Runs in the bank with added interest for the accumulator

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The Independent Online

It has been like the old days, the ones he must have feared would never return. Andrew Strauss chaperoned England yesterday to within sight of a historic, wholly unexpected victory. His unbeaten 73 in England's second innings, to follow his 123 in the first innings, was clinical in method and execution. Throughout its six hours he played rigidly within his limitations.

Strauss did nothing that could remotely be conceived as flash. It was the innings of a fastidious banker (and there are not many of those to the pound these days), determined to ensure that all the figures balanced precisely, taking no risks, steering clear of fancy-dan hedge funds.

Like two or three others among the England batting line-up, Strauss entered the arena at Chepauk on Thursday under some scrutiny. His career as an opening batsman appeared to be on the slide. One of the others was Paul Collingwood, who accompanied him in a critical and unbroken partnership of 129, the highest of the match.

Collingwood had a bum rap in the first innings when, not within a country mile of hitting the ball, he was given out caught at short leg. He has made a career out of atonement allied to justification and if you asked him what sort of situation he would like to bat in he would probably ask for something like 44 for 3 with the bowlers on top and the match going down the pan.

But if England go on to win, this could easily become Strauss's Match down the years and that would be expiation indeed. After a miserable 2007 he had been dropped for the tour of Sri Lanka last winter, partly because of his poor form, partly because the sub-continent was the last place the selectors assumed he could resurrect it. Recalled for the New Zealand tour, he eventually scored some runs, possibly saving his career at Napier in March when he made 177.

The good form continued when the Kiwis visited England in the summer but those runs were put into context upon South Africa's arrival. Strauss batted seven times in the series, never made more than 62 and was four times caught by wicketkeeper or slips fending or parrying dangerously close to his off stump. It was career on the line time again.

Yet in Chennai, he has appeared unburdened. Unaffected by the lack of practice, possibly encouraged by it, he has played with all the certainty of purpose he exhibited in those heady, formative days.

India have helped. Their bowlers, especially Zaheer Khan, might be masters of reverse swing but they have been too clever by half. Before the cute covering of the ball to disguise the smart grips it is essential to remember first principles.

Perhaps they did not attack Strauss enough in his vulnerable areas, perhaps he did not permit them to do so. As he had in the first innings, he scored most of his runs square of or behind the wicket. There were 42 of them yesterday, cut, dabbed, pulled, clipped or glanced, and only three scored in the V down the ground. In its way, it was masterful.

He has three times before scored a hundred and a fifty in the same Test match, twice in his first eight matches, days of wine and roses. In his debut he made 112 and 83, infamously run out by Nasser Hussain on the verge of history.

It was never an easy game for him but for a while because of his phlegmatic approach he made it seem easy. The likelihood was that it would all catch up, that opposition bowlers would exploit those off-stump weaknesses. So they did, but Strauss may also have been disrupted by being overlooked for the captaincy (in Australia two winters ago) when he should not have been.

He would deny it and he is not the type of man to bear grudges or have issues but he must have been hurt and that can have its own, uncontrollable ramifications. Any talk of drinking in the last chance saloon, any whispers that Michael Vaughan might be lined up for a return to the opener's berth, have been silenced.

The innings was not quite impeccable. He was dropped on 15 when he got a thick outside edge to Amit Mishra, the sort of a chance that a wicketkeeper-captain will always struggle to hold because he has so many other matters on his mind which can only dull reaction times standing up.

No side has ever made more than 276 to win a Test match in India and only 36 of the 217 Tests in the country have been won by the side having to bat fourth. The highest fourth- innings score at Chepauk is 364 in a draw, the highest to win is 158. It looks like Strauss and England. What a turn-up both those outcomes would be.