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The boot is on the other foot. After losing the first Test and equalizing the series at Mumbai, England – for the first time – found their noses ahead of India in this needle series. It did not matter that Sachin Tendulkar had just completed his first knock of any significance in almost a year. It mattered even less that the innings was quite unlike those the batsman has come to be known for.
For all the doggedness and modification of modus operandi displayed by Tendulkar in his battling 76, India found themselves not quite in sight of safety at the end of the first day in this most crucial third Test, at the Eden Gardens. The hosts were 273/7 at close after MS Dhoni elected to bat on a flat surface, having suffered more than half their dismissals to lapses of the mind rather than to anything special on the part of the bowler.
Monty Panesar turned in lengthy and productive spells, indicating again he has freed himself of the straitjacket of being a one-dimensional bowler. He was supported well by James Anderson, who picked three wickets with the older, reverse-swinging ball, and by an injury-free Steven Finn, who replaced Stuart Broad in the eleven. Both Finn and Anderson tested the batsmen with pace and movement, while Swann chipped in with quick spells.
Dhoni, batting on 22 with Zaheer Khan, will seek to push the score as near to, and beyond, 300 when play resumes on Thursday morning. England, for their part, would like skittle out India's tail for as less as possible. It's all set for another intriguing, equally-contested Test match, something that looked unlikely when a shirtfront of a playing surface was unveiled in the morning.
An equal start
It was an opening session of equals. Dhoni won his third successive toss and would not have been entirely unhappy about the kind of pitch dished out by veteran curator Prabhir Mukherjee. Not quite a turner – yet – the surface appeared to be full of runs, the kind India had piled on in their last three visits to Eden Gardens, all first innings scores in excess of 600.
But if England and Alastair Cook would had braced themselves for a few tiring sessions of cricket, in the careless run out of Virender Sehwag and in Monty Panesar’s dismissal of the in-form Cheteshwar Pujara they found their own revitalization. Sehwag looked unperturbed by the defensive fields set for him and was stroking his way to another carefree knock. He pierced the off side for three boundaries, and could have been taken at gully – but the fielder, Kevin Pietersen, was a few paces too deep.
India were cruising when Sehwag – oblivious to Gambhir’s vocal protestations from the other end – was run out going for a third after having sauntered across for the first two. The Najafgarh native whipped Anderson to midwicket and was inches away from completing the third when he realized Gambhir hadn’t budged from the crease. Sehwag ran back frantically, but by this time Samit Patel had scrambled out from deep square leg to make a stop.
Finn lasered in the throw and Matt Prior broke the stumps as the panting opener chugged in a few seconds too late. If Gambhir could be blamed for causing his partner’s downfall, he did try and make amends. The southpaw continued from his fighting second innings fifty at Mumbai , starting chancily and gaining in confidence when Panesar was introduced in the eighth over.
Panesar removes Pujara
Gambhir used his feet to find boundaries off the left-arm spinner, and sat on a cautious half-century at lunch - with Tendulkar at the other end - having also seen through the loss of Cheteshwar Pujara. The Saurashtra batsman looked solid during his 48-ball stay. He, after all, had been the batsman England had found most difficult to dislodge.
But a few overs to lunch, Pujara stayed back to a Panesar arm ball and was bowled – the red orb whizzing into middle stump. Panesar danced, knowing that a wicket on such a flat pitch warranted no less a celebration. As it happened, more celebrations were in store for England.
Sachin struggles, then shines
Desperately in search for runs, Tendulkar’s focus was like a psychic’s on a spoon-bending mission. But rarely has he gone on to a big score after beginning so laboriously, as he scrambled to yet another landmark: 34,000 international runs. It was intriguing to watch Tendulkar struggle and then cope with some good bowling.
Panesar tested him with bounce, Finn troubled him with away movement, and Anderson harnessed reverse swing to rattle the 39-year-old with deliveries that dipped sharply in. Tendulkar braved it all, with ugly public hoots for his retirement likely ringing in his ears, and stuck with it as he neared an elusive fifty. He dabbed Panesar to the third man fence, and punched Finn off the backfoot like only he can.
Quick wickets for England
While such thoughtful application was going on at one end, Gambhir (60) at the other went down to Panesar. The southpaw tried to cut a full delivery, and edged to Jonathan Trott at slip. India lost their fourth wicket when Anderson's terrific post-lunch spell was finally rewarded. Kohli on 6 – having dispatched a juicy half-volley to the boundary on the previous delivery – discovered the ball flying furiously off his outside edge to Swann, who managed to peel the sphere off the ground.
Another failure for the promising young batsman drew cruel online comparisons with Tendulkar, who was now nearing a century – albeit of balls faced, not an altogether bad situation for a player struggling for time in the middle. He gained couple of boundaries off the open face of the bat against Anderson, and with Yuvraj Singh clouting two of his own off Swann, runs appeared to come slightly more easily as tea neared. India entered the break on 172/4, although they could have been five down were a close leg-before appeal against Yuvraj not overturned.
Tendulkar's fifty, Anderson's feat
A disdainful flick off Finn gave Tendulkar his first Test half-century - and 66th overall - since January last year, in Sydney. Things suddenly looked brighter in the middle as Yuvraj pulled Swann with confidence and the partnership swelled threateningly. But it was a false dawn for India. In Swann’s next over, Yuvraj (32) gave it all away, chipping straight to Cook at short extra cover to interrupt the alliance on 79.
A low murmur was now coursing through the stadium. Tendulkar was on 76. Drinks had just been taken. Would the 101st materialize here and now, on this auspicious day? Alas! It was not to be. Anderson claimed India’s hero in the over after resumption, a length ball that shaped away just enough to take the edge, which Matt Prior dove low to his right to pouch. The wicket tied Anderson with Mutiah Muralitharan as the bowler to have claimed Tendulkar’s wicket the most times – eight.
Anderson wasn't finished. Near close, as Dhoni and Ashwin were pushing India towards 300 with a partnership of 38, Anderson claimed his third wicket when he bowled the off-spinner with a fast in-swinger that cannoned into middle and off stump. It could have been worse for India. Skipper Dhoni could have been dismissed first ball when his wristy shot landed inches short of Samit Patel at mid wicket.
But Dhoni powered on, striking boundaries to finish unbeaten on 22. He will strive to take India as close to 300, and beyond, when play resumes on Thursday morning. And then hope his bowlers fare slightly better in Kolkata than they did on a rank turner at Mumbai. Hope does spring eternal in the Indian heart!