Kolkata: It might be too early to write India off, but if England take time off to check the price of champagne in Kolkata, it is understandable. Skipper Alastair Cook's fifth century in his fifth Test as captain, and his 23rd overall, the most by any England player was one of the classiest seen at the Eden Gardens. It left England on 216 for one, in reply to India's 316, with three days to play. Cook was dropped at 17 by Cheteshwar Pujara, which might turn out to be the most costly miss of the series.
It may have been a good toss to lose after all, for not only did India not score too many runs, they didn't take up too much time either, leaving England enough time to build up a score that will put as much pressure on India as any of their bowlers. England are only 100 behind, have nine wickets in hand, and can plan to bat the whole of Friday and into Saturday too. Except for a short phase after lunch, no Indian bowler threatened; the spinners appeared confused about the pace at which to bowl, the arithmetic of which Monty Panesar had worked out when India batted.
Cook and Nick Compton put on 165 for the first wicket: Compton was happy to push and nudge while Cook gave a master class in Test match batting, playing with a serenity that was monk-like in its discipline, and was joyful too. Cook will be only 28 on Christmas Day, and has already gone past the 22 centuries of Walter Hammond, Colin Cowdrey, Geoff Boycott and his teammate Kevin Pietersen. He also crossed 7000 runs in his 86th Test, faster than Viv Richards, Ricky Ponting and Greg Chappell.
Cook's batsmanship might have given India some hope, for the message was simple: if you are willing to stay at the wicket, play straight and let the ball come to you rather than search for it in hope, the track is the batsman's ally.
England didn't miss a chance to add to their total, running singles and even late-in-the-day threes as the Indian fielding began to wilt. The sweep off R Ashwin that brought up Cook's century came off the 179th ball he faced, yet he ran three. Compton had earlier suddenly gone against the grain jumping out to Pragyan Ojha and hit him for six, and on 57 might have been unlucky to be given out leg before. Television replays suggested he might have gloved the ball. But his batting too had a message for India, which lacked a player willing to grind it out.
But this was Cook's day from the first ball. It had everything – drives in front of the wicket, pulls, leg glances, flicks and cuts. And all played with a certainty about the ball's destination on leaving the bat. In all he has played 236 balls, hit 19 boundaries and a six.
There was a short phase after lunch when India seemed to have the edge. Both Zaaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma bowled a tight length and at a brisk pace. It didn't last very long, perhaps half a dozen overs or so, but it is in such periods, when the bowling is in the ascendancy that wickets have to be taken both to maintain the momentum and to thrust the opposition back.
It was now that Zaheer produced the ball that might have made the difference, angling it into Cook and then getting it to straighten. A lesser batsman might have been beaten, but Cook is in such fine nick that he managed to edge it in and out of Pujara's hands at first slip. Cook was 17 then out of 27, and it became clear once again how much more Rahul Dravid, India's 200-catch man at first slip would be missed. It is one thing to ease Pujara the batsman into Dravid's shoes, quite another to force him into the same shoes as a slip catcher.
With that miss, the spell was broken, and Cook soon showed his gratitude by cover driving Ishant for four and on-driving Ashwin for six. The Indian medium pacers were restrictive rather than penetrative, and the spinners innocuous.
About an hour's batting in the morning gave India the chance to add 43 runs, and their skipper another half-century at this venue, but both were short of what might have been.
Last man Ojha supported his captain who brought up the 300 with an off driven six off Panesar and with the field brought in, drove the next ball on the other side for a second six. Ojha remained without scoring for 19 balls.
Dhoni brought up his fifty with a flashing cover drive off Steve Finn, but was surprised by the steep bounce the bowler obtained next ball and could only fend it, leaving Graeme Swann to run and dive to his right to complete a fine catch.
England's threatened long grind thereafter was made pleasurable by Cook on a second successive day of absorbing cricket.