A low total, a true pitch baked hard by a blazing sun, and a troika of inexperienced seamers helped England, chasing with the absence of pressure a dead rubber brings, cruise through to a consolation win in the 6th ODI of the series.
Andrew Strauss, without nemesis Irfan Pathan to confront, got the chase going when in the third over of the innings he picked R P Singh for boundaries through cover, to fine leg and extra cover; Ian Bell matched him shot for shot in the next over, off driving fluidly before producing a front foot square drive off Munaf Patel that was pure silk.
Both openers played with total freedom; the Indian seamers for their part tried too much, too often, and ended up bowling both sides of the track.
VRV Singh, getting a debut bowl in the 9th over, was just as erratic. India's latest debutant is tall, has a nice, flowing action and good pace -- but a first over that went for 13 runs, in course of which he got Strauss caught off a no ball flicking off his pads, was not the sort of start calculated to settle his nerves. To their credit, the England openers did not allow any of the seam troika to settle; Ian Bell showcased his timing and touch while Strauss alternated between educated edges to third man and trademark cuts and drives through the off cordon.
By the time Harbhajan Singh came on to bowl, 112 overs had gone for 81 runs; there were 13 boundaries in that score. RP Singh's first spell went for 5-1-34-0; Munaf Patel managed 5-0-21 and VRV Singh went for 26 off three.
Ramesh Powar joined his fellow offie in the 14th and for the first time, there was a contest of sorts.
The two spinners bowl contrasting styles -- Harbhajan relying more on giving the ball enormous revs, getting the ball to bite and kick and wheeling his way through the full bag of tricks in each over. Powar, by contrast, ambles in, tosses the ball well above the batsman's eyeline at speeds often in the mid 70ks (against the high 80s and early 90s Bajji regularly hits), and teases the batsman into having a go.
An outer edge that flashed past the diving first slip got Strauss to his 50 (49 balls) and rang up the 100 of the partnership (102 balls); almost immediately after, Bajji deceived Bell with a doosra that found the edge through to give India the breakthrough (107/1; Bell 46/64).
In the 23rd over, Powar tossed one up unusually high; the ball hit the deck, bit, ,kicked, defeated Strauss' slash and found the toe of the bat; Dhoni, standing right up, failed to get his hand up in time. The very next ball was again tantalizingly flighted; Vikram Solanki attempted to clear mid on standing well inside the circle, was beaten in the air and saw the ball curl in from outside off to hit the top of the stumps (120/2).
Dravid rotates his bowlers rapidly to try and make things happen; Sehwag in contrast preferred to let the two off spinners operate in tandem for a long spell -- 15 very good overs together produced 57 runs and the two wickets, before Yuvraj took over from Powar (7-0-31-1; Bajji at that point 8-0-26-1)) in the 29th.
Curiously, too, where Dravid typically opts to take the pace off the ball as it gets older, Sehwag brought Munaf Patel in the 30th -- and saw Pietersen play the most amazing front foot pull in front of square leg to take England to 159/2 at the end of 30 overs. Two down became three without another ball being bowled with Strauss, who had for a while been struggling with cramp and dehydration, opting to retire with his personal score on 74/85.
Munaf, whose rhythm and control are his governing features, segued into a nightmare. Shortening his run up a notch, in all probability to save energy in the sapping heat, he ended up overstepping repeatedly. Insult was added to injury when at the end of an extra-long 32nd over, one of his trademark lifters off length saw Paul Collingwood cramped for room on an attempted square cut; the ball flew off the toe of the bat to Yuvraj Singh at point and the fielder jumped high, got his hand to it, but failed to cling on (168/2).
Not that any of this mattered, not really -- with Pietersen striking clean from the get-go and Collingwood bringing fresh legs to the middle, England moved up a gear, racing between the wickets and hitting hard when occasion offered.
Harbhajan, who had an extended conversation with Pietersen when the latter came out to bat, got his own back when he returned for a second spell in the 37th over and with his first ball, deceived the batsman with change of pace, holding the doosra back a trifle to find the leading edge as Pietersen attempted to work on the on side (198/3; KP 33/40); at that point, England needed 26 runs to seal the win, with a tick under 14 overs to get them in.
Even so, Bajji with yet another slower, flighted doosra drew Prior into a drive that ended up in the hands of mid off standing halfway to the fence (207/4; Prior 3/10; Bajji 10-0-30-0); Suresh Raina came within a cat's whisker of running out Collingwood with a direct throw; Powar threw one up wide outside off and Plunkett's misguided attempt at a mow merely found a feather-edge through to Dhoni (209/5); Ian Blackwell however finished it off with a four and six off successive Powar deliveries o seal the win by five wickets, with a little over 7 overs to spare.
The game had effectively been won and lost in the first 20 overs of either innings. India, in the first 20, made 90/5 (78/5 in 15.3); England at that stage had cruised to 107/1. On a small chase, that sort of start almost invariably seals the result.
The one big point of interest for a Indian fan in the second half was the bowling of VRV Singh; a question being asked for some time now being whether the Punjab quick can team up with Munaf Patel to give India a potent fast bowling pair.
That question will need to wait a game or two more before we get some sort of answer -- on the day, the debutant came on after the openers had tucked in to the offerings of RP Singh and Munaf and were clearly feeling their oats. Couple that with stage fright, and you reckon you need to watch him bowl a full spell to get a feel for his pace, and his promise. The one straw in the wind worth pointing to is that the rookie hit in excess of 140 without seeming to extend himself, and came back in the 40th over for a second spell that was considerably better than his first set of 3 overs.
In passing, Ian Botham in the commentary box has in this game carried a bit of a torch for Bajji. The former all rounder apparently believes that when the offie stood his ground after being bowled by Pietersen, it was a bizarre act -- and that the only interpretation was that Bajji was accusing the keeper of cheating.
Really? Bajji was beaten in flight, he looked back, he saw the bails disturbed and the keeper up in appeal. How was he to know whether the ball had turned in to hit the stumps, or the keeper had taken the bails off and was appealing for the stumping?
He held his ground -- and interesting, neither the straight umpire nor the square leg umpire felt sure enough to give the decision; it was referred to the third umpire. So when the two field umpires couldn't tell, Mr Botham, were they too implying that Matt Prior had pulled a fast one, and I don't mean a stumping?
Had the commentator been content to point out, once at the time of the incident, that Bajji waiting was a bit weird, that would have been one thing. But for him to harp on the subject on each subsequent visit to the box, up to and including the last spell which began immediately after Bajji took out Pietersen, was surely a bit much.