India are still only second favourites to win in Kolkata, but as modern captains say, MS Dhoni can take a few positives from the third day of the third Test. England finished Thursday (December 7) at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata on 509 for 6 — a lead of 193 — after Alastair Cook made a silly error to be run out for 190. The ball turned, giving the Indian spinners well-deserved wickets late in the day. And, more importantly, a smidgeon of hope for the fourth innings.
England batted through the first half of the day like a team with time on their hands. Cook did jump out to loft R Ashwin straight for a six, but for the most part, this was the Cook of old and not the more aggressive player from the previous day.
The lack of urgency allowed the spinners to settle down, with both Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha, the 26-year-olds born within a fortnight of each other, making the batsmen play forward and occasionally getting them to reach for the ball. It wasn’t until Kevin Pietersen arrived that there was a bit of bustle. Pietersen, who had sat padded up for some four hours while Cook and Jonathan Trott added 173 for the second wicket, hit nine boundaries and a six in 54 before Ashwin had him reaching out to sweep and missing the line. Six overs later, Samit Patel fell caught by a juggling Virender Sehwag at slip.
When Graeme Swann cut Ishant Sharma – the only medium-pacer to take a wicket when he had Ian Bell caught behind – to bring up the 500, England, who had the better of the first two sessions, were still scoring at just three an over when they might reasonably have been expected to finish the day with a lead of around 230 or so. More than Cook, it was the dismissal of Pietersen that put paid to that plan, if indeed that was the plan.
India might have been lucky to dismiss Cook, but it was reward for doing the simple things right. Kohli had the presence of mind to throw to the non-striker’s end, showing an alertness of the kind that had earlier enabled Dhoni to catch Jonathan Trott as the ball turned from Ojha.
Cook had never been run out in a Test match before. And now he will always remember this one. Pietersen turned Zaheer Khan to leg to the only fielder likely to hit the stumps. Kohli’s direct hit ignored Cook taking evasive action – had he grounded his bat and then jumped, he would not have been out. He was in midair when he saw the ball crashing onto the stumps and knew immediately that he was out.
There was a bit of drama as the umpires consulted, spoke to Dhoni (surely they weren’t asking the Indian captain to withdraw the appeal?), and held up play. But Cook was readying to leave anyway.
Perhaps, luck was finally deserting him in the course of his eight-hour innings. Lucky to be dropped at 17 on Thursday, he was given another life when Ishant muffed a straightforward caught-and-bowled when he was on 156. Perhaps Ishant took his eyes off the ball, perhaps he needs a haircut, perhaps it is one of those things, as fielding coach Trevor Penney is wont to say. Cook, suitably warned, proceeded to tighten his game even further.
Right from the start, when he turned Zaheer and the new ball past midwicket for his 150 and the team’s 250, he had looked good enough to bat through the day. Cook famously does not sweat – there are various theories to explain this – and continued to look as if he had just stepped out of a shower. He can go a whole day without changing gloves, or indeed his style of batsmanship which continued to be serene, if a little slower than absolutely necessary.
It was the kind of innings that gives a partner, especially one like Trott, yet to make a fifty in the series, confidence. Trott quickly came into his own, cover driving Ashwin and then Ishant and on-driving Zaheer to cross fifty.
India bowled much better than on day two, with Ashwin in particular starting the day hitting the right line around the off-stump, the right length, slightly beyond good length, and the right pace, slower than he had been bowling before. For a while, the spinners held sway at the start. But like on Thursday when the medium-pacers were bowling well, they needed to pick up a wicket or two. They were denied by the sheer solidity of Cook and Trott.
Dhoni will certainly sleep better than he did on Thursday night, but with two days remaining, it will take a major comeback from India’s batsmen to push England.