Andrew Strauss made light of his lack of match practice to take England to a competitive position on the opening day of the first Test against India. Strauss has played hardly any meaningful cricket since September but it did not prevent the opener from striking a 13th Test hundred.
Strauss provided England with just the innings they required, scoring a defiant 123 before playing a tired shot and losing his wicket. The dismissal of Strauss, along with three other batsmen in the final session, took some gloss off England’s day but Kevin Pietersen’s side proved to be far more competitive than many expected.
By the close England had reached 229-5 with Andrew Flintoff not out on 18. The tourists will need significant input from Flintoff, Matthew Prior and Graeme Swann, on debut, if they are to maintain a healthy position.
Strauss is not a pretty batsman to watch, nor is he blessed with an endless array of elegant strokes, but he makes up for these shortcomings by being mentally tougher than most, if not all, of his team-mates. Since being dropped from England’s tour of Sri Lanka a year ago his place in the team has been the topic of much discussion and the 31 year-old would have known that he needed to perform on this tour if he was to show his doubters that he still has plenty to offer.
Strauss’ innings began slowly but gathered momentum after the lunch interval. In keeping, he was particularly strong square of the wicket, scoring the bulk of his runs via the sweep or cut shot. He reached three figures by running Ishant Sharma to a vacant third man and the joy of reaching the landmark was plain for everyone to see.
On winning the toss Kevin Pietersen wasted little time in telling his opposite number, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, that England would bat. With a cloudless sky above and a hot, humid sun beating down it was a simple decision. In memory of those killed a fortnight ago in the Mumbai terrorist attacks both teams stood in silence for two minutes. The moment would have been more poignant had the sparse crowd been told what was taking place.
Strauss and Alastair Cook then proceeded to prove that Pietersen had taken the correct option, watchfully seeing off the new ball before collecting runs against India’s spinners. The cricket was far from scintillating but it did not bother an unprepared England side that had been given little chance in the build up to the Test.
India’s lack of incision was highlighted by their constant attempts to change the ball, a battle with the umpires that was finally won after 17 overs with England on 39 without loss. The change made little difference to Strauss and Cook who continued to grind India’s attack down.
Only 63 runs were scored in the opening session but England’s openers came out with positive intent after the interval taking the game to their opponents. Boundaries came at regular intervals as both Strauss and Cook passed 50. Cook’s joy ended on 52 when he attempted to slog Harbhajan Singh over the leg side. The resultant top edge dropped safely in to the hands of Zaheer Khan at wide mid on.
Ian Bell showed his intent by advancing down the pitch and driving Harbhajan beautifully down the ground for four, but it proved to be the only boundary in his 70-minute stay. Bell survived until tea but fell two balls after the break when Zaheer trapped him lbw.
Pietersen could have followed Bell before he had scored, when Yuvraj Singh beat his defensive push and struck him on the back leg. Replays suggested the ball would have gone on to hit leg stump but on this occasion the England captain was given the benefit of the doubt.
Pietersen never looked comfortable and failed to make the most of the let-off, succumbing to a Zaheer bouncer when on four. Zaheer deserved his reward for a beautiful spell of aggressive reverse-swing bowling.
Paul Collingwood was equally scratchy although he was unfortunate to be given out caught. All India’s close fielders appealed as the ball lobbed to short leg but replays revealed that he had missed the ball and it had only made contact with pad on the way to Gautam Gambhir’s hands.
Strauss’ vigil ended 30 minutes before the close of play when he drove a low catch back to Amit Mishra. His disappointment was visible but when he sits down to reflect on what he has achieved this innings should provide him with a huge amount of satisfaction.