Friday, December 12, 2008

Chennai Test - Day 2

It was a great day of Test Cricket at Chepauk. 

England began the day at 5/229, hoping to turn the tide in their favor after being set back in the last session of Day 1. Dhoni played a masterstroke early in the day by bringing the leg-spinner Mishra on to bowl. The move worked like a charm, for Flintoff was dismissed in Mishra's first over. It was one of those dismissals which was not set up or anything, but just happened. This seems to be a wicket which will reward the good ball. This was to be a pattern throughout the day.

Dhoni stayed with Mishra and the old ball, what with Zaheer Khan getting some early reverse swing. In hindsight, he may feel this was a mistake, for the new ball was available, and with Prior and the tail to face it, might have yielded quick results. The counter argument there, is that the old ball was swinging, while the new ball may not have. In any event, the last five English wickets added 87 runs on the day.

Dhoni's faith in spin did not yield the results that he may have wished for, because his premier spinner - Harbhajan Singh bowled an awful spell. It was quite amazing how often he bowled an aimless, flat, shortish ball, against a tailend batsman who was intent on defensive. He seemed to be caught in two minds between the conventional wisdom, which suggests that a spinner needs to bowl slightly faster in India, because the wickets are very slow, and the more classical idea that a spinner needs to rely of guile and lure the batsman to his doom. Against a defensive nightwatchman and a reasonably good wicketkeeper batsman, both of whom seemed to rely exclusively on the sweep, Harbhajan Singh seemed unhappy and out of ideas.

When India batted, they faced a top quality new ball attack - fast bowlers tailormade for these wickets. Steve Harmison and Andrew Flintoff are both very tall, strong bowlers who hit the wicket hard and can derive enough lift from the wicket deny the batsman the opportunity to drive on the rise. Harmison bowled an immaculate line, giving the Indian openers nothing to cut or to drive. Sehwag and Gambhir responded properly, leaving as much as possible, pinching the occasional single when they could play a ball well enough to direct it into a gap, and basically trying to see off Harmison's spell. Flintoff came on, and forced the batsmen to do pretty much the same thing.

Sehwag's dismissal was against the grain. I hesitate to say that it was against the run of play, because the English new ball attack was very good, but it was not set up in any way. It was simply a case of Sehwag making the judgement that a ball was available to cut. There was a bit of swerve into the stumps, and the ball was just too close and too full to cut. There was something slightly cheeky about the attempt, and Sehwag seemed to know as he played the stroke that he had made a horrible mistake. It was an event which highlighted the thin line between great judgement and bad judgement. It was not a reckless stroke by any means, neither was it expansive. Sehwag's intent was to watch the ball onto his bat, and he failed.

Rahul Dravid came into bat with the best fast bowler in the world at the moment in full cry. Dravid is going through a run drought at the moment, and naturally has not been spared all the accompanying pressure and crisis of confidence. I found myself willing him on, as he poked and prodded, and occasionally smiled wryly. He made missteps, and then corrected them. When he was able to push one into a gap and run a quick single, the relief was evident in his running. 

Just when he may have though he played himself past Flintoff's spell, he faced up to the last ball before tea. It was a good ball, pitched on a great length, and turned. Dravid missed it, and was caught in front of the stumps. It was the sort of dismissal which happens to an out of form batsman. Had he been in good touch, that last ball would have been a gentle off break which he would have patted back to the bowler and walked away for the Tea break. But typically, it had to be better than just a gentle offbreak and Dravid had to play it tentatively from the crease and miss it! In any event, it was Swann's second wicket in his first over in Test Cricket - the first bowler to do so in the history of Test Cricket.

The wicket of Gambhir, which was Swann's first in Test Cricket, was a worthy effort. Gambhir played according to a well tested method to offbreaks pitching in a rough - he tried to cover the line of the ball and the turn. Part of the reason for playing this way, is that it is a safe way to play against any in-drift, because the batsman is fairly confident that the ball will turn away from the stumps. Swann had bowled the conventional off-break, and so, it should have turned. But, two things defeated Gambhir - firstly, the ball didn't really turn much at all, and second, it drifted in prodigiously (this is possibly a function of the ball being new), which meant that Gambhir was padding up uncomfortably close to off-stump. It was just one of those dismissal's like Sehwag's and even Dravid's, which was not set up, but came out of the blue.

The pre-Tea session for India truly highlighted the fact that it can take but one ball to dismiss a batsman.

Post-tea, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman began the repair job, until both were dismissed within 4 runs of each other against the run of play. England were bowling very well, but the Indians seemed to be batting well too. Every bowling change Kevin Pietersen made came off.

At 6/155, India are in trouble. They have to bat 4th on this wicket, and are still 161 behind England's first innings score.  But, the last four wickets added 87 runs for England. India's scoring rate suggests that they have had no trouble scoring runs. It is still a game where one substantial score of 70-80, will significantly dent England's advantage. India have built a history of batting poorly in their first batting innings in a series against England. At Lord's in 2002, they were dismissed cheaply on a good wicket. A similar thing happened at Nagpur in 2006 (Kaif an Kumble rescued them to 291 in reply to England's 407), and again at Lord's in 2007. 

Another gripping day is in the offing. The quality of cricket has been very high over the first two days, and with 16 wickets having fallen, a result looks certain, even if the equivalent of a full day is lost to the weather. 

The Indian captain has his work cut out for him.

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