James Lawton: Dhoni belatedly attends party but 'saviour' Sehwag fails to perform


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The Independent Online

We should give a little credit to MS Dhoni for the extent of his achievement in the least promising of circumstances.

Dhoni, the Indian captain on one of the most misbegotten tours in the history of what used to be the most respected form of cricket, had after all produced a parody of leadership before the third Test started here.

So badly had he played the roles of batsman, wicketkeeper and captain he might well have been hanged in effigy in some of the great cities of the subcontinent back in those days before the cheap thrills of the Twenty20 Indian Premier League had become the most reliable barometer of success back home.

Yet his impact could hardly have been more positive yesterday when most of his men appeared to be in the last throes of abdication as the world's best Test team.

What Dhoni pulled off was a stupendous feat of memory. He remembered who he was and what kind of team he was supposed to be leading.

India were 92 for five when he walked to the wicket in early afternoon yesterday and once again the England bowlers had produced both brilliant application and impressive technique. When he left India were hardly resurrected defenders of the No 1 world ranking, having failed for a fifth successive occasion to either score 300 runs or survive more than 100 overs, but though Stuart Broad and Tim Bresnan had both claimed four wickets Dhoni had breathed at least a little life back into arguably the worst prepared team in the annals of front-rank Test cricket.

They were all out for 224 after Dhoni hit 77 runs off 96 balls and smashed three sixes. This may not have been a Himalayan achievement from the team which so brilliantly supplanted the great Australian team of Ponting, Warne and McGrath at the top of the world rankings, but chiefly through their 30-year-old captain they did something to deflect charges that their preparation for the title defence had come perilously close to fraud.

That suspicion inevitably flared again when Virender Sehwag arrived for his much heralded first contribution to the series. Delayed by the need for shoulder surgery, which was put on hold while he fulfilled his lucrative IPL deal, Sehwag arrived as the putative saviour.

He left, like another titan of the pyjama game, the broken Zaheer Khan, who pulled up on the first day of the first Test at Lord's, as the latest evidence that this Indian team had quite shamefully neglected their responsibilities.

Khan lasted less than a day. Sehwag was around for one ball. It was delivered by Broad and was far too good for a batsman who had been given just two days against Northants as preparation for the Test which could now so easily be the one which lifts England above all rivals.

When Sachin Tendulkar soon returned to the pavilion after scoring just one run, and so tentatively it seemed he had as much chance of turning England into a land filled with wall-to-wall neighbourliness as scoring his 100th international century here, and his great contempories Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman could produce only a combined total of 52 runs, you knew that this was still another day when the home team would once again draw up the agenda.

In the end the scoreboard yet again said as much. For those in India who still believe in both the beauty and the supremacy of cricket's long game it must have been as depressing as the great plumes of acrid smoke moving across the city. They rose from a scrapyard fire which the police deemed to be "unsuspicious".

Against India, though, the charge remained emphatic. It was that they had come here completely unconditioned for the local challenge. Zaheer's breakdown was one statement, Sehwag's implosion another.

Only Dhoni, with some considerable help from his big-hearted seam bowler Praveen Kumar, stood up against the crushing indictment. Plainly, he came out to fight and he did it with such commitment and relish that it was hard to believe he was the same man who had subsided so meekly at Lord's and Trent Bridge.

He was much more the man who led India to their superb World Cup victory. Yesterday such possibilities were beyond him. However, he could still call up a little pride and a little fight.

Dhoni couldn't transform this potentially important series into anything like a meaningful test of which cricket nation has the right to be called No 1. All he could do was remind us that Indian cricket should have been so much better than the masquerade of this summer. As Strauss and Alastair Cook batted with mocking serenity last night, the black smoke in the sky had cleared. Unfortunately, the scandal on the ground had not.

Stats magic The numbers that matter from day one

5 Bowling first after winning the toss used to be a rarity. Not any more. It has now happened five times in six Tests this summer – and not yet paid a victory dividend.

5 India have played five Tests at Edgbaston before this one and have failed to win any of them.

8 England have eight players 'long-listed' for the International Cricket Council's Cricketer of the Year award. Jonathan Trott and Graeme Swann, nominated in three categories, are joined in the hunt for the main prize by Jimmy Anderson, Ian Bell, Stuart Broad (above), Alastair Cook, Andrew Strauss and Chris Tremlett. The winner will be announced at a ceremony in London on 12 September.

1 India may not be No 1 for much longer but they have created another first through their captain, MS Dhoni, declining to do interviews with television and radio rights holders after the toss.

119 Sachin Tendulkar has made the century everyone expected of him when this series began. But an aggregate of 119, in five innings, is not what India, and their countless millions of fans, had in mind.