All day the kite hawks wheeled and circled in the dusty thermals over Mutera, perhaps sensing some English carrion.
Until Alastair Cook and Nick Compton took charge in the second half of the day and began the long haul of nudging England towards India's total, as if this was two winters' ago in Brisbane, it seemed they were not to be denied for, by the time the first innings of this opening Test were done, England's match to all intent and purpose lay in ruins, tormented initially by the bats of Virender Sehwag and Chetashwar Pujara, and then, as the pitch spat its venom, tortured by the wiles of Pragyan Ojha and Ravichandran Ashwin.
Plenty can change over the course of a proper Test series, and indeed a match, and just maybe the pitch has been at its most capricious and will calm down, but in the manner in which England had played the match to that point, the portents were not good. Never mind Ahmedabad, dustbowls await in Wankhede and Eden Gardens and who knows what in Nagpur. This next month could yet seem a very long one indeed.
For the first part of the match, it is hard to conceive India having played a more perfect game, nor England a worse one. Together, the two things conspired to produce a differential every bit as great as it was the other way round in England last year, and no less embarrassing for England now as it was for India then. That MS Dhoni won the toss was self-evidently a strong contributing factor in the way the game has panned out, but we should not use that as an excuse for England's performance. The manner in which the batsmen attempted to play the turning ball, and the way they were bamboozled by Saeed Ajmal earlier in the year when the ball didn't turn, suggests that even with the pitch at its best they would not have been able to bat with the felicity of the Indians.
The Indian innings was perfectly played, Sehwag putting England on the back foot from the word go in a manner that very few in the game can do, or even ought to consider attempting, and the innings thereafter played out with a relentless unhurried serenity until Dhoni, sensing the moment was right (perhaps his batsmen at the crease saw the first dust-puffs as the ball began to break the surface) declared. Dhoni's spinners found help that was not so readily available to Graeme Swann, who had held the fort admirably, but perhaps more worrying was the manner in which Zaheer Khan and, when eventually he did get a bowl, Umesh Yadav, found the sort of reverse swing on which the England seamers had hoped to base their game but was conspicuous by its absence.
All the tutorials and training camps, sessions with Graham Gooch and his rubber mat, time spent against Merlyn the Machine and the man they call Mr Mushie, or listening to Graham Thorpe and Andy Flower on techniques seemed to have borne little fruit. When the time came, the idea went out of the window that on a slow pitch, where there should be time to adjust, spin can be played on the back foot unless the batsman can get absolutely to the pitch of the ball. It was replaced all too often with the default bat-and-pad prod to keep the chirping close fielders even chirpier. The frowning coaches must have wondered about the old adage of leading horses to water.
In India, patience is the greatest virtue, the wherewithal to understand that eventually the ball gets softer and acts less malevolently. Cook showed it first time round, and was prospering, until he was deceived by a little extra overspin and dip from Ashwin, drove away from his body as a result and edged to slip. Matt Prior battled too, a man who early on would have found it easier to read Sanskrit than the spinners, but somehow survived until he was last out, having a selfless heave when he deserved the red ink in the scorebook for his effort. Others floundered, including Kevin Pietersen, who batted frenetically, and Ian Bell, who took leave of his senses first ball.
Then Cook and Compton showed what could be done with application. India, seduced maybe by the expectation from their bowling in the first innings, went off the boil, and suddenly the threat of the spinners was not so great, as Cook picked off the boundaries when the opportunity arose, and Compton played solidly in the manner expected of him, an altogether better innings technically.
It would be foolish to deny that India still have a firm hold on the match, and such has England's batting been that Dhoni and his team know that as with batting, patience brings its rewards. But for the moment, it was good to see some fight.
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image: © JJ Hall