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Dhoni’s captaincy, superb Ishant give India the edge

Just before lunch on Friday, the television cameras panned around to the England balcony, where Stuart Broad was reading a biography of Harold Larwood, the late, great Nottinghamshire and England fast bowler.

The poor treatment of fast bowlers was an overarching theme of Larwood’s life, and on this graveyard pitch Broad, still sore from his toils, might have mused that not much has changed.

If he found himself engrossed in the story of Bodyline, he might have momentarily looked up and pondered the contrasting nature of the cricket in front of him, as Gary Ballance and Sam Robson took England calmly to 131 for one at lunch.

Both had moved to composed half-centuries in 123 balls, with Robson dominating the first hour, and Ballance the second. Neither had seemed unduly threatened by seam or spin, there was little movement for India’s bowlers and the talk was of England passing India’s first-innings total. It all looked a little tame.

Two hours later, Broad, the reader, became Broad the rescuer as a calamitous afternoon session, the kind from which defeat is crafted, saw England lose six wickets for 68 runs in 22 overs.

Broad counterattacked briskly thereafter, allowing Joe Root, hitherto becalmed, to play more freely for his half-century, and their partnership of 78 put the horrors of the afternoon session into some kind of perspective, although the memory of it remains.

For the first hour of his innings, Root surveyed the wreckage and showed the kind of relish for the battle and stubbornness of character that has long been apparent.

Later, after Broad and Liam Plunkett had been dismissed, he showed his more creative side, shepherding James Anderson in an unbeaten last-wicket partnership of 54 that did not erase the consequences of the collapse but at least kept England within touching distance.

Even Anderson seemed to enjoy his batting and it is some time since he has been able to say that.

Quite how to explain this decline from 134 for one, just before Robson became Ishant Sharma’s first victim, to, when Ben Stokes edged his second ball behind, 202 for seven?

Chief among them must be the excellence of Sharma’s spell just after lunch, from which the rot set in; the changing of the ball in the 54th over, which brought immediate dividend; India’s tactics, which were spot on; Dhoni’s proactive captaincy, also spot on; the absence of DRS, which cost Matt Prior his wicket, and the tempo of cricket in sub-continental style conditions, which encourages occasional change with bewildering rapidity.

First to Sharma, the rangy and frustratingly inconsistent fast bowler, who found his groove in a fine seven-over spell from the Pavilion End just after lunch, during which he dismissed Robson, leg-before with a sliver of doubt, Ballance, with none whatsoever, and Ian Bell, the strongest plank of the Eng-land vessel, who was unable to withdraw his bat from a wide ball that bounced unduly.

Nothing that happened before lunch could predict events immediately afterwards, but then lunch this week has had that effect on the batsmen of both teams; maybe they should bring their own from now.

Sharma is like the girl with the curl, and can be good or horrid, and in this spell he extracted as much life from the pitch as anybody.

He led the attack as leaders must do, allowing others, principally Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who took a career-best four wickets, to follow in his slipstream. Kumar, swinging the ball this way and that at military medium pace, represented something of a throwback, but his skill in presenting a perfect seam is not in question.

Robson, pinned on the back foot with the possibility of a faint inside edge, was dismissed in the 50th over. Four overs later, India persuaded the umpires to change the ball. It looked a fair decision, since the old ball would not go through the hoops designed to signify the proper shape of a ball.

Yet the consequences seemed clear, as the new/old ball suddenly began to swing, which was especially costly to Ballance, who, having played fluently for 71, moved too far to the off side of a ball that darted back and trapped him leg-before.

To use the Homeland Security threat levels, India’s bowlers were still a long way from severe, but at least the threat was elevated now rather than low to non-existent.

Possibly the cloud cover helped as well, but there is no doubt that India's bowlers got the ball to move in the air in a way that England's had not, which is one more worrying item to add to Peter Moores’s growing list.

Sharma then gave way to the skiddy Mohammed Shami, who surprised Moeen Ali with a rare bouncer.

The ball did not bounce as much as Ali expected; he flinched and took his eyes off the ball, which then ballooned off the thumb of his bottom glove.

Before tea, Dhoni fiddled for a while, giving Kumar a six-over spell, then Ravindra Jadeja one over, before returning to Kumar for a solitary over that brought the wickets of Prior and Stokes to complete the drama, and allow Dhoni the captaincy bragging rights.

Prior was unlucky. Having driven Kumar to the off-side fence, provoking Dhoni to stand up to the stumps, he poked forward two balls later, flicking his pad with his bat, but missing the ball by a considerable margin.

Kumar Dharmasena, the umpire, was fooled by the noise, and sent Prior on his way, bemused and sorry no doubt for the absence of DRS. Stokes’s so far anonymous return to colours was compounded immediately when he edged an outswinger from round the wicket.

Quite what was said at tea must remain a mystery, but Broad’s intentions were soon clear, although not before he had let Bruce Oxenford, the umpire, know what he thought of the Prior decision.

He counterattacked, finding the pace of India’s bowlers more to his liking than Mitchell Johnson in the winter and his 42-ball 47 at least gave England some impetus.

Whether it will be enough to have his captain inscribe a silver ashtray with the words “from a grateful skipper” must remain open to doubt: India’s lead is 105 and the noose is tightening around Cook’s neck.