The transformation of fortunes has been swift and dramatic. It is not quite complete yet, but England stand on the verge of a historic Test series victory in India. Barely a fortnight ago, that prospect looked risible. Defeated, nay hammered, in the opening match of four in the series, they were guilty of old failings and redemption seemed merely a concept of their imagination.
By the close of the fourth day in the Third Test yesterday, the tourists were tantalisingly close to taking a 2-1 lead, reaching that point by playing the more thoughtful, intelligent and persuasive cricket. Their opponents, who somehow managed to take the match into the fifth day by the skin of their teeth and the solitary resistance of one man, were reduced to a level of futility that approached humiliation.
It is eight years since India lost a Test series at home, 27 since they were beaten here by England, 29 since they lost three matches in a single rubber. England are not there yet, it is important to note, not only because the fourth match, in Nagpur, is still to come but because they still needed one wicket and were 32 runs adrift last night.
India finished on 239 for 9, a recovery from the depths of 155 for 7 with all their batting stars once more gone. Staring at defeat, they had the dubious comfort of knowing there would remain a last opportunity of equalising affairs. Given how England have come back, that proposition should not be lightly dismissed. But the evidence of the past two matches has been overwhelming.
At long last, after a year in which their shortcomings in Asian conditions were brutally exposed, a team led from the front by their new captain, Alastair Cook, seem to have accepted that patience and vigilance are the most potent weapons against spin. The policy has worked immaculately. Scoreboard pressure, they call it. England have scored the runs – Cook with three stupendous centuries leading the way and the first four batsmen in the order passing 50 in this match – and the bowlers have followed expertly.
India's second innings yesterday was a case in point. The wickets were shared between pace men and slow men, between swing, usually of the reverse variety, and spin. By the end only R Ashwin, who has perversely supplied more with the bat than the ball in this series, stood between England and their second innings victory in India. He made an unbeaten 83 with some assurance, though he should have been stumped when he danced down the pitch to Monty Panesar on 22. What a rousing day's cricket it was, thankfully played in front of almost a full house, most of whom stayed till the end despite India's tenuous hold on survival.
The proceedings split into three distinct parts. England, beginning with a lead of 193 with four first-innings wickets in hand, extended it by a mere 14 in losing the lot. If that was careless, it paled by comparison with what followed. In the 21 overs possible in India's second innings before lunch they rattled along to 86 for 0. The tourists, recognising the danger signs with Virender Sehwag cruising at 100mph in the outside lane, posted five men on the boundary.
It was possible for 40 minutes during the interval to suspect that India might actually win the match. And then just as suddenly it changed again. The first ball of the afternoon, bowled by Graeme Swann, turned just enough to whizz through the gap left by Sehwag between bat and pad and hit his off stump.
England perhaps sensed their moment had come. Within minutes, Ian Bell pounced at midwicket and threw the stumps down to run out Chetashwar Pujara by a foot as he and Gautam Gambhir tried senselessly to steal a quick single. Aided and abetted by some hapless batting from their opponents, England thrillingly swept aside the remainder of the Indian batting.
The circumstances demanded forbearance and composed defence; they were accorded restlessness and needless attack. Gambhir drove away from his body and was caught behind. This was the more unforgiveable because a few minutes earlier, Gambhir had been peculiarly reprieved. He had seemingly been caught at slip off Swann, but the umpires thought it wise to check whether the ball had carried to Jonathan Trott at slip. Indeed it had. But the replays showed Gambhir had not hit it – spin alone took it to Trott – and although the review system is not being used in this match at India's insistence, the third umpire was still obliged to state the truth. The right decision was reached, the regulations adhered to, but there was an element of India having their cake and eating it.
Sachin Tendulkar misjudged a straight one from Swann and was caught at slip, Yuvraj Singh was bowled by one that kept low from the exemplary Jimmy Anderson, MS Dhoni hung his bat out to dry. The wickets kept tumbling, but Ashwin denied England for 151 balls and certainly gave them a less comfortable night's sleep than their day dreams envisaged.
Eden Gardens scoreboard
India won toss
India: First innings 316 (S R Tendulkar 76, G Gambhir 60, M S Dhoni 52; M S Panesar 4-90).
England: First innings (Overnight 509-6: *A N Cook 190, I J L Trott 87, N R D Compton 57, K P Pietersen 54).
†M J Prior c Dhoni b Khan 41/1/6/49
G P Swann c Sehwag b Ojha 21/0/3/46
S T Finn not out 4/0/1/13
J M Anderson c Sehwag b Ashwin 9/0/1/9
M S Panesar lbw b Ashwin 0/0/0/1
Extras (b13, lb4, nb5) 22
Total (167.3 overs) 523
Fall (cont): 7-510, 8-510, 9-523.
Bowling Z Khan 31-6-94-1; I Sharma 29-8-78-1; R Ashwin 52.3-9-183-3; P P Ojha 52-10-142-4; Yuvraj Singh 3-1-9-0.
India: Second innings
G Gambhir c Prior b Finn 40/1/4/104
V Sehwag b Swann 49/0/7/57
C A Pujara run out 8/0/2/22
S R Tendulkar c Trott b Swann 5/0/1/6
V Kohli c Prior b Finn 20/0/3/60
Yuvraj Singh b Anderson 11/0/2/17
*†M S Dhoni c Cook b Anderson 0/0/0/3
R Ashwin not out 83/0/13/151
Z Khan lbw b Finn 0/0/0/4
I Sharma b Panesar 10/0/2/53
P P Ojha not out 3/0/0/21
Extras (b8, lb2) 10
Total (for 9, 83 overs) 239
Fall 1-86, 2-98, 3-103, 4-107, 5-122, 6-122, 7-155, 8-159, 9-197.
Bowling J M Anderson 15-4-38-2; S T Finn 17-6-37-3; M S Panesar 22-1-75-1; G P Swann 28-9-70-2; S R Patel 1-0-9-0.
Umpires H D P K Dharmasena (SL) and R J Tucker (Aus)
TV Umpire V A Kulkarni (India).
Match referee J J Crowe (NZ).