ENGLAND were jolly good, India were dreadful. In the two hours of play that were possible on the first day of the final Test, the story of the summer unfolded.
It was about resolute, confident and sure-footed batting and wayward, innocuous, hesitant bowling. The upshot was that England’s opening batsmen scored 75 runs and India’s four bowlers took no wickets.
This was not much evidence on which to base the potential course of an entire match, but it seemed enough: the home side to win some time on the fifth day, perhaps before if India’s batsmen embark on their business as their bowlers did yesterday.
It is possible that The Oval pitch and their history on it will offer the tourists some reason for hope. They have not lost at the ground since 1959 since when they have won once to secure a historic series win and had five successive draws. But that was also the year when The Oval match confirmed a whitewash; a reprise seems likely.
For the first time since the opening Test match of the summer at Cardiff, the side winning the toss decided to bat. Unfortunately for the tourists, it was England. In summing up the other day his side’s misfortunes in this series, M S Dhoni, India’s captain, said that such matters as injuries and tosses were out of his control.
True, but it ignored the fact that he won the toss in the first two matches, put England in and still lost. But bowling with his attack on this surface was not on his priority list.
From the first over onwards it was wretched. R P Singh, playing his first Test match for three years, took eight minutes to complete it. This was less his fault than that of the coves who kept bobbing up and down behind the sight screen at the Vauxhall End but rhythm, fluency and accuracy all eluded him.
It was an astonishing selection. Singh joined the tour as a replacement for Zaheer Khan, whose absence has proved so debilitating, but apart from his lack of recent Test experience he has not played a first-class match since January.
He must have performed mighty service in the nets to persuade the team selectors that he was a better bet than Munaf Patel, an original squad choice, when Praveen Kumar withdrew with a poorly foot. Apart from any other factor, Kumar has been India’s go-to bowler, having despatched 158 overs in the first three Tests. Singh, whose left-arm swing was impressive in this country four years ago, did not look like a man desperate to bowl 40 overs in an innings as Kumar did at both Lord’s and Edgbaston.
Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook settled quickly into their roles. If they were tested it was by Ishant Sharma, who found some semblance of pace and beat the batsmen occasionally as the ball went across them outside off stump. Sharma was easily the best of India’s seam trio, which did not make him exactly a rose between two thorns.
He caused the only real discomfiture when his bouncer, rearing awkwardly, hit Strauss firmly on the helmet requiring a replacement. All was otherwise insipid. This was particularly disappointing once more in the case of Sreesanth, who was once a free spirit who made the batsmen and everyone else aware of his presence.
That has gone. The volatility has been replaced by drab uniformity which has seeped into his bowling, the hippie who became a bank clerk. Strauss, in form now, and Cook, never out of it, saw the session merely as a platform on which to build something gigantic. The first boundaries for both of them were streaky, off outside edges, but thereafter they punished the dross which was fed them on their legs and also the half-volleys on off stump. It was the 18th time they had put on 75 or more for England’s first wicket and they looked as if there was plenty of power to add.
England, as expected, named an unchanged side from that which won at Edgbaston by an innings and 242 runs. Jimmy Anderson’s quadriceps injury had responded well enough to treatment for him not to be considered a risk and the fact that he had a little longer to rest it was also good news for the home side.
They have now gone a record 16 matches since June last year without fielding a debutant. The next one, if mentions in despatches are any guide, will be James Taylor, who scored his second century of the one-day series against Sri Lanka A for England Lions earlier in the week. This is an important match, therefore, for Ravi Bopara. He may have some time to wait yet before his audition for the winter tour.
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