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India grind their way to safety

THIRD TEST: Tendulkar falls two short of his highest Test score before English openers survive uncomfortable closing overs; India 521; England 32-0
Long before the first ball was bowled in this match, people were predicting a draw. It is still the most likely result after a slow-moving day where the greatest excitement centered around the 50-1 odds Ladbrokes were offering against an England victory, at the start of play.

However, with the pitch still shorn of pace, India's gradual accumulation of 521 has at least ensured that, even for mug punters, that particular result will remain out of reach.

In many ways, it was an old-fashioned sort of Test match day too: sedate, serene and, until the last session, watched by a full house, seemingly immune to oafish sing-songs and Mexican waves. Perhaps those gathered were anticipating a milestone first double century by Sachin Tendulkar.

If they were, their disappointment came just after lunch when the little maestro fell for 177, two short of his highest ever Test score, made against the West Indies in Nagpur in 1994. But if his departure set back India's plans of scoring rapidly in the hope of declaring before the close, England's bowlers deserved some credit for a much-improved performance that possessed both vitality and aggression.

In the morning session, in particular, persistent cloud cover provided occasional movement and the partnership England had spent the best part of Thursday trying to break was ended in the third over of the day, when Alan Mullally got rid of Saurav Ganguly.

As one of England's better performers from the previous day, Mullally fully deserved the wicket. Having bowled a snorter of a bouncer at Ganguly the previous ball, for which the batsman received treatment to his finger after gloving the ball perilously close to short-leg, the lanky left-armer pitched his next ball wide and full. It tempted the batsman to drive, but the shot lacked conviction, balance or the necessary footwork and Nasser Hussain clasped the chance at fourth slip.

It brought Sanjay Manjrekar to the crease but, instead of maintaining the aggression, Mullally served up a soft half-volley to get him immediately on his way. Those who know him tell of his laidback attitude but, although he was beginning to find that most elusive of weapons in the left-armer armoury, the in-swinger, he will have to show far more aggression if he is to remain a viable force at this level. If he needs a role model, he need look no further than Dominic Cork, who has oodles of aggression.

Unfortunately for Cork, it tends to manifest itself in persistent and over-the-top lbw appeals. A good strong appeal has always been considered essential in enquiring for lbws. However, Cork's doltish histrionics verge on caricature, and can subconsciously set umpires against him. Yesterday he had Tendulkar plumb in front. Unhappily for Cork, his skin-shedding appeal could not persuade umpire Kandiah Francis, and the batsman survived until after lunch when he skied a miscued pull to Min Patel at mid-on.

The mistake, almost identical to the tired shot he got out to at Edgbaston, gave Mark Ealham his maiden Test wicket. On this surface, the Kent seamer has looked fairly friendly, but he knuckled down to his task of making scoring difficult, and the two wickets he finished with were earned with sweat rather than guile.

His team-mate, Patel, was less fortunate, and he has found that bowling spin without the turn against batsmen brought up in the sub-continent is a hazardous occupation and one that, since the days of that other Kent spinner, Derek Underwood, has rarely been held by one person for any great length of time.

Even when he resorted to the negative tactic of bowling over the wicket into the rough, he could not stem the run flow, and, just to cap a trying day, the cautious Manjrekar, who took over three hours for his fifty, swept him for six.

But if it was Manjrekar who provided Patel with the blessed relief of a first Test wicket, it was his sharp catch at short leg that provided another failure with the bat for Mohammad Azharuddin. One that, irrespective of the result of this game, has surely hastened Tendulkar's call to command.

With Azharuddin and Manjrekar gone, only Rahul Dravid of the recognised batsmen remained. As at Lord's he played beautifully, his wristy squash racket shots still managing to pierce Atherton's defensive fields. Ably supported by the tail, he was last out, flashing wildly at Ealham, just 16 short of a first Test century.

It left England with an awkward 11 overs to negotiate before the close. Predictably - against the best bowlers in the series - they needed luck to do so and Atherton was reprieved by Dravid at third slip after Srinath got one to hold up off the pitch. Like the chance he gave Tendulkar on Thursday, it may be one India will have cause to regret.