A fortnight ago the England and Wales Cricket Board was being widely criticised for agreeing to a seven match one-day series against India, but after another thrilling encounter between these two evenly-matches sides here yesterday cricket-lovers would be happy to watch another four or five games. Whether the hearts and minds of players of both teams could cope with the range of emotions for another week is, however, another matter.
In a series of outstanding matches this was the best yet. It had everything; hundreds of runs, a dramatic finish, a maiden international hundred for Owais Shah, an exciting and highly encouraging half-century on debut from Luke Wright and an innings that ended with Dimitri Mascarenhas smashing five consecutive sixes. And this was just while England were batting.
India's display in chasing down England's total of 316 was equally absorbing. There was a stunning innings of 94 from Sachin Tendulkar, in his penultimate innings in England, a combative 53 from Sourav Ganguly and an astonishing unbeaten 33-ball 47 by Robin Uthappa in his first game of the series.
There were moments of controversy too, with the England captain, Paul Collingwood, being contentiously run out and a verbal exchange between Ganguly and Stuart Broad that needed the umpires to step in. But it was India who prevailed with two wickets remaining when Uthappa smashed the fourth ball of the final over down the ground for four. Uthappa's team-mates ran out to mob their hero. Broad looked desolately at the ground but the paceman had nothing to be ashamed of – until then he had been the best bowler on show. The result leaves the series wonderfully poised at 3-3 with Saturday's Lord's game to come.
England were dejected as they trudged off but they, too, should be pleased with their contribution which was packed with that often overused word "character".
The performance was achieved without Andrew Flintoff, whose ankle injury will again be reassessed before Saturday's finale, and had the big man been present the result may have been different. But he wasn't and England may have to become used to that.
Tendulkar and Ganguly set about England's attack as soon as they took guard, putting on 150 runs in 22 overs for the first wicket. While they were at the crease India looked set to cruise home. But the pair lost their wickets within four overs of each other and England began to claw their way back in to the game. Intelligent bowling from Monty Panesar and Mascarenhas left India needing 56 off the last six overs and when Broad bowled Mahendra Singh Dhoni for 35 the match and the series appeared to be England's.
But Uthappa had other ideas. The right-hander rode his luck, edging boundaries to third man and fine leg, but in between he played some exquisite strokes. Ten runs were needed off the last over but a scampered two and a sweep to fine leg for four finally turned the game the visitors' way.
England's innings was dominated by a wonderful display from Shah. The 28-year-old walked out to bat in the 18th over, passing his rather disgruntled captain on the way to the middle. Collingwood could not argue with the decision the umpires finally came to, but he had every right to feel irate about the chain of events that led to his downfall. Umpire Peter Hartley, making his international debut, was at the centre of the controversy, giving Collingwood not out after Kevin Pietersen had called him for a quick single.
Dinesh Karthik, the substitute fielder, returned the ball to the keeper, who broke the stumps and Hartley appeared to turn the appeal down. But then, as he walked in from square-leg to replace the bails, a replay of the incident was shown on a giant screen, and when it became obvious that Collingwood was six inches out of his ground the Indian fielders began to celebrate as the umpire, rather hastily, signalled that he wanted the third umpire to have a look at the episode.
Ian Gould confirmed that Collingwood was out and the England captain exchanged a few angry words with the umpires before leaving for the pavilion. There is nothing in the Laws to say an umpire cannot change his mind and, ultimately, the correct decision was made but it was reached in a mucky and unsatisfactory way. It left England precariously placed on 83 for 4.
It was not the last run out of England's innings; Pietersen fell the same way in the 31st over after posting a patient and disciplined 53, his highest one-day score of the summer. With England on 137 for 5, and with all their experienced batsmen gone, it appeared as though they would fall well short of a competitive total on an excellent pitch.
But how wrong the doommongers in a capacity crowd were. Shah, Wright and Mascarenhas not only took England well past a respectable score, they lit up south London with an extraordinary display of batting, adding 177 runs in the final 18 overs.
Initially, Shah was content to allow Wright to play the big shots while he skillfully and intelligently placed the ball in to gaps, but once the debutant had found his feet he showed his class. The Oval is proving to be a good ground for Shah; it was here this summer that he helped win a Twenty20 game against the West Indies with a sparkling 55.
Shah's innings combined brutal power and beautiful deft touches. Delicate sweeps and dabs to unpoliced areas were followed by thunderous drives and smites down the ground. The range of stroke makes it hard for the opposition to set a field. Shah uses his hands superbly which allows him to change the stroke he wants to play at the last moment. He had a slice of luck on 40 when he was given not out after top-edging a sweep on to his leg and being caught behind, and from this moment he never looked back.
Wright was nervous to begin with and it took him eight balls to score his first run, a cut off Yuvraj Singh for four, but once in he showed what an exciting cricketer he is, smacking fours and sixes almost at will. He too was run out but all that did was allow Mascarenhas to come in and put the icing on the cake. On another day it would have won his side the game.
The Oval scoreboard
England won toss
A N Cook c Dhoni b Khan 0
+M J Prior lbw b Agarkar 6
I R Bell b Chawla 49
K P Pietersen run out 53
*P D Collingwood run out 1
O A Shah not out 107
L J Wright run out 50
A D Mascarenhas not out 36
Extras (b1 lb7 w6) 14
Total ( for 6; 50 overs) 316
Fall: 1-0 2-20 3-79 4-83 5-137 6-243
Did not bat: S C J Broad, M S Panesar, J M Anderson.
Bowling: Khan 10-0-43-1; Agarkar 8-0-63-1; Ganguly 7-0-43-0; Chawla 10-1- 44-1; Powar 9-0-44-0; Yuvraj Singh 5-0 -59-0; Tendulkar 1-0-12-0.
S C Ganguly c Pietersen b Broad 53
S R Tendulkar c Collingwood b Panesar 94
G Gambhir c Panesar b Mascarenhas 47
Yuvraj Singh c & b Mascarenhas 18
*R Dravid c Collingwood b Shah 4
+M S Dhoni b Broad 35
A R Uthappa not out 47
A B Agarkar run out 1
Z Khan run out 0
R R Powar not out 0
Extras (lb9 w9 pens 0) 18
Total (for 8; 49.4 overs) 317
Fall: 1-150 2-156 3-209 4-216 5-234 6-294 7-307 8-309
Did not bat: P Chawla.
Bowling: Broad 9.4-1-46-2; Anderson 8-0-79-0; Mascarenhas 10-0-55-2; Collingwood 8-0-54-0; Panesar 10-0-55-1; Shah 4 0 19 1.
Umpires: Aleem Dar (Pak) and P Hartley (Eng).
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