James Lawton: Bewildered and beaten, India run up the white flag
When a 'great' team can play this feebly, you must worry for Test cricket's future
Maybe the opening over bowled by Rudra Pratap Singh here yesterday in a Test match said to be laden with historical significance was not the most anticlimactic passage in the annals of big-time sport.
There was, after all, the time Muhammad Ali threw a speculative jab and Sonny Liston toppled on to his back, from where he gazed at the world with rapidly accelerating disinterest.
Steve Harmison, it is also true, scarcely sent the pulse racing when he launched the 2006 defence of the Ashes in Brisbane with a ball that went directly to second slip.
However, what Singh did yesterday had a particularly haunting quality in that it went on a lot longer – a whole eight minutes – and when it was over you weren't so much concerned about the commitment of one 25-year-old international sportsman as the entire future of the most superior form of a great game.
If you worry at this point about a touch of overstatement, you haven't followed India's shocking version of how you defend the honour of being rated the world's best Test team. If it is so, you just might not have seen Singh's offering for what it was.
This, you had to believe, was a near perfect reflection of India's calamitous surrender to the point where they came here with only the slimmest possibility of avoiding a humiliating 4-0 whitewash.
Singh made such an idea not much more than a fantasy. His first delivery came in at 77.5mph, trailing down the leg side. England's captain, Andrew Strauss, looked a little bemused. He then played Singh's second delivery off his pads with such nonchalance he might have been away on some distant beach amusing his children with a little beach cricket.
It wasn't entirely Singh's fault that the first over of a Test match that was supposed to be the end of something significant, even historical, stretched to eight minutes. Stewards failed to control movement behind the bowler's languid arm. Strauss's bemusement turned to something harder, meaner, his eyes narrowed. As well they might have done.
He has led England with superb application for some years now, scoring Ashes victories in England and Australia and guiding his team to the moment of world leadership. Yet it was as if Strauss and his men were being denied the normal satisfactions of a great campaign when Singh's body language suggested almost total disinterest.
The sell-out crowd were already guarding themselves against the onset of rain. What they couldn't have anticipated was that any illusion of an outbreak of serious competition should be so quickly swept away.
For one breathtaking moment, Ishant Sharma did provide an eruption of heightened competition. A short delivery reared up and took a chunk out of Strauss's helmet. There was almost a flash of nostalgia here because it was Sharma who provided one of the few moments of authentic Indian resistance at Lord's in the opening Test.
For a little while he had bowled with the conviction of someone who really believed he had a chance of taking up the burden put down when Zaheer Khan, India's best bowler, walked out on the first day – a man without preparation, but for the caperings of the Indian Premier League, representing a country for whom Test cricket seemed to have slid away into the margins of ambition – and profit.
Yesterday Strauss and the run-gorging Alastair Cook simply did what has become the requirement of all members of this England team. They batted through to lunch, gleaning runs beneath the rain clouds, and confirming the truth all over again that it doesn't matter who the opposition are, and what competitive values they have chosen to adapt, you can only produce the best you have – and keep on doing it.
India's lack of preparation – and perhaps a deeper attitude to the Test game over which men of the quality of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, and V V S Laxman once gave them such a brilliant edge – was reflected vividly in the presence of Singh. He was playing his first Test cricket in three years, having his first exposure to the first-class game since January.
And here was the cricket ground which for all the years had been celebrating the great players and the most competitive cricket, the ground which had cheered Sir Donald Bradman so profoundly and which not so long ago responded to opponents of the fighting quality of McGrath and Warne and Ponting, packed to the seams – and considering in R P Singh not just the language of defeat but absolute defeat.
Maybe something extraordinary will happen in the next few days. Perhaps with a little sun on their backs, the Indians will remember who they are supposed to be. Who knows? When India come to bat, Tendulkar might just find the vein he inhabited at Edgbaston before he was run out with such bizarrely malign fate. Could it be that Dravid might reconjure some of the calm defiance he produced at Lord's in the first Test when for a little while the world champions of the one-day game suggested they might still have the men to shape the outcome of the long one?
Yesterday we had come a long way from such optimism, some belief that when we celebrated the 2,000th Test match at Lord's we were merely registering a milestone and not wondering fearfully if we might just be at the end of something fine.
We were contemplating the possibility that one of the great forces in cricket, the makers of magic, the most cunning, artful spinners, batsmen of sublime timing and artistry, were signalling they no longer had the ambition or the heart to play the game they had so recently mastered.
These were maybe excessively bleak thoughts on a dark day south of the river. But then you didn't experience the opening over of R P Singh.
How the action unfolded on day one
England, unchanged from Edgbaston, win the toss and choose to bat first. India replace the injured Praveen Kumar, their star bowler, with left-armer R P Singh.
11.17: Not out 7-0
A full, swinging delivery from R P Singh hits Cook on the back thigh. Umpire Taufel turns down the Indian appeal. Hawk-Eye shows the ball was high.
11.53: Boundary 37-0
Cook, at his watchful best so far, finally loosens his limbs and steps back to brutally cut a short and wide delivery from RP Singh through point for four runs.
12.15: Chin music 48-0
Strauss, untroubled so far, fails to take evasive action from a Sharma bouncer and is struck on the helmet. Strauss looks unperturbed and calls for a replacement.
12.17: Landmark 50-0
Cook drives past Sreesanth for two, bringing up the opening pair's fifty partnership off 92 deliveries. The pair have accumulated runs steadily.
12.49: Four ball 69-0
Poor bowling from R P Singh allows Strauss to hit a leg-stump half-volley through the unguarded mid-wicket region for an easy four runs. India are missing Kumar.
13.00: Lunch 75-0
England reach the interval with only the loss of a helmet. The Indian attack offered little and England's openers enjoyed a straight-forward morning session.
13.31: Rain arrives 75-0
The interval is extended indefinitely as the forecasted rain arrives. Umbrellas go up around The Oval, while the groundstaff hastily apply the covers.
17.02: Close of play 75-0
Play is abandoned for the day minutes before a scheduled inspection. A frustrating afternoon for England who looked entirely at ease during the opening session.
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