At 34 minutes past three on Monday afternoon, at a benighted Lord's, India found reason to cheer — the gloom gathered, playing even the spinners became perilous and the umpires finally offered the two batsmen light.
MS Dhoni and S Sreesanth did not skip with delight, but they must have come close to it — nine wickets down and chasing an impossible target, darkness had given the Indians refuge. In the dressing room, as the tense battle in the middle came to a halt, when defeat was just a ball away at any time, Sachin Tendulkar could finally afford a grin.
Tea was taken early, but by the time the Englishmen were ready to play again, the rain was falling in a drizzle — not an overpowering, strong shower, just an irritating drizzle. Barely metres away, in another dressing room across the pavilion, there was laughter and joy as the Indians cheered up at the sight of the endless rain.
The scene was just the reverse before darkness descended. Chasing 380 for victory, India looked set to record their 11th defeat in 15 matches at the venue. Seventy-five years and one month after their cricketing forefathers made their Test debut here, in a match they lost but were not disgraced in, India saved a match due to rain — a far from a graceful way to salvage honour.
Rain never allowed play to resume after that fatal moment for England — India rested at 282 for nine, 98 short of victory. MS Dhoni was unbeaten on a strange knock of 76, S. Sreesanth had kept seven balls out of his stumps.
India came close to the required total because, in worsening light, Michael Vaughan was forced to bowl himself — if he had thrown the ball to a paceman, the end to play would have come earlier.
Thus, keeping his head even as his teammates lost theirs, Dhoni farmed the strike, denying the splendid Monty Panesar — bowling with remarkable accuracy and turning the ball — a go at Sreesanth. In the process, he denied himself several runs but, with the field set close, also struck out on occasion to gather easy fours.
The Indians in the crowd wildly cheered each Dhoni blow, which at that time seemed akin to the throes of a landed fish — it seemed India's fate had been sealed with the early wickets of Sourav Ganguly and Dinesh Karthik.
It was cold and murky in the ground, the rain for which the Indians had prayed for since morning seemed to have deserted them. It was cold, and even the Englishmen wore cardigans.
Dhoni and VVS Laxman had put up a fight earlier but, in the last ball of his 16th over, Chris Tremlett drove a dagger through Indian hearts. Laxman was beaten by one that came in sharply and kept a bit low — he jabbed at the ball, which eluded everything and shattered his stumps. India were 231 for six, the last hope, it seemed, had been dashed.
Coming in at 143/4, when Ganguly became the 13th LBW victim in the match, Laxman had looked in good touch. Immediately after, he lost Karthik for 60. That meant both Laxman and Dhoni were on zero, and the end to the innings loomed.
But they defied the hosts, adding 86 runs for the sixth wicket.
Dhoni was circumspect and impetuous in turn, and twice edged the ball either short or wide of slips. Then there were a couple of drives through the covers, high but going right between the fielders. Laxman looked untroubled and the stage looked set for one of his trademark second-innings salvos — but Tremlett ended that hope.
Kumble, Zaheer and RP Singh were brushed aside, but Dhoni stood firm. It seemed he was fighting a losing battle, but in the end, he did save India, aided by the gloom that cheered.
1st Innings 298
1st Innings 201
2nd Innings 282
Jaffer c Pietersen b Anderson 8
Karthik c C’wood b Anderson 60
Dravid lbw b Tremlett 9
Tendulkar lbw b Panesar 16
Ganguly lbw b Sidebottom 40
Laxman b Tremlett 39
Dhoni not out 76
Kumble lbw b Sidebottom 3
Khan c Prior b Tremlett 0
RP Singh b Panesar 2
Sreesanth not out 4
(b-13, lb-5, w-6, nb-1) 25
(for 9 wkts, 96 ovs) 282
Fall of wkts
: 1-38, 2-55, 3-84, 4-143, 5-145, 6-231, 7-247, 8-254, 9-263
: Sidebottom 19-4-42-2, Anderson 25-4-83-2, Tremlett 21-5-52-3, Panesar 26-7-63-2, Collingwood 1-0-6-0, Vaughan 4-0-18-0.