Making your Test debut is considered to be one of the most nerve-racking experiences in a cricketer's career but Owais Shah yesterday became the latest England player to handle the occasion with aplomb. Andrew Strauss started the trend when he scored a fine hundred against New Zealand at Lord's in 2004, and since then Ian Bell, Kevin Pietersen, Alastair Cook and Shah have opened their Test accounts with scores in excess of 50.
Shah, unlike his Middlesex team-mate Strauss, did not go on to mark the event with a century, but his innings of 88 suggests that he, too, has a bright future. Shah's assured batting was the principal reason why England were able to post an imposing first-innings total of 400, and the visitors strengthened their hold on the third Test when they took three Indian wickets in the final session of the second day.
Matthew Hoggard took two of these wickets but it was James Anderson's dismissal of Sachin Tendulkar that brought the greatest delight to the England team. Rahul Dravid and Yuvraj Singh safely negotiated the final 80 minutes of play but India, on 89 for 3, need 112 runs to avoid the follow-on.
Anderson looked embarrassed when he took his last Test wicket in South Africa 14 months ago. Herschelle Gibbs had been fortuitously caught at third man when he top-edged a cut at a wide long-hop, but yesterday Anderson had no reason to feel abashed. Tendulkar is not in great form but it was Anderson's accurate bowling that forced the "Little Master" to push hesitantly and edge a ball he should have left alone.
Anderson's problems since bursting into international cricket three years ago have largely been confidence related, but doubt is an affliction that failed to enter the mind of Shah. Shah only found out that he would be making his debut when Duncan Fletcher told him that Alastair Cook had woken up with gastric troubles, as England travelled to the Wankhede Stadium in Bombay on Saturday. Shah thus became the England's 632nd Test player.
Yet from the moment he took guard he looked comfortable with his surroundings. He left his first ball, danced down the wicket to his third ball, bowled by Harbhajan Singh, and cut the fourth ball he faced for four. Severe cramp in his left hand prevented him from batting after tea on the first day but his strokeplay in each part of his innings has highlighted his class.
There is a slightly arrogant and dismissive look about Shah's batting and this stirred up Shanthakumaran Sreesanth and Munaf Patel, India's two fastest bowlers. But Shah is the sort of character who enjoys a bit of chat and he gave the pair as good as he received after flogging them to the boundary.
"The way I bat is I try and play everything on merit. If the ball is there to be hit, I back myself to hit it. That comes across as aggressive," Shah said.
When Dravid surprised everyone and invited England to bat on Saturday morning Andrew Flintoff's ravaged side would have settled for a first-innings total of 400, but before the dismissal of Paul Collingwood yesterday the visitors looked set for more. There was little Collingwood could do about the away swinger that clipped the outside edge of his bat, but his dismissal was the catalyst for a collapse in which England lost seven wickets for the addition of 74 runs.
For the first hour and a half of another sweltering day England looked destined to post a huge score. Flintoff and Collingwood had had their luck - Collingwood should have been given out lbw on 21 and Flintoff was dropped twice on 29 - but the tourists were in control of a tired and frustrated bowling attack.
Flintoff quickly followed Collingwood, when he hoicked Anil Kumble to deep mid-wicket, and this left England with two new batsmen at the crease. Forty-two of Flintoff's 50 runs came in boundaries but up until this moment his batting had been controlled, and it made the stroke all the more remarkable.
Geraint Jones was also guilty of playing an awful shot and he was caught by Kumble in the gully. England are prepared to tolerate Jones's sloppy glovework if he scores runs but his batting average has now dropped to 28.44. Jack Russell was a wonderful wicketkeeper, yet he was dropped from the England side for Alec Stewart, a better batsman, with a Test batting average of 27.
Shaun Udal offered brief resistance but he and Hoggard fell to consecutive balls to Munaf Patel. Shah kept out the hat-trick ball before proceeding to have some fun. Munaf was driven and clipped exquisitely for four, while Harbhajan was struck over long-on for six. Yet with the prospect of becoming the 11th England player to score a hundred in his first Test innings only 12 runs away Shah tried to guide Harbhajan to third man and was caught by Dravid at slip.
Shah accepted his fate with a wry grin, but this will not be the last time he provides England supporters with fine entertainment.
Moment of the day
* James Anderson has had a bleak couple of years with England but the dismissal of Sachin Tendulkar on his home ground will have done wonders for his confidence. England will need Anderson to continue bowling well if they are to draw level in the series.
Shot of the day
* The Wankhede Stadium pitch has the reputation for helping spinners yet it did not stop Owais Shah skipping down the pitch and easing Harbhajan Singh over long-on for six. It was a classy shot from an excellent player of spin.
Ball of the day
* Matthew Hoggard must have wondered if his innings was worth it after Munaf Patel ripped out his leg stump with a yorker. But Hoggard got his own back when he dismissed Virender Sehwag with an unplayable delivery.