There are days, or even matches, when every option a captain takes leads to a dead end and there are others where the rewards prove to be golden. Yesterday Kevin Pietersen, the England captain, could do no wrong.
During the past six weeks, a period in which the England cricket team have been widely criticised for playing in Sir Allen Stanford's $20m match, suffered a 5-0 one-day whitewash by India and have been placed in the unwelcome position of not knowing quite what to do in the wake of the Mumbai terrorist attacks, Pietersen must have privately wondered why on earth he accepted this prestigious but highly stressful job. And because of this only a mighty large curmudgeon would begrudge him and his side the unexpected success they are currently having in the first Test against India.
Pietersen made several shrewd decisions after watching his side being dismissed for 316, a total that would have been far smaller but for an extremely impressive unbeaten 53 from Matthew Prior, but the best was inviting debutant Graeme Swann to bowl the final over before tea. It would be unfair on England's other bowlers to say that the remarkable over, which yielded two wickets, changed the course of the game, but it gave Pietersen's side the belief that they could compete with their confident and classy opponents.
When a captain throws the ball to his spinner and asks him to bowl the final over before an interval it normally receives knowing nods from many in the press box. "Here he goes, following the captain's manual," is the usual response. A captain does it primarily to try to break the routine of batsmen who have become accustomed to facing faster bowling, but on the vast majority of occasions it serves no purpose and brings no reward.
Here, however, bowling Swann was the correct decision and it served Pietersen and England magnificently. There is nothing a debutant bowler dislikes more than waiting and waiting for his first bowl. The tension grows and the event of bowling that first over becomes harder and harder. By bowling Swann after just 13 overs and ahead of Monty Panesar, the senior bowler, Pietersen allowed him to settle and feel involved, even though the over is usually inconsequential.
But this over was far from tedious; it produced a five-minute period that Swann will never forget. His first delivery in Test cricket was nervy, short and wide, and it received the response it deserved – Gautam Gambhir cut it for four. Gambhir attempted to clip the second ball through the leg side, missed it and it lobbed up to short leg off his pad. England's fielders appealed loudly, believing it had touched bat before pad but umpire Daryl Harper refused to budge.
Gambhir padded up to the third. Again there was a loud appeal, but on this occasion it was upheld giving Swann his first Test wicket. Sachin Tendulkar pushed his first ball through the covers for two and nudged the next to fine leg for a single, leaving Rahul Dravid to face the final ball of the session. Dravid pushed forward to a regulation delivery that spun past the inside edge of his bat and hit him high on the pad. Swann and England went up again and Harper, this time contentiously, raised his finger. Swann's reaction was to sprint ecstatically – in Panesar fashion – to cover where he was mobbed by equally delighted team-mates.
The action continued after the tea interval when Tendulkar, determined not to allow Swann to settle, slogged the bowler over deep mid-wicket for six. The assault left Swann with the Twenty20 figures of 2-16 in two overs. Panesar replaced Swann after he had bowled three more overs and Pietersen asked for the ball to be changed. After a couple of requests from the England captain the officials relented, and with his second delivery with a changed ball Panesar lured the elegant and dangerous VVS Laxman into offering him a return catch.
The wicket brought Yuvraj Singh to the crease. Yuvraj had slapped England's bowlers all around India during the one-sided one-day series but Pietersen believes the destructive left hander is vulnerable against the short ball. To put his plan into action Pietersen brought Andrew Flintoff, his enforcer, back on to bowl. But rather than dismiss Yuvraj, his target, Flintoff claimed the crucial wicket of Tendulkar when the Little Master chipped a simple catch back to the bowler. Tendulkar was the fourth batsman to be caught and bowled in the match, a trend that suggests this is a difficult pitch on which to play front-foot shots.
Yuvraj survived an excellent spell from Flintoff, but only just. One short ball, which resulted in England appealing loudly for caught behind, clipped the grill of Yuvraj's helmet as it went through to the keeper and the reaction of batsman and bowler resulted in an exchange of words. Other members of the England team became involved and it obviously distracted Yuvraj.
With the shadows lengthening Pietersen tossed the ball to Harmison and asked him for one last effort. He responded magnificently by finding the edge of Yuvraj's bat with his second ball, Flintoff taking the catch.
England's soporific batting earlier in the day seemed irrelevant as India's middle order fell away but the contribution of Prior should not be underestimated. England lost Flintoff without any addition to the overnight score of 229 for five, and it seemed as though they would do well to reach 270.
But Prior batted watchfully and skilfully, running hard between the wickets and showing confidence in his lower order by giving them plenty of strike. James Anderson provided excellent support during a 42-run partnership, and Harmison and Panesar kept India out under a hot and debilitating sun for an extra hour. By the time Panesar was trapped lbw, Prior had completed a fifth Test half century.Reuse content