James Lawton: Test sceptics will not enjoy today's thrilling conclusion

A vital England win in their march to be world No 1 or a famous India fightback? Either way, it will define the essence of cricket

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Anyone whispering as much as a breath of scepticism over the hullabaloo attached to the 2,000th playing of a Test match should be frog-marched here along with all the holidaying school kids for 11am prompt today.

Ideally, he would not only see the outcome of a match which might well find England making a crucial stride towards their anointing as the best team in the world. He might also get a personal briefing from 22-year-old Ishant Sharma, who back home in Delhi is generally known as "Lambu" – "Tall Guy".

Sharma, who has a dreamy prophet's face wreathed in long dark hair, is indeed extremely tall at 6ft 5in, but that by some distance was the least of his distinction during the most dramatic phase of the fourth day of a contest which had mostly seen England moving from one position of strength to another.

For a little over an hour Sharma turned all of that inside out. He bowled with an ever-gathering brilliance and with each new venomous delivery he seemed to grow – both in height and speed – by at least an inch.

Piece by piece, he stripped down the bulwarks of English batting. Kevin Pietersen, a magnificently resurrected figure over the first two days as he amassed the third double century of his Test career, was so perfectly ambushed he could only tickle the ball into the gloves of the Indian wicketkeeper and captain, M S Dhoni. Pietersen, 202 not out when his captain Andrew Strauss declared the England first innings last Friday evening, had just one run against his name.

Ian Bell, who compiled a notably polished 45 in his first effort, had still to move off the mark before suffering precisely the same fate. Then Sharma ransacked the man who so often impinges on eternity when he visits the batting crease, Jonathan Trott.

The South African-groomed No 3 had scored a mere 22 runs when Sharma's superb, full-pitched delivery straightened beautifully to shatter the wickets.

A little later, as England embarked on a recovery which would in time become thunderous in the hands of Matt Prior and Stuart Broad, Eoin Morgan, a one-day hero battling to establish his Test credentials, became Sharma's fourth victim.

Morgan was snapped up at mid-wicket by Indian opener Gautam Gambhir, who would shortly star in one of the lesser dramatic cameos of the day when he was smashed on the arm by a roundhouse heave from Prior while occupying the suicide alley of short leg.

At that moment Sharma was heading for a place on the Lord's honours board that goes to all century makers and takers of five wickets in an innings. At one point his statistics read like a Test bowler's dream sequence: 10 balls delivered, three wickets taken and one run conceded.

Yet here is the point, the splendour and the eternal intrigue of Test cricket. Within a few hours Sharma could hardly have been further from that engraved roll call of the great men of Lord's. He was in the deepest shadow of Broad, the young Nottinghamshire all-rounder who was himself straddling the narrow line between recognition and rejection coming into this historic Test – the first of four which could, if England win by a margin of two Tests, see them leapfrog over the current No 1-ranked India.

Broad was under pressure from the rugged Yorkshireman Tim Bresnan before the England team was announced. His talent had been submerged in a debate about whether he should dilute the tide of short-pitched deliveries which many believed had become a desperate reaction to dwindling success.

Here at Lord's, though, Broad has shown the courage and the daring to remind everyone of his most precocious talent. He has always had the look of someone who might have wandered out of the pages of Evelyn Waugh or F Scott Fitzgerald, but yesterday in this Test match, which has been growing from one crescendo to another like some great symphony, he was all raw, working-class business, more D H Lawrence than Brideshead Revisited.

What Broad has returned to, brilliantly, is much of the self-belief and, let's be frank about this, arrogance of his Test match star father, Chris.

He certainly showed the belligerence of his old man – an opening batsman – while tearing great holes in the Indian batting on Saturday and then joining Prior in the batting partnership that once again turned the Test back in the direction of England. Prior reached his sixth Test century undefeated and, in the end, brilliantly prolific, and Broad was not less aggressive when he walked back to the pavilion, with his wicket also unclaimed, with 74 runs.

That left India with the mountainous target of 458 – one which was made even steeper when Broad bowled out opener Abhinav Mukund with the score on a mere 19.

Today there is a huge burden on the Indians as they seek to survive unbeaten before the journey to Trent Bridge later this week. They have come underprepared, partly because of the cocky belief that they are good enough to win in any circumstances, partly because the rupee glitter of one-day and Twenty20 cricket has blinded the Indian board to the need for proper respect for Tests – and, apparently, any real understanding that it will always define the depth, the beauty and the wonder of the game.

The schedules of instant cricket have squeezed the Test format almost to the point where you can hear the pips of this Indian team squeak and scream. Their best bowler, Zaheer Khan, was palpably unfit coming into the Test and he duly broke down on the first day, requiring on Friday his captain Dhoni to shed the wicketkeeping gloves and impersonate, very poorly, the kind of bowler required at this level. Three days of adaptation to English conditions have been granted the squad.

However, you would have been forgiven for not quite noticing during the course of this tumultuous collision and especially in the bright sunshine last evening when two of the great veteran batsmen, V V S Laxman and Rahul Dravid, a brilliantly calm century-maker in the first innings, showed flashes of elegant defiance in the tense last session.

Did we say frogmarch the sceptics to Lord's? All in all, it is probably too good for them.