When two teams conspire, as England and India did on the opening day of their Test series, absorbing cricket can be played even on the most lifeless of pitches. At the Sardar Patel Gujarat Stadium in Motera, Ahmedabad, innings of authority from Virender Sehwag and Cheteshwar Pujara, and combative bowling from Graeme Swann, ensured that it was not one-way traffic. India ended Thursday (November 15) on 323 for 4, well on top, but England fought hard to try and stay in the game.
For starters, Mahendra Singh Dhoni won an important toss and quickly chose to bat, the ninth time he has done so at home, never having lost in those instances. Even as James Anderson and Stuart Broad completed their opening overs, it was clear that the pitch was dry, and footmarks began to appear well before it was customary. But the pitch was no rank turner, not yet anyway, and lack of pace and bounce confounded England's bowlers.
Sehwag was watchful, keen to set the tone just right at the start of a big series, and this paid rich dividends. With no conventional swing on offer and the ball not carrying through at a decent height to Matt Prior behind the stumps, the bowlers lost their way early in the piece, helped along by Sehwag's judicious punches. Only twice did Sehwag take the aerial route on the way to bringing up his half-century off 45 balls.
Gautam Gambhir, although less convincing than Sehwag, fought hard to preserve the partnership, and when the 100 came up, it was the first time in nearly two years. Sehwag and Gambhir had put on 127 at Centurion against South Africa in December 2010, and should have been separated in Ahmedabad on 134 when Gambhir lunged forward against Swann to be comprehensively beaten. Prior could not gather cleanly, but did not have to rue the miss long as Gambhir (45) tried to cut Swann and was bowled.
Pujara joined Sehwag and there was little change in the proceedings. Although the tip-and-run singles were harder to come by, Pujara was perfectly fluent, square-driving with composure and whipping the ball through the on-side with practised ease. For a brief period Pujara outscored Sehwag, who remedied the situation by launching Swann for a boundary at long-on to reach his 23rd Test hundred. The relief on Sehwag's face was obvious - it had been 23 months and 30 innings since Sehwag made 173 at Ahmedabad against New Zealand - and the dressing-room stood as one to applaud a fine start.
Just as the delicious thought of a Sehwag epic surfaced, Swann's perseverance paid off. Having got to 117 off as many balls, with 19 fours and a six, Sehwag tried to slog-sweep Swann and missed, the classical offbreak turning precisely to rattle the stumps.
The cheer that Sehwag got for his innings was made to sound like a whimper when Sachin Tendulkar's entrance was greeted with a tremendous roar. But the elation was premature, as Tendulkar, exuberant early in his innings, lofted Swann over the leg-side, but only found Samit Patel in the deep. Gone for 13, with the score on 250 for 3, India suffered their first moment of self doubt in a day they had comprehensively dominated.
Virat Kohli must've wondered what he had done wrong as England's bowlers finally hit their straps as the No. 5 batsman settled in. Sticking to one line and bowling to the fields set for him, Anderson began to explore the reverse swing on offer, and it was a testament to Kohli's temperament that he was unfazed even as he faced 29 balls without getting off the mark. The 30th, though, was driven back down the ground with elegance and lifted the pressure off Kohli. In a moment of laxity, Kohli then attempted to cut Swann off the stumps, but the extra overspin and lack of width resulted only in a thick edge to slip. Jonathan Trott clutched clumsily at the ball, grassed it, and still claimed the catch, only for the on-field umpires to check with the TV umpire and dismiss the appeal.
All through the excitement, Pujara moved from strength to strength, not taking a risk or offering a chance. There were enough loose balls on offer to ensure that no strokes needed to be manufactured, and Pujara reduced the exercise to one of careful accumulation. Kohli did not quite follow Pujara's example and was bowled through the gate for 19 by a Swann delivery that turned extravagantly enough to leave R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha licking their lips in glee in the dressing-room.
Yuvraj Singh was given a thorough examination by spin from Swann, and with indifferent bounce on evidence on the first day itself, the value of the early runs India scored became clear. While Yuvraj survived to fight another day, Pujara thrived, untroubled by pace and spin and reached 98.
For England, whose seamers returned combined figures of 44-4-193-0 in stark comparison to Swann's 32-5-85-4, a long Indian tour just got longer.