Kolkata: Just as great poets do not always write great poetry, great batsmen do not always play great knocks. Sachin Tendulkar's 318th innings spoke of struggle and overcoming pressure rather than fluency and dominance, but in the context of the day's play, his 76 was crucial. India finished on 273 for 7, perhaps a couple of wickets too many, on Wednesday's (December 5) opening day of the third Test of a series poised at 1-1. England's bowlers made the batsmen play a high percentage of the deliveries, which was the secret of their success.
Jimmy Anderson's was the performance of the day, reward for old-fashioned adherence to accuracy and consistency, and the more recent technique of reverse swing. He was hostile till the final overs, claiming R Ashwin with the second new ball.
Monty Panesar, without being quite as threatening, bowled with the kind of tightness associated with left-arm spin. Anderson, superb with the older ball, had Tendulkar caught behind to ensure that it would not be the Mumbai man's day.
As Tendulkar's runs grew in quantity and quality, there was a suspicion that the groundsman, despite his public statements, had laid out a track on which India's greatest batsman might rediscover his form. It wasn't quite flat, but batting on it was not the test of skill that either Ahmedabad or Mumbai had conjured up.
Tendulkar was past 50 before he gave the first glimpse of the batsman with over 15,000 runs in Tests; for the most part, he was the Tendulkar of more recent vintage, playing the wrong line, edging intended drives and occasionally misreading length. He could have been out to Panesar a few times, or Anderson, but luck went his way and that was a fine combination with his own resilience. The pressure on Tendulkar grew with the fall of every wicket.
The first ball after tea, Tendulkar flicked Steve Finn for four to complete his first fifty since January this year, ten innings after his last one in Sydney. Relief and celebration followed next ball when he got up to his full height, met the ball on the top of its bounce and fired an uppish drive past cover point.
Panesar came in as early as in the eighth over and proceeded to send down 21 overs in a row, encouraged by the early wicket of Cheteshwar Pujara. India went in to lunch at 90 for 2, honours even, with Alastair Cook's pace-spin combination promising.
Pujara had been surprised by one from Panesar that went straight; the hype about the wicket seemed to be working on the mind of the batsmen too. At 47, Virender Sehwag had played to midwicket and might have completed three but for Gambhir turning ball-watcher and he himself taking off without a confirmed ticket.
The middle session belonged to England. Anderson in particular was a different bowler with the old ball, getting it to reverse occasionally and having Tendulkar in some trouble. Gambhir, who had setlled down after his trademark swishes at the medium-pacers, played Panesar well. On his last tour here, when Panesar had asked Tendulkar to sign the ball with which he had dismissed him for his first Test wicket, Tendulkar had written, “Never again” on it. But it had happened again, and again in this series. His struggle against the left-arm spinner continued as he inner-edged him, sliced him and presented an angled bat in defence.
While the Tendulkar-Panesar battle took centrestage, it was Gambhir who fell, slashing to Jonathan Trott who held a brilliant reflex-action catch at slip. It set Panesar off on a version of the bhangra, complete with a fingers-in-the-mouth whistle. You can take the lad out of Punjab etc.
Virat Kohli hung out his bat to Anderson to be caught at slip. Yuvraj Singh might have followed soon after, but got the benefit of the doubt when struck on the pads.
The arrival of Yuvraj brought Graeme Swann into the attack, and the batsman seemed to take strength from Tendulkar's increasingly relaxed style at the other end. He hit the offspinner for two successive boundaries, the straight drive suggesting he might have come to terms with the attack.
The 79-run partnership for the fifth wicket was in the process of unlocking the bowlers' grip when Yuvaraj failed to keep his drive down and was taken by Cook at short cover.
But it was Tendulkar's dismissal in the 75th over that removed any ambiguity over who had the better of the day's play. The ball from Anderson might have reversed a bit, but at any rate it forced the batsman to play, and edge. You do tend to get the best deliveries when you are out of form. For those who see significance in such things, the Indian flag on a building outside the stadium was flying at half-mast.