ANDY FLOWER, feet on the ground sort of chap that he is, worked hard last week to try to keep a lid on the triumphalism that followed a thumping victory in Nottingham. But even England’s widely-respected coach might have been struggling to conceal his satisfaction last night.
Flower has seen just about everything during his career - enough, certainly, to know there is no sense in celebrating until the job has been done and the opposition cannot possibly recover. Well, India were almost at that point of no return yesterday afternoon: two Tests to nil down and 111 for seven. But, just to prove the coach right, MS Dhoni, India’s previously out-of-form captain, crashed his way to 77 from 96 balls to breathe life back into this series. But only a little, it would seem.
Any relief the visitors had felt at recovering to 224 was quietly and efficiently swept away by England’s opening pair of Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook. By the time they trooped back to the pavilion, with an unbroken stand of 84 in the bank, Strauss had bagged his first half-century of the summer and his team were a giant step closer to that title of the world’s No 1 Test team.
It was the perfect end to a near-perfect day for England, who had once again done great work with the ball. Bowling first after winning the toss has become the norm, rather than the exception, this summer. But while there was enough green about groundsman Steve Rouse’s last Test pitch before retirement to suggest it might do a bit for the seamers and sufficient cloud cover to indicate that Messrs Anderson, Broad and Bresnan would find some swing, Strauss’s decision was probably based, more than anything, on wanting to put India’s brittle batting line-up under pressure again.
Brittle batting line-up? Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it, considering the personnel on view? But, with the exception of Rahul Dravid, these star-studded visitors have so far failed to do themselves anything like justice. And, here, not even the belated arrival of Virender Sehwag or the return from injury of Gautam Gambhir could change things as England’s bowlers scented blood, then quickly tasted it.
It does not matter how spectacular your strike rate (nearly 82 per 100 balls) or how high your average (above 50) if your first Test innings since January lasts precisely one delivery. Expecting Sehwag to be a saviour so soon after his recovery from shoulder surgery was asking a lot, but not even the most optimistic home supporter would have reckoned on a golden duck.
Broad probably called it, though. The man who could do little right, with bat or ball, through the first half of this summer, has scarcely put a foot wrong since India turned up. And when he nipped what was anything but a loosener back into Sehwag at the start of the second over, a gloved catch behind - detected by HotSpot if not umpire Steve Davis - set England on their way.
The bowlers had to bide their time while Gambhir, who missed Trent Bridge with a bruised elbow, got away to a frenetic flyer (mixing thick edges to third man with thumping cover drives) and Dravid tried to settle into another long occupation. But their patience was rewarded soon enough as three more wickets fell in the space of 40 balls before lunch.
Bresnan seems to have played most of his nine Tests as a fill-in (replacing the injured Chris Tremlett in Nottingham and again here) but he is a thousand times better than that and would be the first name on many a team sheet. In any event, he was too good for Gambhir and Dravid yesterday.
Clearly fretting at being bogged down, Gambhir edged a flamboyant drive into his stumps while not even Dravid’s wall-like defence could cope with an absolute beauty that pitched on off stump and then held its line to clean bowl one of the game’s greats.
Between Bresnan’s two successes there had been two standing ovations for Sachin Tendulkar: one when he marched out to replace Gambhir and another after he had steered his eighth delivery, from Broad, into the safe hands of Anderson at third slip. There is still time, of course, but so far, this series is turning into a big anti-climax for the Little Master.
If the morning was good for England, the afternoon looked like being even better. Suresh Raina, regularly tested with the short ball, fell to one pitched right up by Anderson, VVS Laxman - out twice at Lord’s pulling - perished to another cross-bat shot when tempted by Bresnan and Amit Mishra snicked a firm-footed drive against Broad.
It was hard to see India making 150 at that stage. But, having failed in his previous four Test innings, Dhoni decided to play a bit of Twenty20 cricket and, for a couple of hours, lifted India’s fans out of their depression.
England do not lose the plot very often these days. They did for a while yesterday, though, when bowling too short for too long against Praveen Kumar, the No 9 who gave his captain brave and increasingly confident support during an innings-salvaging stand of 84.
Dhoni has not had much to feel good about this summer. But after throwing the kitchen sink at Anderson to drive a mighty six, he enjoyed himself further by swatting Bresnan into the crowd and then hooking Broad over the rope.
Strauss tried to regain control through Graeme Swann but saw that plan backfire when Kumar lifted the spinner well beyond long-on. But just when England were looking a little wobbly, Bresnan’s bouncer flicked Kumar’s glove and the end was nigh.
Now almost out of partners, Dhoni drove murderously, but unsuccessfully, against Broad to edge to slip before Ishant Sharma managed to drill Anderson to silly point.
Yes, a little shine had been taken off England’s bowling performance, but only a little. And if there was even the slightest doubt about who had enjoyed the better of the opening day, Strauss and Cook removed it with their first significant stand of the summer.
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