Edgbaston: It's a mark of the high standards which England now set that India's eventual total of 224 felt a few too many after the pace attack had made short work of the top order, but the openers reached 84 without loss to ensure they remained firmly in control at Edgbaston. The visitors slumped to 111 for 7 before MS Dhoni rediscovered his form with a counter-attacking 77 as Stuart Broad and Tim Bresnan shared eight wickets to do the bulk of the damage.
Andrew Strauss won his first toss of the series and was happy to insert - as his opposite number had twice done in the series - but though conditions were helpful the pitch was slow and the Indian batsmen mostly aided in their own demise. The only real exception was Rahul Dravid, removed by a wonderful ball from Bresnan moments before lunch, while Virender Sehwag's return lasted one ball and Sachin Tendulkar fell for 1 as England surged either side of the interval.
If it wasn't for Dhoni this match could well have been over as a contest already, but India still have a huge task to keep the series alive after Strauss and Alastair Cook made a significant dent in the total during the final 23 overs. Strauss reached his first international fifty of the season as the pace bowlers struggled to make an impression and Amit Mishra didn't pose many problems.
England's quicks, on the other hand, are a handful in most conditions so a well-grassed pitch and cloudy skies just added to the threat. James Anderson wasn't quite at his best, but Bresnan continued to demonstrate his development as a Test cricketer - and it's worth remembering his place was only confirmed when Chris Tremlett was ruled out on Tuesday - while Broad's resurgence shows no sign of abating.
Yet it wasn't perfect from the home side. While Dhoni and Praveen Kumar were adding 84 in 14 overs there was a strange loss of direction in the field. Strauss was very quick to go on the defensive to Dhoni, at one stage with eight fielders on the boundary, and the bowlers diverted from their successful strategy. As with the Broad-Swann stand at Trent Bridge it showed the impact of a positive approach and India were served well by the captain coming out of his shell.
Dhoni had taken 16 balls to get off the mark, and India were going nowhere as the main batsman had departed in a rush, but he burst into life with a string of boundaries and the strut so often associated with his batting hinted at returning. His fifty came from 62 balls and included three mighty sixes to various corners of the impressively redeveloped ground.
Still, Dhoni's innings only papered over the ever-expanding cracks in India's batting. It would have seemed inconceivable at the start of the series that such a strong line-up (even allowing for the missing Sehwag and other injuries) would have failed to pass 300 in five innings. Sehwag's return couldn't have been briefer when he failed to lower his hands and gloved Broad's first delivery to the wicketkeeper. The umpire, Steve Davis, initially said not out and Strauss was swift to call for the DRS, which clearly showed the mark. Sehwag was seemingly carrying the hopes of a nation on his dodgy shoulder, but the odds were always stacked against him having an impact even if he's one player who often goes against convention.
Given the form of England's pace attack, a grassy pitch and cloudy skies, further wickets seemed there for the taking but India responded solidly. Gautam Gambhir, also returning from injury after the blow to his elbow at Lord's, had already collected two boundaries in Anderson's first over and moved along at a pace more akin to Sehwag's. Dravid, who wasn't given much of a break despite a return to No. 3, showed the judgement and skill that made him India's stand-out batsman in the series.
However, as India were sensing stability England burst through as Bresnan, who had bowled with nagging accuracy and immediately located the right length for the pitch, was rewarded when Gambhir inside-edged a drive onto leg stump. Tendulkar was greeted with the cheers that have followed him throughout the series and Anderson was recalled immediately to target someone he has removed seven times.
This time, though, Anderson had to settle for a helping hand in the wicket when Broad found the outside edge and he held the catch at third slip. It was the third time in the series that Broad had removed Tendulkar, whose 100th hundred is proving elusive, and India's problems didn't stop as Dravid received an unplayable leg cutter that took off stump in the final over of the session. England have had to work hard to dislodge Dravid in this series and Bresnan won't have bowled many better deliveries in his career.
Suresh Raina was again unconvincing as the quicks toyed with him before he loosely drove over a delivery from round the wicket, then Laxman joined the list of poor shots when he flicked a pull straight to long leg much as he did at Lord's. Mishra, who replaced the injured Harbhajan Singh, was batting high at No. 8 and soon edged a drive to give Broad his fourth.
The innings was at its low point, and England will have expected to be batting by tea, but India responded with some gusto. Praveen more than played his part with an idiosyncratic innings which included crunching drives and haphazard defence. The partnership was ended when Praveen top edged a pull off Bresnan, but it again needed DRS to confirm the edge after Davis said not out for the second time.
Given the ultra-defensive fields set by Strauss it was ironic that Dhoni's resistance was ended when an edge flew to the one close man - Strauss, himself, at first slip. The innings was ended when Cook, at silly point, managed to cling onto a well-timed punch that lodged in his elbow. When a team is playing confident cricket those are the sorts of things that go their way. One more good day can seal the series and No. 1 spot.