James Lawton: Dhoni belatedly comes to the party but Sehwag 'the saviour' fails to perform
India were all out for 224 after their captain had hit 77 runs off 96 balls and smashed three sixes to deflect charges their title defence had come perilously close to fraud
We should give a little credit to MS Dhoni for the extent of his achievement in the least promising of circumstances.
Dhoni, the Indian captain of one the most misbegotten tours in the history of what used to be the most respected form of cricket, had after all produced a parody of leadership before the third Test started here.
So badly had he played the roles of batsman, wicketkeeper and captain he might well have been hung in effigy in some of the great cities of the sub-continent back in those days before the cheap thrills of the Twenty20 Indian Premier League had become the most reliable barometer of success back home.
Yet his impact could hardly have been more positive yesterday when his team appeared to be in the last throes of abdication as the world's best Test team. What Dhoni pulled off was a stupendous feat of memory. He remembered who he was and what kind of team he was supposed to be leading.
India were 92 for 5 when he walked to the wicket in early afternoon yesterday and once again the England bowlers had produced both brilliant application and impressive technique. When he left India were hardly resurrected defenders of the No 1 world ranking, having failed for a fifth successive occasion to either score 300 runs or survive more than 100 overs, but though Stuart Broad and Tim Bresnan had both claimed four wickets Dhoni had breathed at least a little life back into arguably the worst prepared team in the history of front-rank Test cricket.
They were all out for 224 after Dhoni hit 77 runs off 96 balls and smashed three sixes. This may not have been a Himalayan achievement from the team which so brilliantly supplanted the great Australian side of Ponting, Warne and McGrath at the top of the world rankings, but chiefly through their 30-year-old captain, they did something to deflect charges that their preparation for the title defence had come perilously close to fraud.
That suspicion inevitably flared again when Virender Sehwag, one of the most adventurous batsmen in the history of Test cricket, arrived for his much heralded first contribution to the series. Delayed by the need for shoulder surgery, which was put on hold while he fulfilled his lucrative IPL deal, Sehwag arrived the putative saviour. He left, like another titan of the pyjama game, the broken Zaheer Khan who pulled up on the first day of the first Test at Lord's, as the latest evidence that this Indian team had quite shamefully neglected their responsibilities.
Khan lasted less than a day. Sehwag was around for one ball. It was delivered by Broad and was far too good for a batsman who had been given just two days against Northants as preparation for the Test which could now so easily be the one which lifts England above all rivals. When Sachin Tendulkar soon returned to the pavilion after scoring just one run, and so tentatively it seemed he had as much chance of turning England into a land filled with wall-to-wall neighbourliness as scoring his 100th international century here, and his great contemporaries Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman could produce only a combined total of 52 runs, you knew that this was still another day when the home team would once again draw up the agenda.
It remains just too easy for England under their formidable command of coach Andy Flower and captain Andrew Strauss and when Jimmy Anderson, who had to settle for the less than imposing scalps of Suresh Raina and tailender Ishant Sharma, greeted Tendulkar with some deliveries of the highest quality you had to be certain of two developments. One was that the tall man from Lancashire would claim Tendulkar's wicket for an eighth time in Test cricket. The other was that once again India would turn the harshest of spotlights on the shocking effect of too much exposure to all the catchpenny forms of instant cricket.
In the end the scoreboard yet again said as much, except for the name of Broad as the new assassin of the Little Master's hopes. For those in India who still believe in both the beauty and the supremacy of cricket's long game it must have been as depressing as the great plumes of acrid smoke moving across the city. They rose from a scrapyard fire which the police deemed to be "unsuspicious".
Against India, though, the charge remained emphatic. It was that they had come here completely unconditioned for the local challenge. Zaheer's breakdown was one statement, Sehwag's implosion another.
Only Dhoni, with some considerable help from his big-hearted seam bowler Praveen Kumar, stood up to the crushing indictment. Plainly, he came out to fight and he did with such commitment and relish that it was hard to believe it was the man who had subsided so meekly at Lord's and Trent Bridge. He hit his sixes with vast conviction and in slightly less than two hours at the wicket he reminded us of the perfectly self-possessed captain who led India to their recent World Cup triumph.
Then, he moved himself up the order and batted with the panache and the resolve that made him the hero of the nation.
Yesterday such possibilities were beyond him. However, he could still call up a little pride and a little fight. He could remind the Indian board – and the International Cricket Council – that their challenge was to make the game strong at every level and not just in the counting house of the IPL.
Dhoni couldn't transform this potentially important series into anything like a meaningful test of which cricket nation has the right to be called No 1. All he could do was remind us that Indian cricket should have been so much better than the masquerade of this summer. As Strauss and Alastair Cook batted with mocking serenity last night, the black smoke in the sky had cleared. Unfortunately, the scandal on the ground had not.
How the third Test's first day unfolded
10.32: The Toss
Andrew Strauss calls right for the first time this series and inserts the tourists on a cloudy Birmingham morning. India bring in a new pair of opening batsmen.
11.06: Wicket, 8 for 1
Virender Sehwag gloves his first ball – a lifter from Stuart Broad – to Matt Prior. Steve Davis rules not out, but England successfully have his decision reviewed.
12.34: Wicket, 59 for 2
After a brisk innings of 38, returning opener Gautam Gambhir drags a Tim Bresnan delivery back on to his stumps, halting India's impressive revival.
12.39: Wicket, 60 for 3
England take the dream wicket, dismissing Sachin Tendulkar for just 1. The Little Master never settled and edged a Broad outswinger to third slip.
12.58: Wicket, 75 for 4
A good session ends just perfectly as India's form batsman Rahul Dravid is bowled by a bit of Bresnan brilliance. "The Wall" goes for a spirited but brief 22.
2.04: Wicket, 92 for 5
Suresh Raina's woeful summer continues: he is bowled by an inswinger from Jimmy Anderson, for his third single-figure score of the Test series so far.
2.11: Wicket, 100 for 6
India's last top-order batsman throws his wicket away: VVS Laxman lazily hooks a Bresnan short ball to Broad at long leg. Bresnan now has three of India's top five.
2.33: Wicket, 111 for 7
Amit Mishra is next to go, giving Prior a comfortable catch as he edges one from Broad. Praveen Kumar joins his captain MS Dhoni at the crease.
3.14: 50 stand, 161 for 7
Kumar hits Graeme Swann for consecutive boundaries, bringing up the half-century partnership with Dhoni. In the next over the captain hits Bresnan for six.
3.31: Wicket, 195 for 8
Kumar's resistance is ended when he gloves a Bresnan short ball behind – he is given not out but another shrewd review by England breaks the stand of 84.
3.43: Tea, 205 for 8
India go in for tea with Dhoni still at the crease, on 61. He has forced England into defensive fields this afternoon, although there is little to come after him.
4.25: Wicket, 224 for 9
One swing too many from Dhoni: he tries to heave Broad over cover but nicks a catch to Strauss, the only slip, going for a brave and very enjoyable 77.
4.30: Wicket, 224 all out
Sree Sreesanth drives a ball from Anderson at Alastair Cook at silly point. It sticks in the opener's armpit – a simple but painful catch to end the innings.
4.45: New innings, 0 for 0
Strauss and Cook find themselves launching the England innings halfway into the Test's third session. Cook is averaging five in the series as he takes guard.
5.50: 50 stand, 51 for 0
Strauss brings up the 50 opening partnership with Cook, cutting Sreesanth powerfully through extra-cover for four. England are looking well set.
6.28: Stumps, 84 for 0
Another fine day for England ends with Strauss unbeaten on 52 and Cook on 27. England have made the most of the conditions and are just 140 runs behind.
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