On Monday evening, at the end of a day of murkiness, sunshine and no raindrops, England were bathing in a sense of satisfaction.
Two Englishmen went back to the dressing room with a sense of achievement, the battle lost but the war won.
The Indians would be a bit ambivalent about the result — they had declared by words (through manager Chandu Borde) that they would be happy with a 1-0 win. And they had declared by their actions (by not asking England to follow on) that they would be satisfied with the bird in hand, however nettle-free the bushes might be.
At the end, the Indians uprooted the stumps, had a huddle by the pitch and skipped lightly, their arms around each other, and expressed their joy in ecstatic shouts. They raised their arms and punched the air — they walked off in triumph, they clearly were delighted with the result, ensuring a 1-0 series victory.
Yet the satisfaction was incomplete — there was a sense that the whole business was left unfinished, even though India won the series 1-0, for only the third time in England.
The English tail and a saviour
On the final Monday, there was drama only at the end, with the hosts losing their top-order to expose their tail, but the tail wagged, for a change. Even as the Indians threw a ring of fielders around the batsmen, the Englishmen played out over after over with grim resolution, each proffered block, each run cheered lustily in the stands.England played out 110 overs in the final innings, only the fourth time ever that a team batted out 110 overs in the final innings at The Oval. One way of looking at that is that if a team does that, it does not deserve to lose. And that if an attack cannot bowl out an opponent in 110 overs, in seven hours and 37 minutes, it doesn’t deserve to win.
And Kevin Pietersen, after another brilliant century, did not deserve to be on the losing side.
Pietersen, after that blitz at Lord’s that took away the game from India, got another excellent century, this one that denied India at The Oval.
Coming in at 86 for two, at the fall of Alastair Cook, Pietersen displayed the virtue of self-denial at the start, had spurts of brisk run-making and, four balls after he reached a brilliant century, fell to a wild, unnecessary shot.
Bell stands firm
That opened the door for India but Ian Bell hit his second half-century of the game, at a run-a-ball, and frustrated India. Matt Prior, vilified in England in India for his ability with the gloves and his mouth, finally displayed some talent with the bat, playing out 64 balls in 93 minutes, emerging in the role of the unlikely third lead. He was the man who played out the last over bowled by Kumble, defending doggedly and with effect.
India would be hurt by the catches they dropped. Captain Michael Vaughan was dropped by Rahul Dravid when on 18 and Paul Collingwood was dropped by MS Dhoni — admittedly a tough one — when the Englishman was on 13. Vaughan went on to make 42, Collingwood was finally dismissed on 40.
And India’s chances of victory receded with every moment, every extra ball the two played.
India had got rid of the openers in the first session, Andrew Strauss falling for 33 when he tried to play an offensive shot outside off to RP Singh.
The tourists had managed to prise out the first wicket only in the 32nd over — the second was quicker in coming when, 15 balls later, Alastair Cook exited. It was, yet again, a ball down the leg-side from Anil Kumble, Cook tried to flick it and again, it was Laxman who took the catch, at leg gully. In walked Pietersen and proceeded to calm England’s nerves in a steady partnership with his captain.
Tendulkar, brought on just before lunch, spun the ball a mile, and Pietersen willing to again take on him. There were a couple of close calls, but no real chance.
The wicket played true and England made 313 in 90 overs — one big reason was that the field was up.