LONDON: As the epochal century of centuries loomed, it looked like Sachin Tendulkar was suddenly batting on a bed of nails. His eyeballs widened and the stare became more pronounced; surely, his hands were sweaty inside the gloves and his footwork took to its own fancy too.
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England captain Andrew Strauss, then, pulled off a masterstroke. With the new ball just four overs away, and Tendulkar on 91, he tossed the old one to Tim Bresnan; Tendulkar would have expected Kevin Pietersen, who had bowled the previous over to be given one more over. His eyes lit up; his adrenaline shot up. The moment had arrived.
He lunged forward for the drive, missed the line and promptly turned away in his inimitable bluff; but the roar that followed told him that umpire Rod Tucker had not fallen for it: it must have sounded to him like the roll of thunder, like a furious storm in the deepest of oceans. He looked back sharply, first in shock at the celebrating England players and then in dismay at the skies; finally, he tucked his bat under the arm and blowing hot air walked away ever so slowly.
The Oval that had plunged into silence quickly gathered its wits and rose to salute the luckless little master; but the mood suddenly changed: victory was in the air again and the festivities resumed with even more vigour.
About an hour later, the 0-4 whitewash was done and dusted. Suresh Raina, who looked like he was in a trance, was rapped in front of the stumps; but he was even more zapped because umpire Taufel had not heard or noticed the edge. A second duck completed his miserable tour, at least in Tests.
The rest of the tail too folded up quickly to give England a heady innings and 8-run victory. Graeme Swann, as expected, was the destructor in chief, taking six for 106. His bowling was, however, much more telling as the track seemed to have eased up, especially when the wickets dried up.
Earlier, there was a buzz in the air, the kind that Tendulkar used to elicit in his hey days. The queues had fallen in place at least two hours before play and, for the first time, there were many more Indian faces in the crowd.
But it wasn’t just about Tendulkar’s impending century of centuries; England could sense a victory too, a clean sweep as well. It was almost like the first day of a much-awaited Test series, or the last day of the World Cup.
Resuming at 129 for three, with the ball breaking and turning sharply, it was always going to be a race between the historic hundred and a momentous victory. But all fears were dispelled quickly as Amit Mishra batted like an accomplished batsman; indeed, he set the tone with his cuts, drives and even lofted shots.
He not only flummoxed England’s bowlers but also took away the pressure from Tendulkar; he played like it was a first day wicket at the Kotla. It almost looked like there was no pace in the track, and the zip had also gone away for the spinner.
Tendulkar and Mishra waded through the first session without any mishaps, not losing a single wicket for an entire session just the only time in this series. But it wasn’t all quiet or incident-free; just as lunch beckoned, Tendulkar became edgy. Fortunately for him, though, he enjoyed the luck of a dying man.
First, an inside edge came too quickly for Cook at forward short-leg; Prior, then, couldn’t hold on to an outside edge. In between, he missed a sweep and offered no stroke to another delivery. Replays showed that Tendulkar was ‘out’ on both occasions.
The collapse, however, was triggered by Mishra’s dismissal; playing for turn, like he had done for most of the day, he was beaten by a straighter one by Swann to be bowled comprehensively. His 84 was, however, the lone hope for India as Tendulkar erred on the side of caution.
Some fairytales end in tears; this one went wrong from the first day itself. It will not be a bed of roses, at least not for some time.