed a low catch against Swann. The umpires took the call upstairs. In the absence of DRS, the only thing the on-field umpires could have consulted the third umpire for is whether the catch was taken cleanly. It was. But the verdict was not out since Gambhir had not nicked the ball. A puzzled Cook was seen approaching the umpires, but in vain.
An over later Finn, who had been persisted with after lunch, removed Gambhir when the batsman went for a horrible drive on the off-side, and edged to slip. Tendulkar became Swann’s second when he pushed forward and nicked to Trott. The fast bowler removed Gambhir
It did not even require reverse swing for Anderson to mop up the next two: Yuvraj Singh and Dhoni. The former was bowled when he failed to bring his bat down on one that kept low. India’s captain was out to a shot only second to Gambhir’s in inappropriateness. Dhoni made a three-ball duck before prodding away from the body at a length delivery, offering Cook an easy catch at first slip.
Virat Kohli played stodgily to tea, grinding out for almost 13 overs to arrest India’s slide. The deficit was 62 at the break. With 122 overs to go in the Test match, India faced an uphill task to save their faces, England an easy one to complete the push for victory after having done all the hard work.
Finn’s double-strike in successive overs after tea closed out all routes of escape for India. He ended Kohli’s 60-ball resistance for 20 with an induced edge and trapped Zaheer in front for a blob with a pacy, swinging delivery. England were two wickets away from an unforgettable win. But Ashwin and Ishant held them at bay for 18 overs, during which the lanky Indian fast bowler was dropped by Prior off Monty Panesar, searching desperately for his first wicket of the innings.
The anglicized sardar had his man – and India nine down – when he speared one through Ishant, splaying the stumps like the legs of a mantis in heat. Ashwin meanwhile was conducting batting tutorials of his own. He crashed fours off Swann, one of which gave him his third Test fifty, also ensuring England would have to bat again. The way the tall Chennai off-spinner picked boundaries against Panesar bore the hallmark of an accomplished bat. He was unbeaten on 83 at close, with a resolute Ojha for company, defeat staring in the face like a neon billboard glowing on a dark road.
When India batted, Sehwag started eating into the deficit like a rat in a house of cheese. Gambhir set the tone by flicking Anderson’s first ball to the fence – in exactly the same manner as the first innings. Sehwag, then on 7, was hurried by Anderson’s fuller delivery and his thick edge whizzed through first and second slip – a catch that should ideally have been held. The batsman celebrated the reprieve by pinging another boundary off his pads on the next ball.
The two rattled along nicely when the spinners came on – Panesar and Swann, chiefly, with the odd Samit Patel over thrown in for good measure when the principal tweakers required a change of ends. Gambhir charged down the track to loft Panesar for six in the last over before lunch. If quick runs were what India was looking for, the openers obliged to perfection.
England all out
This was quite in keeping with the swiftness that the bowlers had exhibited in the morning. When England resumed, each of the three participants struck on their second balls. Ojha’s first over yielded Swann, lured into a drive that resulted in an edge to Sehwag at first slip. Prior added one to his overnight 40 before snicking Zaheer.
Anderson blazed a boundary through cover, but became the first of Ashwin’s two wickets on the morning when he too succumbed to the edge. On the following delivery, Panesar received a rough leg-before decision from umpire Kumar Dharamsena after having inside-edged on to his pads. England finished on 523.