London: To say England dominated at The Oval doesn't really do their performance justice. Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen, both with their second hundreds of the series, combined for a third-wicket stand of 350, England's second highest third-wicket stand, as the hosts plundered their way to 457 for 3 with Bell unbeaten on 181 to leave India facing a three-day fight to avoid a whitewash.
For the first session there was actually a contest as England's openers departed but India's challenge evaporated after lunch to such an extent that the remaining 72 overs brought 331 runs. Bell's 16th Test century was classical and elegant while Pietersen thrilled with some of his strokeplay in his 19th hundred as the bowlers wilted. Both batsmen had to earn the right to score freely by battling through to lunch and ensured they didn't waste the hard work.
It became a head-to-head between the pair for each of the milestones. Bell was the first to his fifty and hundreds, but Pietersen, who went to his hundred with a crunching pull off the first ball after tea, reached 150 ahead of his team-mate as he unleashed his full array of strokes during the final session including a switch hit off Amit Mishra. Bell, though, caught up with consecutive sixes off Mishra in the final half an hour of the day and will have a chance of his maiden Test double on Saturday.
Pietersen, who was dropped at mid-on by Gautam Gambhir the ball after reaching his hundred, missed out on the chance of his second double in the series when he chipped a return catch to Suresh Raina for 175 shortly before the close. The partnership had moved past the 308 of Graham Gooch and Allan Lamb at Lord's in 1990 and sits behind the 370 added by Denis Compton and Bill Edrich against South Africa, again at Lord's, in 1947.
It was the latest example of the hunger among the England batsmen and if there were any question marks over a loss of intensity with the series secured the ruthlessness of Bell and Pietersen showed how they have refocused their minds. Again, though, it has to be said that, after the morning session, the bowling was friendly and fielding even worse.
What a false dawn the early exchanges proved to be. Ishant Sharma struck with the fifth ball of the day when Alastair Cook was caught at first slip and Andrew Strauss, who added just two to his overnight score from 32 deliveries, edged a loose drive at Sreesanth to leave England 97 for 2. That was the highpoint of India's day, and could even prove the highpoint of their match.
The 350-run stand between Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell is the second-highest third-wicket stand for England in Tests. It is also the sixth 300-plus third-wicket stand against India.
Pietersen and Bell have been involved in five century stands in their last ten partnerships. They have now aggregated 1283 runs in Tests since July 2008 at an average of 128.30.
Pietersen's century is his 19th in Tests bringing him joint-third on the list of England batsmen with the most Test hundreds.
Pietersen also moves level with Ian Botham and Graham Gooch on the list of England batsmen with most centuries against India (5).
Pietersen now has eight 150-plus scores in Tests. Only Wally Hammond and Len Hutton are above him on the list of England batsmen with most 150-plus scores.
England have now scored 100 centuries against India in Tests. West Indies are second with 98 centuries.
England batsmen have now scored seven centuries in the series. They have achieved the feat on only two previous occasions against India in 1990 (nine centuries) and 1934 (seven centuries).
Bell's current aggregate of 896 runs in 2011 is second only to Alastair Cook's tally of 927. However, Bell has scored the most centuries in the calendar year so far (5).
Bell's hundred is his 16th century overall and 11th in home Tests. It is also his second 150-plus score of the series.
Ishant was excellent during his first spell of 6-3-7-1 but, with his extensive workload in this series and in West Indies beforehand, it was little surprise he became less effective. RP Singh, meanwhile, just isn't prepared for Test cricket and Sreesanth huffed and puffed without much impact. Mishra was bowling round the wicket at Pietersen's pads before tea and was given some harsh treatment.
The work of Bell and Pietersen was the perfect example of weathering a tough period and cashing in later. Bell laid the ground work following the early dismissal of Cook and, after his innings at Edgbaston last week which was a skittish affair, he was back in full control in the way he had been at Trent Bridge during his 159.
As in that innings third man was a favourite area with India refusing to plug the gap. They preferred a man at deep point, but Bell toyed with them as he slotted boundaries either side of the sweeper. He continued to churn out the runs with the efficiency and style he has shown during a season where his Test average is well over 100. In fitting style his hundred came with a sweetly-timed back-foot drive off Raina having faced 181 deliveries with the second fifty taking 71 balls. With the early threat of Ishant nullified it became an exercise in milking and retaining concentration - Bell had no problem with either.
Pietersen had dominated the partnership early on, firstly while the pair consolidated before the lunch break and then when the rate increased. The first 10 overs of the afternoon brought 59 runs and Pietersen took the attack to Mishra. The contest had started when Pietersen cracked Mishra's first ball through the off side and it was clear he wasn't going to let the legspinner settle. Mishra's lack of drift allowed Pietersen to target the leg side and midwicket was a profitable area.
There was a nervous moment for Pietersen when he was nearly caught at leg slip, in very similar fashion to the early chance during his double hundred at Lord's, as he flicked Ishant off the last ball before lunch but the catch didn't quite carry. Unlike at Lord's there was no controversy, but it had been a clever piece of thinking from Ishant who'd noticed how far across the stumps Pietersen was moving.
However, India's fielding has been largely shoddy during the series and there were two examples in consecutive balls with Pietersen approaching his hundred. RP Singh didn't appear fully committed to a catch at long-off when Pietersen miscued a lofted drive off Raina, then off the first ball of the next over, he dived over a ball at deep backward square to gift another boundary. Gambhir's later drop added the list of errors and, to top things off for India, he was left dazed after banging his head. The scoreboard will have left him dizzy, too.