ANY residual notion that this Test series presented a contest between equals was finally dismantled yesterday. Sometime today, or perhaps a little later, if a combination of rain, riots or miracles such as resistance from their opponents are involved, England will confirm their status as the world’s top team.
Only in the official ICC table, which tends to be slower moving than the Indian cricket team, has this ranking been denied them until now. They were utterly dominant on the second day of the third Test, more imposing than in the two preceding matches, which is saying something since they won those by 196 and 319 runs respectively.
Alastair Cook scored his 19th Test hundred, giving nary a chance and growing in command as the day went on. India had dismissed him four times for a total of 20 runs in four innings before arriving at Edgbaston and might have begun to wonder what all the fuss was about. Now they know.
Despite the brief hiatus, Cook has made seven hundreds in his last 18 Test innings. He was 182 not out at the close, having batted for almost eight hours and hit 26 fours, England’s fourth centurion of the series. England, who scored 372 runs in the day’s 90 overs, were 232 runs ahead with seven wickets in hand, possibly giving their captain Andrew Strauss a sleepless night about when he might declare. Not for a while yet.
Although counting leads in Test matches - 301, 302, 303, - is much more conducive to sleep than counting sheep, another pesky statistic might have intruded on Strauss’s calculations. He was out 13 runs short of a deserved hundred and has now passed three figures only once in 38 innings (compare and contrast with Cook) but it matters not when his team are playing like this.
There will be some legitimate debate about the quality of India’s play in this series. At all times, it has been much below what might have been reasonably expected from the team which is still, for a few more hours at least in ICC Towers, the No 1-ranked Test team.
Whatever the reasons - too much cricket in too short a time, too much time on the road, an ageing team, or, everybody’s favourite, the Indian Premier League - they have been well short of the necessary. Almost as disconcerting is the suspicion that it has not exactly hurt them to the depth of their collective soul.
It is possible that this is a gross misrepresentation of the truth and that they will need counselling sessions when this tour is done to try to come to terms with their fall from grace. The manner in which they have gone about their business and the lethargic nature of much of their work yesterday continued to belie the fact that they came here as champions.
None of which should remotely belittle England’s planning. In the past nine months, they have had two major Test series - Australia away where they won 3-1, and India at home in which they can now confidently be expected to win 4-0. They recognised the significance of both early and have plotted accordingly. Is and Ts may have protested loudly at being dotted and crossed so fervently.
The morning session exemplified the team that England have become. They were obviously in control having bowled out India for 224 and being 84-0 overnight. Still, consolidation was required. India have not lost their self-respect and under cloudy skies they mounted an early offensive.
Strauss and Cook were regularly beaten outside off stump, especially by Praveen Kumar from the New Pavilion End, who wobbled the ball through the air like rippling jelly. If the tourists were unfortunate not to find the edge in this period, England’s opening pair were also fully prepared to play the waiting game. The day’s first boundary did not arrive until its 15th over.
They knew that if they could tread their way through this territory they might soon be strolling in sunlit uplands. Thus, they left ball after ball outside the off stump with the result there was only one momentary scare.
Strauss shouldered arms to a ball from Kumar, expecting it to swing away as had all its predecessors, instead of which it curved in and narrowly missed off stump. Kumar’s seven-over spell contained five maidens, yielded only two singles but still begged the question why he did not try more often the one that goes in to the left-hander.
Gradually, Cook and Strauss upped the ante. On the stroke of lunch Cook reached 50 with his seventh four, a clip off his legs which has been seen before from time to time. Strauss’s hundred was looming easily into view when he swept at the leg spin of Amit Mishra and was bowled off his pads. Nobody looked more surprised than India.
Replays subsequently showed that Mishra had overstepped the popping crease. Since he had already bowled four no balls, perhaps it should have been spotted. But perhaps Strauss is not destined yet to score another Test hundred.
Ian Bell came in and immediately played an array of lovely strokes, intent on leaving an indelible mark on his home ground in memory of his mentor, Neal Abberley, who died earlier this week. Maybe he was too anxious to succeed. He was reprieved at first slip by Rahul Dravid on 30 and was eventually stopped in mid-gallop by a peach of a ball from Kumar which left him a touch off the seam and uprooted off stump.
In came Kevin Pietersen to continue the slaughter with Cook. Pietersen is clearly enjoying his game again and bristled yesterday in the old way. He got out in the old way, too, playing across his front pad to Kumar and was lbw.
But this was not the sign for revival. The sun came out in the evening and England were remorseless. Eoin Morgan clipped his first ball for four, was badly dropped on 17 at point and on 43 at slip, and the way in which India reacted suggested they almost expected it. The world’s No 1 team are in Birmingham this week. They are not India.
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