Strauss party Struggling opener finds the groove at last with gritty century as Shah shows his promise

England have probably stopped thinking that matters can get no worse on this tour for the perfectly justified reason that they inevitably will. They may not dare suppose, for instance, that a nadir was reached yesterday when only 90 minutes before the start of the Third Test they had to change their intended side and introduce their sixth debutant of the winter.

The team ethos of being resolute in a crisis can be pretty difficult to sustain when you have little clue what that team might be from one Test to the next. But resolution they demonstrated once again as they began their attempt to level the series against India - a pretty forlorn hope according to most judges - by playing with vigilance and control.

Andrew Strauss, who has been out of form and runs all winter, scored his eighth Test hundred by becoming once more a model of patience and rectitude instead of vaguely trying to impersonate something he is not, a flash Harry. For an important section of the day he was partnered by his Middlesex colleague, Owais Shah, who was winning his first cap, and made an unbeaten 50 before retiring hurt with cramps in his hands.

Shah has been a peripheral figure for most of the time since he was summoned from England A's tour of the West Indies a fortnight ago. He expected this to continue as he made the coach journey to the ground yesterday with a day at hand of carrying out drinks to his chums in the middle.

This reckoned without the tendency of the past month for players to drop like names from a social climber's lips. It was the 21-year-old opening batsman Alastair Cook who went this time, the overnight victim of some form of what no doubt used to be known as Bombay Bottom until they came up with an alternative name for the city, though not apparently to avoid such a slur. It was some going by England's standards of player shedding, for this was a case of the replacement having to be replaced. Cook, like Shah, had dashed to India from the Caribbean. There is no question that England were accorded succour from an improbable quarter. When Rahul Dravid won the toss for India, it was fleetingly possible to imagine the home side's handsome batsmen racking up a huge total over two days and grinding England to dust.

Dravid, however, decided to field in his 100th Test, perhaps overcome by the emotion of the moment, or more likely thinking that he could make fatal inroads into England's early order because of early morning swing and moisture.

Others have taken that road before and it was not long before mention was made of Brisbane 2002 when Nasser Hussain inserted Australia and watched in horror as they made 492. England would have been delighted to bat on a perfectly acceptable surface with a hint of turn which might be joined by its evil partner bounce, despite parading their fourth opening partnership of the winter, Ian Bell this time coming in with Strauss.

The pair negotiated the initial hurdles as though they had been together for years. Both men eschewed risk, though Strauss seized on the aberrant line of the new-ball bowlers, and it was a surprise when Bell flirted at a wide one swinging away with his bat away from his body.

Shah was a rum combination of nerves and confidence, the former perhaps trying to disguise the latter. He ran down the pitch at his third ball in Test cricket, from Harbhajan Singh, and cut his fourth for four.

Watching him, it was natural to wonder both what might have been and what had looked like never being. He was 16 when he was picked for England A's tour of Australia 10 years ago. He went on to lead England Under-19s to victory in the World Cup. There was a brief period when he attracted the attentions of the one-day team but only for 15 matches spread over three years. His chance night have gone but he scored a pile of runs for Middlesex last summer (and the summer before).

Shah has a reputation for being highly individualistic. He hardly spoke a word to his pal Strauss during their century partnership ("That's Owais, he's in his own little bubble, I didn't take it personally," said Strauss) and was soon struggling with his hands. For over after over he called for drinks to try to relieve the problem, but in the end it was no good.

He has previous in this regard. Last year in Sri Lanka with England A he was forced to retire hurt with cramp and was taken to hospital where he was put on a saline drip, later admitting that he had learned his lesson and would always stock up on liquid before an innings in future.

But it was extremely hot yesterday and at least he made the right decision to go off when he did, at tea when he had become the fourth consecutive England batting debutant to make at least a fifty on his first appearance.

Naturally, he took his bat with him and this too had caused some discussion. It looked like one of the controversial bats with a carbon graphite strip on the back, which have just been declared by MCC as not complying with Law 6, which says bats must be made solely of wood. Shah, however, checked with the match referee Ranjan Madugalle on his bat's legality and was given approval because the International Cricket Council is allowing a cooling-down period, instead of insisting on graphite bat cold turkey. Shah must let his blades go soon, however. He gave way to Kevin Pietersen, who once more looked in good form before starting to play shots, if not at random then too frequently. It is a trait that England will have to tolerate in him. Either that, or be intolerant and let him go. The trouble is that when the method does not work it is maddening.

Strauss had gone, perhaps slightly tired after batting for nearly six hours and edging Harbhajan behind on 128. Pietersen's primary task was to stay to the close, but it was almost predictable when he nicked an essayed drive behind having made 39. The wholly admirable Andrew Flintoff and Paul Collingwood saw it out without further alarm. Dravid had asked much of what was a relatively inexperienced seam attack.

Two of its three members, Sree Sreesanth and Munaf Patel, were in only their second Test, the third and putative leader, Irfan Pathan, is none the less the youngest at 21 and had an off day. Nor did Harbhajan and his spinning partner, Anil Kumble, have on ones. England have used 17 players in their six Tests this winter and are missing five of the Ashes heroes in this one. If they can get out of it with anything less than defeat, it would be a triumph of sorts.

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