Cricket: Smith at home on green grass: Blakey and Emburey dig in to salvage England innings as decision to bat almost backfires

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ENGLAND were ordinary enough by the seaside yesterday to prompt Lord Ted into commissioning a report on the hazards of batting in dangerously high ozone levels. However, at least Robin Smith offered a glimpse of his real self, and Richard Blakey, the tour's Lord Lucan, was merely grateful to offer a glimpse of any sort of self.

Smith's 143-ball innings of 82 did not entirely clear away the doubts about his ability to cope with spin, and he had made only 14 when he shovelled what was only his fourth delivery against a slow bowler straight to mid-off. Down went the catch and in such circumstances are Test match places won and lost.

Whether or not this was a deliberate ploy on behalf of the home captain, Sachin Tendulkar, ('Whatever you do, lads, make sure Smith gets a hatful . . .') Smith, who in Calcutta resembled a man auditioning for a Morris dance with his bootlaces tied together, will have regained a fair amount of confidence against a much more modest spin attack here.

It was Smith's good fortune too that the pitch was untypically Indian, a grassy seamer with enough bounce and movement to attract a reasonable quota of the sort of bowling he prefers, and a fresh sea breeze blowing across the ground produced a generous amount of swing.

In the circumstances, England's decision to bat first raised further question marks about their ability in the art of pitch-reading, and after Smith was the fourth of five wickets to disappear for only 129 runs, it required a rearguard action (initially commendable, latterly turgid) from Blakey and John Emburey to restore respectability.

Blakey was not scheduled to play, neither would he had Graeme Hick not succumbed to the flu-type virus that has been picking off the tourists one by one, and Graham Gooch not withdrawn because of the after effects of the same complaint.

En route from Calcutta, the captain looked and sounded as though he was ready for the knacker's yard, an impression exacerbated by the sight of him wandering about with a pillow (purchased from the team hotel in Lucknow after a rare couple of nights of undisturbed sleep) tucked under his arm.

However, Gooch being Gooch, the prospect of a day off was far more horrifying than putting his feet up, and after spending the entire morning at net practice in the hottest temperatures of the tour so far, he also relieved the 12th man of his duties during drinks breaks.

Alec Stewart, who has it in him to make Gooch look like a malingerer if and when he finally takes over, thereby led the side when he was due to take this match off, and, as fate often decrees in such circumstances, it might easily have cost England one of their more important players for the next Test.

Stewart was struck on the right index finger by a distinctly lively Salil Ankola in the third over, and it looked for all the world as though he had suffered a break. It was nasty enough - a broken blood vessel swelling up the finger to resemble a purple frankfurter - but Stewart is apparently planning to resume later in the game.

It was a close enough call to raise further doubts about the wisdom of coming here without a pure wicketkeeper, and Blakey, who had not played an official game before yesterday (during the pre-match ceremony, Gooch might have considered introducing him to his own team-mates as well as the local dignitaries) was almost in line to keep wicket in Madras.

Blakey and Emburey batted together for virtually the whole of the second half of the day, and offered commendably straight bats at a time when England were in serious difficulties. Unfortunately, they offered precious little else, and given that the outfield was faster than a maharajah's polished marble floor, the combination of the heat and the scoring rate acted as a Mickey Finn of overwhelming proportions.

Meantime, Ted Dexter's comments on the Calcutta smog rumble on here, and yesterday brought a tongue-in-cheek riposte from India's environment minister: 'In view of the distress expressed by Mr Dexter,' he said, 'I shall consider instituting a study to ascertain the impact of pollution on the trajectory of spinners.' Back to you, Ted.

(First day: England won toss)

ENGLAND - First Innings

M A Atherton c Paranjpe b Ankola 33

* A J Stewart retired hurt 0

R A Smith lbw b Prasad 82

N H Fairbrother b Kapoor 2

D A Reeve lbw b Kapoor 3

R J Blakey not out 55

P A DeFreitas c Yadav b Prasad 2

J E Emburey not out 43

Extras (b2 lb1 w1 nb6) 10

Total (for 5) 230

To bat: I D K Salisbury, P C R Tufnell, D E Malcolm.

Fall: 1-81 2-91 3-120 4-127 5-129.

Bowling: Ankola 22-6-81-1; Prasad 18-8-26-2; Chatterjee 12-1-33-0; Padmanabhan 19-6-31-0; Kapoor 23-6-49-2; Tendulkar 3-0-7-0.

REST OF INDIA XI: * S R Tendulkar, W V Raman, A R Khurasiya, S V Manjrekar, J V Paranjpe, V Yadav, V Prasad, K N A Padmanabhan, A R Kapoor, U Chatterjee, S A Ankola.

Umpires: A V Jayaprakash and S Chowdhra.

(Photograph omitted)