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India laid low at the Wankhede

Last updated on: March 22, 2006 14:49 IST

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On his debut as a cricket reporter, Martin Johnson famously started his first report of an Ashes tour Down Under with the words 'Can't bat, can't bowl, can't field'.

He was referring to England -- which promptly went on to win the Ashes; the last time, as it turned out, that England has beaten Australia in Australia.

So Johnson wrapped up the series with this classic: 'Can't bat, can't bowl, can't field. Right line, wrong team.

I finally know what Johnson must have felt like, before he sat down to write that final report. 'India can win', yes -- but wrong team? Or just wrong day?

- Morning session

From the first session of day three, when India began fighting back, the home team kept the upper hand through six straight sessions spread over two days -- and in Tests, when that happens, you go on to win. Even the morning session, despite the two set backs, ended pretty much in a fashion the team should have been comfortable with during the break, with two of its top batsmen looking set, three more still in the hut to follow, and what should have been easiest session of the three.

It took nine deliveries for the scenario to unravel -- in unexpected, and spectacular, fashion.

Flintoff, opening the session, bowled a straight ball down the corridor -- and Rahul Dravid, a man who routinely sneers at such deliveries even in his sleep, reprised the Tendulkar dismissal of the first innings, pushing at it with feet rooted to the crease and body not even in the same zip code as the ball, to feather it through to Geraint Jones.

At the other end Shaun Udal, with his third ball of the session, tossed one up at Tendulkar, who shut the bat face and looked to push out on the on side, but managed only to get the thick inside edge onto pad for Ian Bell, at square leg (a position that was a veritable sieve for India, with nothing sticking), to dive and hold left handed.

Virender Sehwag came out clutching his back (why, given that in the last month and a half, he has had back spasms twice and a shoulder injury once, he has been picked to play ODIs is a bit of a mystery for another day) and with Wasim Jaffer to do his running.

James Anderson took over, straightened one on the stumps and the batsman, whose movements were clearly hampered, took it on the pad and walked away.

Then followed the most extraordinary dismissal of them all. Mahendra Singh Dhoni had an almighty heave at Shaun Udal, put it high up in the air, and even as he was yelling his own mortification, saw Monty Panesar at mid off make an absolute meal of the sort of chance schoolboys are sent to bed without supper for missing.

So the batsman promptly produced the exact same shot -- with only this difference, that this time Panesar held in exactly the same position. As a show of application from a player whose batting skills were the prime reason the team think tank felt confident of going in with a batsman short, that display was underwhelming, to put it mildly.

Harbhajan Singh wafting Udal to fine leg with an uppish sweep was perhaps predictable -- who in his right mind would expect him to hang on? Flintoff then went around the wicket, drew Yuvraj Singh into the expansive drive and found his edge. That left one wicket to go -- and Udal merely had to toss one up for Munaf Patel to heave it to fine leg, finishing the game, squaring the series with India on a level 100 giving England a win by 212 runs.

At the end of it all, what remains is a faint bad taste in the mouth. More than blind optimism had fuelled my suggestion that this game was India's to win -- the wicket had remained remarkably firm; England had to balance the need for attacking fast bowling with the fact that in sapping heat, their bowlers especially in the second session and even in the first hour of the third would not have been able to bowl extended spells, neither spinner had the skills to be really threatening…

Those who argued against such a result invariably pointed to the record books, which missed the point -- history is the record of what has already happened, not a prophesy of what is to happen. If that were the case, all of achievement would become impossible, every successive day merely a repetition of the previous.

So, I still believe -- taking into account the two teams, the pitch, the conditions, the ask -- that this game was there to be won. It was all there, all the ingredients.

Except one – heart.

Prem Panicker