Nagpur: It’s a match India must win, if only to save face and avoid humiliation – a Test series defeat at home after a 0-4 drubbing when on tour in England last year. So India versus England it was at the Vidarbha Cricket Association ground in Nagpur, but the highlight of the day was provided by the pitch – almost white, dry and starting to crack, making batting very difficult while not yet assisting the spinners much. So much so that though India, after being asked to field, picked up only five wickets, they would feel good after allowing England to score only 199 runs at a rate of 2.05.
A day before the Test started, Mahendra Singh Dhoni had said that there was a strong chance three frontline spinners would be picked in the playing XI, the only concern being the possibility of reverse swing as the match wore on.
As it turned out, the Indians found that there was a bit in the pitch for seamers – no pace, but certainly a little movement and iffy bounce that brought the leg-before decision into play if Ishant Sharma, the lone pace bowler in the team, could maintain a disciplined line.
Ishant did exactly that. The ball repeatedly dipped on its way into the wicketkeeper’s gloves, but the slight extra pace Ishant brought with him ensured that an edge from Nick Compton (3) carried to Dhoni – the breakthrough coming as early as in the fifth over.
Then, in the ninth over, Ishant had a very confident appeal for leg before against Jonathan Trott that looked plumb, but Kumar Dharmasena, the on-field umpire, decided otherwise. In Ishant’s very next over though, Dharmasena compensated for his earlier error by declaring Alastair Cook (1) out leg before to a delivery that looked like it would miss off stump.
Ishant was given a six-over spell to start with and an over or two here and there later on, but as the bone-dry pitch dried out more, even he couldn’t get the ball to do anything noticeable. To his credit though, he stuck to the job and contributed well to the team’s overall plan of choking the England batsmen, preventing easy runs, attacking not with fielders surrounding the bat but with a well-placed field that played on the patience of the batsmen.
On to the spinners then, as expected, and with Trott and Kevin Pietersen, both right-handers, at the wicket, Dhoni brought on Ravindra Jadeja ahead of R Ashwin or Piyush Chawla, the more recognised spin options in the XI, possibly because of Pietersen’s perceived fallibility against left-arm spin. Pragyan Ojha operated from the other end. On the day though, Pietersen didn’t falter, not till much later.
Even as Dhoni rotated his bowlers, Trott played a typical Trott innings, nose to the ground and nothing flashy, while Pietersen played a most un-Pietersen-like innings – nose to the ground and, well, nothing too flashy. Yes, Pietersen being Pietersen, there were a few muscular hits over the infield off Chawla, who bowled a number of hit-me balls in his first spell, but on the whole, Pietersen looked like he wanted to settle down for the long haul.
Strokemaking was tough as the ball stopped on the batsmen and the 86 runs Trott and Pietersen put on together for the third wicket came in 39 overs – slow going, especially on the first morning of a Test match, that too after England opted to bat. The partnership was finally broken an hour into the second session when Jadeja, the debutant who bowled a lot more than Ashwin and Chawla, hit Trott’s off stump with one that didn’t turn and had the batsman shouldering arms, anticipating spin. Trott made 44.
England might have felt they were in a stronger position while Trott and Pietersen were out there, but with runs coming in a trickle, honours were pretty even at this stage. And then it swung in India’s favour when Chawla flighted one on to driving length outside off and Ian Bell (1), whose reputation as a good player of spin bowling has taken a beating in recent times, played the ball uppishly to Virat Kohli at short cover.
Pietersen was still going strong though, and went into the tea break unbeaten on a sedate 68 with Joe Root, the debutant replacing Samit Patel, for company. But after adding just five more runs, soon after play resumed, Pietersen played into the trap laid by the Indians, flicking Jadeja firmly but failing to keep the ball down. Ojha dived forward at midwicket to complete the dismissal. Pietersen’s 73 runs spanned 188 balls.
The rest of the day went according to the script. Spinners in operation, new ball taken in the 88th over – on a day when 97 overs were bowled – but with Ojha and Jadeja getting their hands on it before Ishant did, a lot of defensive prodding with the occasional forceful hit from Root (31*) and Matt Prior (34*). They have now put on a crucial 60 runs together. There was no more excitement for the home fans that numbered approximately a couple of thousand. With the pitch promising to deteriorate quickly, we could be in for a fascinating battle of attrition.