England's prospects in the third and final Test of the series which begins here tomorrow, rest almost entirely on the power relationship of two men. A game of cricket may involve 22 players, but the big plays in this series have essentially revolved around Nasser Hussain's plots to nullify Sachin Tendulkar, the most adored man in India. So far, the little master has shaded the duel, which is why England find themselves needing a new plan, or simply some luck, to give themselves a chance of levelling the series.
Getting rid of Tendulkar cheaply has never been easy in India, not even at Christmas. On the slow, bare pitches here, he never misses a ball bowled at the stumps. Now that England's batsmen have shown they can cope with India's spin twins, it is the bowlers who have to find chinks that do not cost them too much time (the factor in Ahmedabad), or too many runs, to exploit. It will probably prove futile, but England's greenhorns have already won enough respect for this match not to be a foregone conclusion.
The stamp of Sachin is everywhere. In the opening match at Mohali, England batted so woefully, a five-star innings from His Batship, was not required and he settled for 88. In the next Test, it was his brilliant century in the first innings – crafted with patience, filigree precision and a healthy dose of bottom hand – that denied England the crucial momentum needed to turn them from mere chancers to bona fide contenders.
"That third day, was the most enjoyable day's cricket I've had in a long time," said Hussain yesterday, more or less recovered from the bug that has been laying members of his team low. "It was one of the finest innings I've seen, but also one of the finest performances I've seen from our boys."
The cat and mouse of it, with Hussain marshalling his resources like some noble guerrilla leader up against a nuclear superpower, was fascinating to watch, though it left the captain pining for some old faces.
"When Sachin was belting us around the park, I thought 'who can I go to for advice?' Until recently I'd have had Atherton, Stewie [Alec Stewart] and Thorpey [Graham Thorpe] to runs ideas by. But now you make a decision and that's it. I must say it was a relief when we could say: 'OK, you're Sachin Tendulkar. We've got you out. Now let's get back to some normal cricket'."
Hussain and the England coach, Duncan Fletcher, may have to come up with a different ruse here. The Chinnaswamy stadium pitch has been relaid and, according to reports in the local newspaper, will favour the seam bowlers for two days and the spinners after that.
If true, though talk of India playing three spinners would rather diminish the seam part of the story, England should attack Tendulkar early on, resorting to the strictures of an 8-1 or 7-2 off-side field, only if he gets a start.
Targeting a player to the extent where England's bowlers have given up any experimentation and settled for the bowling equivalent of bread and water could be considered cynical. For one thing, there is something militarily precise and unwavering about it, which is appropriate for Bangalore, given its 19th century role as a British garrison town.
All plots move deathwards, that is their nature, and Hussain's attempts at tactical asphyxiation, may eventually share the fate of "Bodyline", which, after being conceived to neutralise Don Bradman, was condemned and outlawed. According to Hussain, though, he is simply posing a set of questions to Tendulkar, much as he tries to do with every batsman.
If the plans have been effective, to a point, England can also take succour from the way the young shavers – James Foster and Richard Dawson – have grown up overnight. Fletcher has worked hard in the last fortnight with Foster, who, after having the kind of debut even his mother would not cherish, gave an improved and mature performance in the next Test.
"As captain, a blend of youth and experience is key," Hussain said. "Captaining a young side here in India can be very hard work, but the reaction when someone like Dawson gets Tendulkar out, lifts the whole side. It's then that you realise how important it is. We haven't got many experienced players, but we do have some cool heads."
With flu bugs about, they may need them. Providing the captain does not suffer a relapse from the lurgy that pole-axed him on Monday, England will remain unchanged.
It is a move that will please Hussain's father, Joe, who has flown here – the city closest to his old home town of Chennai – especially to see his son captain England in the country of his birth.
A tough taskmaster, Joe Hussain has groomed his son for just such a moment ever since the boy could first hold a bat. But if England could revert just as easily to the naïvety of Mohali, they could, providing they find prompt ways of dismissing Tendulkar, surprise all of us by levelling this series.Reuse content