| Sachin on Sunday
Nagpur: The Sunday crowd at the VCA Stadium hardly expected it when India left the field for tea. At 131 for one ' with Rahul Dravid and Wasim Jaffer batting on 46 and 84, respectively, and enjoying a long but subdued 219-minute association ' any challenge to Andrew Flintoffís sporting declaration appeared over and out.
But in the theatre of uncertainty that is Test cricket, a contest always has two faces: one makes you believe in one thing, the other leads you to another discovery.
Following Dravidís dismissal on 71 (187 balls and 4x10), the only interest of the match was whether comeback man Jaffer would be able to make his maiden century. Then, what was looking like a slow but steady march towards a draw, took a complete turnaround in a matter of minutes. So, in came no Sachin Tendulkar, V.V.S. Laxman or Mohammed Kaif, but Irfan Pathan. And thus began Indiaís chase for 368.
The allrounder played a little cameo ' 35 off 25 balls, including four fours and an over-boundary, before passing the baton to Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Jaffer, in the meantime, raced to 100 in a run-and-gun fashion and perished on the same score in the next over.
Sachin and Dhoni then started the mandatory 15 overs with the score at 236 for four. The Master Blaster, who had to use his bat for the second time in parrying a danger from Flintoff while facing the second ball of his innings, spanked Blackwell for three boundaries.
Like Indiaís sudden change in gears, dark clouds appeared from nowhere at that moment. And just when everything became so typical of a one-day mode, scaring England into the belief that India might accomplish the improbable, the action came to a halt, again without giving anyone the slightest bit of a hint.
When Dhoni and Harbhajan departed in quick succession, leaving England dazed, Sachin took an offer for bad light even though new man Laxman was yet to take his guard. India thus ended 108 runs away from the target with 70 balls to go.
It remained as amazing as Indiaís strategy. They surely had other ideas earlier, and statistics like just 68 runs in 26 overs were added between lunch and tea, merely established the fact. Even if they had any intention of remaining positive on the final day, the plot was lost in the first two sessions in the form of Dravidís decision to drop anchor. When he departed, the effectiveness in Englandís early breakthrough might have been ruined, but more than four hours were lost in constructing the 167-run stand with Jaffer.
Flintoff decided to declare the second innings at the overnight score (297 for three) and everyone expected India to go about with a positive frame of mind. Instead, Man-of-the-Match Hoggard served up a perfect dish to the English camp in the dayís third over. Virender Sehwag once again failed to gauge the late swing and was beaten through his gate. Jaffer and Dravid went into the shell immediately.
Driven by the opportunity to start on a winning note as the England captain, Flintoff threw everything around the bat ' three slips, gully, forward short-leg and short-cover. Such traps, however, could hardly stir Jaffer and Dravidís composure and calculation. With the lunch approaching, there was indeed small deviation from the Indian captainís focus, when Ian Blackwell, using the rough, forced him to offer an edge, but Geraint Jonesí late reaction was not enough to grab the opportunity. Dravid was batting on 19 at that time.
Jaffer, on the other hand, was painting the arc from the point to mid-wicket with some delectable drives. The Mumbai opener, though, drove Harmison but the stretching Ian Bell at short-cover couldnít get his hands to the ball. Then on 71, he nearly perished, when Dravid sent him back after an initial call, but Matt Prior ' who replaced Kevin Pietersen, injured while chasing a boundary ' missed the target from about 10 yards.
With the track playing true and not appearing conducive to reverse swing, India surprisingly didnít come out of the shell at that point of time. Dravid finally fell, Flintoff had long been hoping for from his spinners. Monty Panesar pitched one on the roughs and it turned sharply to bamboozle Dravid. His association with Jaffer lasted for two minutes shy of four and half an hour, a time characterised more by preventing England from gaining the initial momentum than picking any urgency to build the platform of chase.
The late bursts, therefore, remained extraordinary but could not veer towards a desired end.