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India vs England, 3rd Test, at Southampton: Alastair Cook, Gary Ballance put England in strong position

Alastair Cook played a fine knock for England © Getty Images
Alastair Cook played a fine knock for England © Getty Images

By Arunabha Sengupta

Ageas Bowl: Jul 27, 2014

Almost immediately after tea, Mohammed Shami bowled short and Alastair Cook rocked back to pull him to the mid-wicket fence. It took him into the nineties. He flashed at the next ball outside the off-stump, and it just about missed the outside edge. He had scored 130 at Leeds against New Zealand. Since then there had been one year, two months and 27 innings which had not seen three figures. The eagerness to get there was both evident and understandable.

Pankaj Singh ran in from the Northern End, keeping it either straight or outside the off. The invitation was to go for the drive, slips stood waiting. Cook shouldered arms to several, and then tapped a single. Gary Ballance chopped into the ground, sending it high over point and it ran to the boundary. The 150 of the partnership was up. The score looked an ominous 205 for one.

A smaller battle was still being played. Jadeja was bowling with seven men on the leg side. Cook could not squeeze a run. A maiden was played out. The England captain waited on 92. The next Jadeja over saw a nudge to fine leg for a single. Ballance drove the next ball through the three men patrolling the mid-wicket area for four. While everyone’s eyes were on Cook’s progress towards his milestone, Ballance had made his way to 85.

It was Bhuvneshwar Kumar who came in now, Cook cut to backward point for a single and scampered back for another as the throw went wide. And then he missed dispatching a half-tracker anywhere he wanted to. He had moved to 95.

The next over broke his heart. Jadeja’s ball was short, Cook’s bat swished horizontal, there was a faint nick and MS Dhoni pouched the ball down the leg side. Umpire Marais Erasmus seemed to hitch up his trousers in response to the vociferous appeal. And then he raised his finger. It was the correct decision, but given in a curious fashion. Cook walked back dejectedly, as the stadium rose to welcome back the gallant captain who had fought his demons for nearly five hours.The trains from London had been cancelled today and people had flocked in through complicated connections. The almost full Ageas Bowl had watched a brave, valiant effort. The only man who smiled, apart from the Indian supporters, was perhaps Shane Warne. As he walked up for his commentary stint, he called down to Mike Atherton, reminding him of the hundred quid that would not be his for those five runs. Atherton, for all his difficult questions thrown at Cook at Lord’s, had bet the legendary leg-spinner that the England captain would score a ton.

Shikhar Dhawan was introduced after drinks, to hasten the new ball. When the 80th over was bowled, it was Pankaj Singh entrusted with the shiny red cherry. It was an apt show of appreciation for the debutant who had been the most impressive of the seamers all day. He rapped the out of form Ian Bell on the pad, the appeal was huge, but the bounce just about saved the batsman.

From the Pavilion end ran in Shami. Ballance, clad in his lucky short-sleeved sweater that had seen him roasted and centurion at Lord’s, flicked a leg side delivery to the fence to move to 97. Shami tested him with some brisk bouncers and the batsman swayed and ducked.

At the other end, Pankaj continued a testing spell at Ian Bell, spoiled at the end by a ball down the leg side glanced for four.

Shami ran in and Ballance mistimed a pull to backward square leg, luckily it went along the ground. The Yorkshire man pushed into the onside for two to get to 99 and then steered to thirdman for four to bring up his second century in as many Tests. It was a knock of quality, spreading an aura of calm over the England innings, scored in just under four hours.

In the following over, Pankaj provided Bell with generous width and the struggling man from Warwickshire cut twice, once behind square once in front, and there were threatening signs of the last of the recent weak links of England batting coming out of the innings repaired and reinforced.

There were a couple of times Shami made Balance hurry and fidget. Bhuvneshwar came back towards the end of the day, making the ball swing away outside the off-stump to Bell and slanting it away across Ballance.

England ended on 247 for two, with Balance on 104 and Bell on 16.

The Indians have missed Ishant Sharma, even discounting the monster spell of the final afternoon at Lord’s. The first two Tests of the series had seen him a picture of discipline, who has lived up to the much desired role of the leader of the pack. Pankaj has been impressive on his first day in Test cricket, but the consistency has been absent in Bhuvneshwar and Shami. Bhuvneshwar in particular has looked rather flat for most of the day. They have not really allowed England to score freely, and given only two wickets have been lost all day 247 seems somewhat limited as an end of day total. However, given the recent weeks in English cricket, the hosts will not be complaining.

The expert opinion is that the wicket is drying out and fast bowlers may fancy bowling here on the remaining days. However, to capitalise on the situation, the England bowlers will have to show a lot more character than they have till now in the series.

One expects the England batsmen to take initiative early on Monday, and the task for the Indians will be cut out.

Complete coverage of India’s tour of England 2014

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry.He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

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