Cook masterclass gives England a glimmer

Monday, 19 November 2012 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Some captains lead by rousing speeches, some by intricate tactical theories. Alastair Cook leads by example. Three times he has captained England in Tests and three times he has produced a century in response. Against India in Ahmedabad, he summoned his most monumental innings of all. Long before the end of the day, India’s spinners could feel it in their bones.

Cook met mounting criticism of England’s hapless displays against spin bowling with an innings of striking certainty, more than eight hours so far. He finished the fourth day with an unbeaten 168 to his name. England, after trailing by 330 on first innings, are 10 runs ahead with five wickets remaining. India remain favourites but they are one good batting session away from feeling decidedly nauseous.

This defiant 100, to follow two as captain in Bangladesh when Andrew Strauss was on sabbatical, is already one of the finest innings of an increasingly grand Test career. It affirmed his right to lead and it left Pragyan Ojha and R. Ashwin, who at the start of the day had every expectation of becoming match-winners, with only two wickets to show from 85 overs.

A draw is not impossible; Andy Flower knows that. Zimbabwe drew a Test in Nagpur 12 years ago after following on when Flower, now England’s director of cricket, batted for more than nine hours for an unbeaten double century, his highest Test score, on a tour that cemented his reputation as one of the best players of spin in the world.

It was a hot day at Motera, and a parched, cracked pitch promised to be deadly. But the surface looked tired long before India’s spinners. Dangerous turn was a rarity. “More red clay!” you could imagine India’s coach, Duncan Fletcher, ordering from behind his inscrutable shades as the virginal, relaid pitch failed to break up as expected.

Famously, Cook does not sweat much, but he found a worthy ally in a man who sweats buckets, Matt Prior, who played in characteristically punchy fashion for an unbeaten 84, feasting on whatever width the spinners allowed.

While Cook batted on phlegmatically, so cool that he had no need to change his gloves, Prior ducked his head repeatedly and tipped sweat from his helmet. Wet or dry, these two batsmen have carried England’s fight throughout the Test.

It is a fact that had DRS been employed in this Test, both might already have been dismissed and India would probably have been 1-0 up in the series. Cook, well forward on the sweep to Ojha, survived an lbw appeal on the third day, having made 41; Prior, bat alongside pad in approved pre-DRS method, in England at least, survived on 61. On both occasions, for Aleem Dar, the umpire, the uncertainty was too much. Hawk Eye would have had no such compunction.

Cook’s Block Party was based upon sound principles, limited in ambition but possessing a confidence that his defensive technique provided a stable basis for long-term survival. The surface was so slow that picking off a single or two could sometimes look the easiest job in the world.

About half an hour before the close, Ojha finally made one spit viciously and he shrewdly turned away and took a blow on the shoulder. About his only show of emotion came at the close when he puffed out his cheeks in recognition of an exhausting day.

No player has ever made 100s in their first three Tests as captain. But, like Michael Clarke for Australia, captaincy seems to stir him to even greater levels of concentration. He brought up his 21st Test century by quietly tucking Umesh Yadav into the leg side but his best shot of all came slightly earlier when he took him through midwicket with exquisite timing.

The prospect of Indian domination on a turning pitch has quickened interest in this contest. The weekend crowds have been much bigger (there are no official figures, not even guesstimates), renewing hope that an attractive Test can still draw the crowds. And after two sessions, with India five wickets to the good and England still 66 behind, the match was by no means certain to reach a final day.

It tipped India’s way just before the second new ball was due when Ian Bell and Samit Patel fell lbw to successive deliveries from Yadav , a strong-shouldered quick who reversed the old ball and continued to make a good impression.

Patel stomped off in disgust as the umpire, Tony Hill, failed to spot an inside nick. It was his second bad decision in the match, not helpful when he is trying to prove himself worthy of a top-six place and his left-arm slows are likely to be less useful in the second Test in Mumbai, should Monty Panesar be recalled. Bell, meanwhile, soon heads off for a bit of paternity leave and might struggle to regain his place.

The morning undoubtedly belonged to India. While Cook proceeded serenely through the 90s, all sorts of turmoil ensued 22 yards away as Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen both departed, Pietersen to left-arm spin yet again. Nick Compton had gone earlier, a troubled half-hour in marked contrast to his equilibrium on the third evening as England had reached stumps at 111 without loss.

Compton resisted in workmanlike manner. He won an England Test debut by stripping down his game at Somerset and becoming reliant on a solid defensive technique. In this Test, he has stripped it down some more, spending 181 balls in the match for scores of 9 and 37.

In the half hour or so he survived, he lacked the certainty of the previous evening. He was fortunate to survive an lbw appeal from Ashwin – another wicket that an India spinner might have gained had DRS been in place – and, when he tried to advance down the pitch to the same bowler, MS Dhoni entirely missed a stumping. Zaheer Khan got deserved reward for a combative potpourri by swinging one back to have him lbw.

Ojha then switched ends to remove Trott with one that turned, bringing a catch for Dhoni, but such occurrences were rare.

Pietersen’s first innings had involved a series of cavalier advances down the pitch. On this occasion, he had little time for such fripperies, attempting an ungainly pre-meditated sweep to the sixth ball he faced, from Ojha. All he heard was the sound of ball against stump as a full-length delivery bowled him around his legs.

India’s spinners bowl straight at him, like others have in the past, with the recognition that his defensive technique is fallible. Pietersen does not have a problem against left-arm spin apparently. And bees do not buzz and there is never honey for tea.           (ESPNCricinfo)