A baffling effort with the bat in the first hour, and then five hours of largely fruitless labour with the ball led to India slipping further and further away from victory after the fourth day of the fourth Test against England at the Vidarbha Cricket Association ground in Nagpur on Sunday (December 16). Declaring their first innings four runs short of the England first innings total of 330, India then saw England stretch their lead to 165 for the loss of just three wickets, meaning only a flurry of wickets on the final morning could now give them a glimmer of hope.
India started the day on 297 for eight, still 33 behind the England first innings total, with R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha at the crease. Was the idea to keep batting for as long as possible or to score quick runs? Neither. It must have been to just bat for the first hour, because India declared after batting till the first drinks break, adding just 29 more runs and losing the wicket of Ojha, bowled by Monty Panesar.
Leading the series 2-1 with just under two days to go, Alastair Cook and Nick Compton took the safety-first route. It was, as in the first three days, attritional cricket at its most extreme, with Cook and Compton on the defensive from the start. The partnership lasted 29.5 overs and added just 48 runs to England's lead. Cook's 13 runs came from 93 deliveries. And when India finally got the breakthrough, Cook caught behind off Ashwin, it came as a gift from Kumar Dharmasena, the on-field umpire, as he missed seeing daylight between Cook's bat and the ball.
Compton's 135-ball 34 was an equally defiant effort and, again, was ended by an umpiring error of sorts. He was given out leg before to Ojha when the ball had clearly been inside-edged on to the pad. He was out anyway because Virat Kohli, at second slip, caught the deflection, but then again, if the appeal had been for a catch, Rod Tucker, the umpire, might have shaken his head, not having spotted the inside edge.
Just prior to Compton's dismissal, however, came the most entertaining moment in an otherwise quiet day when Ravindra Jadeja, in the 38th over of the England innings, bowled a pea-roller - losing grip on the ball and seeing it bounce five or six times before reaching the batsman. It was a no-ball, as per the rules, but Jonathan Trott didn't let the freebie pass by, whacking it to the boundary. No rule broken; just a passage of play that left some Indian players, especially the bowler, looking somewhat sheepish.
That wasn't the only boundary Trott hit though, and he was the only England batsman to show some urgency in an effort that otherwise suggested that there was no plan to push for a win. Kevin Pietersen was as sedate as he had been in the first innings. A dropped catch at first slip by Virender Sehwag off Jadeja - where Sehwag looked like he had switched off completely - suggested that Pietersen would make the Indians pay as was his wont. Not on the day though. In his very next over, Jadeja fooled Pietersen (6) with an identical delivery to the one that bowled Trott in the first innings - pretty straight, with the batsman shouldering arms anticipating turn.
Like in the first innings, Mahendra Singh Dhoni showed a surprising lack of faith in Ashwin and Piyush Chawla, preferring to bowl Ojha and Jadeja, both left-arm spinners, through the best part of the day. Ashwin, despite being the best of the Indian spinners on view, spent most of the day walking around the park not doing much.
Trottwas part of two other slightly tense moments in the last session. The first, when the Indians had a vociferous appeal for a caught behind off an Ishant Sharma delivery turned down, led to an extended war of words between Trott and the Indian fielders led, unsurprisingly, by Kohli. The second was in the last half hour, when he backed up too far while Ashwin was bowling to Ian Bell. Ashwin, pulling up in his bowling stride, gave him a stern talking to.
India's best chance of forcing a result in their favour, thereby levelling the Test series, would have come if they picked up a few morewickets after sending Pietersen back. But Trott (66*) and Bell (24*) ensured that England were in a position to dictate proceedings on the final day. A draw was still the likeliest result, unless one of the teams could put up a performance of the sort that this Test match hasn't seen at all so far.