| Anil Kumble en route to his 58 in Nagpur on Friday. (Reuters)
Nagpur: First it was just a few hesitant rustlings in the stands, but the ‘bring-back-Sourav’ chorus gained ground as soon as Matthew Hoggard (30-13-57-5) started spitting fire with a nagging line blended well with reverse swing, and the pride of Team India batting scorched to an unrecognisable entity. This was the stage when Mohammed Kaif made his entry to the VCA ground on Friday.
Under pressure to perform and facing a situation, which was threatening to turn from bad to worse, Kaif had very little options left. It was not about proving his worth, but also keeping the team afloat in the match. The right-hander delivered on both accounts and in style.
From denying Hoggard the hattrick glory, to his somewhat disappointing halt in the nervous 90s, it was a journey from the scratchy to the scintillating, from the wobbly to the wonderful. An innings ' that lasted for exactly six hours and was built around 263 balls and 11 hits to the fence ' which can best be described as the perfect response to the task he was thrust into.
He was stopped nine runs short of what would have been his maiden Test century, becoming debutant Monty Panesar’s second victim, Sachin Tendulkar being the first. But by then, the chorus for the former captain had subsided, and successor Rahul Dravid’s blushes had been saved. Following Kaif’s departure, the umpires called off the day’s action with 2.2 overs in arrears.
Thanks to Kaif’s 91 and his gutsy 128-run eight-wicket stand with Anil Kumble (58), India, who were staring at following on at one point of time, finished the day at 322 with Sreesanth’s wicket in hand. Still 71 runs short of England’s first-innings total, the hosts will definitely look to rise to the occasion in the remaining days.
As they say, behind every act of heroism, there is an unsung support. But to say that Kumble ' the indomitable and fighting character that he is ' played second fiddle to the Ranji Trophy-winning skipper’s dogged yet artistic display, would be an understatement.
When he joined Kaif in the middle, India were reeling at 190 for seven. Andrew Flintoff & Co. must have taken him as the weaker link, but Kumble not only fought against the odds, but also went on to inspire Kaif in a bid to blow a hole in England’s momentum.
His 246-minute fight, in fact, was a more prominent reflection of the battle of attrition the duo engaged themselves in than his partner’s. Eight of his 10 boundaries caressed the region between point and third man, indicating he had this limitation of playing with an open stance. Yet he made sure that England had to fight for each inch in order to get him out.
Both gave chances to the English bowlers, but fortune surely favours the brave. Make no mistake, Kaif and Kumble were brave on Friday.
The morning, however, belonged to another hero. Hoggard didn’t appear to be the kind of a tearaway, but he was right there with a tempting line outside the off-stump. Despite the threat of overnight rains, the sky was absolutely clear, but in line with the unpredictable forecast, the unthinkable swept aside Team India camp.
First to go was the captain, inside the third over of the day ' the Hoggard delivery swung back and found Dravid presenting his pads to it. Aleem Dar agreed with the Yorkshire bowler’s appeal, but television replays suggested the ball could have missed the leg-stump.
That was just the beginning of a long procession, with Hoggard playing the catalyst. Wasim Jaffer (81) missed his century, VVS Laxman came and departed in the very next ball, and an over-cautious Sachin (16 off 45 balls) also failed to make an impact ' becoming Panesar’s first victim. Panesar ran almost down to the boundary-line, savouring the moment.
This set the stage for Kaif and Kumble to fight back, which resembled that of Paul Collingwood’s resistance, along with the tail-enders on Thursday. But just when it was looking to be meant for something more, Panesar intervened and broke Kaif’s defence.
“I am very disappointed. I wanted to carry on,” Kaif later said.
This setback, coupled with Steve Harmison’s dismissal of Kumble seven balls earlier, meant it was time for the Barmy Army to sing again and England starting Day IV on an advantageous platform.