Nagpur: Seize the opportunity by the beard, for it is bald behind ' so goes a famous adage. Rahul Dravid now must be realising it the most.
His Team India made a heavy weather of chances, which came their way, and allowed England on Saturday to coast to an impregnable position in the first Test at the VCA Stadium. At close on Day IV, England were sitting pretty at 297 for three ' with an overall lead of 367. The visiting camp didn’t reveal whether they would start going for the jugular right from the word go on the final day, but one thing is certain, Dravid & Co. won’t live in any moment of relaxation on a track where roughs on both sides of the wicket have further deteriorated.
India have only themselves to blame for arriving at such a catch-22 situation. Throughout the day, catches were dropped at will and chances were allowed to go a-begging. Add to this a hugely contentious decision from the third umpire when Anil Kumble’s caught-and-bowled appeal against Kevin Pietersen (87) was ruled in the batsman’s favour.
He was batting on 36 when he appeared to have jabbed down a half-volley back to the bowler. Shivram studied it from various angles for four minutes and then signalled the batsman to stay on.
It was one of the dashing bat’s third reprieves, while Alastair Cook survived the slice of luck, at least twice clearly, to make his debut memorable with an unbeaten century (104).
Paul Collingwood, who accompanied the debutant till the end of play, survived a strong leg-before appeal from Kumble and a half-chance in the deep off the same bowler. The list of missed opportunities continued like this: Cook was dropped on 70 and 91 by Harbhajan Singh and Rahul Dravid; Sreesanth made a mess of Pietersen’s skewed shot at cover, and none of the sharp throws aiming at running the batsmen out was on target during the day.
As England batsmen enjoyed charmed life, the hosts dipped from the struggling to the hopeless.
One has really to browse through history books to know when the Kumble-Harbhajan combine returned Day IV figures with just one wicket and conceding 180 runs together at home.
“We’ve done well as a combination over the past few months,” he said. “We have to go there and bat well. We’ll have to gain as much momentum as we can, going into Mohali,” Mohammed Kaif later said. “Yes, the pitch is slow and low, and there’s some surprising turns' but overall, it’s not alarming,” he maintained. If it was “just desert” for Matthew Hoggard the previous day, Cook made it certain that the taste remained sweet on Saturday as well, having become the 16th as well as the youngest Englishman to score a century on debut.
True, there was promise in the 21-year-old’s first innings knock, but for a man, who had travelled for about two complete days to arrive here from the Caribbean as a cover for the injury-strung side, delivering 60 and unbeaten 104 simply bordered on the unthinkable. Surprisingly, wearing a mature head on his shoulders, and showing unshakeable resolve against the odds, the Essex opener led England towards a winning position. His 124-run association with Pietersen completely blocked any escape route for India.
It’s the latter however, who first took the attack to India in a one-day mode. Pietersen took full advantage of India’s butter-fingered show, spanking Harbhajan hard through covers and mid-wicket in back-to-back deliveries and then, lofted Kumble for a huge six over mid-wicket.
Cook, on the other hand, entered the nervous 90s via an edge off Harbhajan, which was missed by Dravid at slip. In the next over, Wasim Jaffer could not reach his lofted drive which took him to 97.
Finally, he had the time and space to recline and send a short ball from Harbhajan effortlessly through covers and reached the milestone. His innings spanned for six hours and was constructed on 243 balls and 12 boundaries.
Collingwood then rounded the day off with 14 runs from Virender Sehwag’s solitary over.
England didn’t take much time to finish off India as Hoggard struck with his fifth ball of the day when he trapped Sreesanth leg before to finish with figures of six for 57.
Hopes for India glimmered after the lunch when Irfan Pathan sent back Andrew Strauss and Ian Bell in back-to-back deliveries. But since then, it was India’s journey to the fruitless as a Kumble bowling around the wicket into the rough, or a defensive Harbhajan, seemed to have lost their way under the deluge of missed opportunities.