With dark, menacing clouds overhead, and a coldness on the ground that you encounter only in a morgue, could a murder be far away? Yes, the Lord’s Test unfolded like one of those edgy, suspense-filled thrillers on Thursday morning.
It moved slowly, yet so purposefully that it almost felt like it was already inching towards a stunning climax, even though it was only the first day. By close of play, luckily or not depending on where your sympathies lie, there was no murder, no mayhem.
England, though anxious and circumspect, waded through the tough opening session and a more ‘moving’ second one, to reach the comfort of 127 for two in 49.2 overs till rain, and more rain, ensured that there would be no more play for the day. Jonathan Trott escaped two sure-shot attempts (edge off Harbhajan Singh and a flier between Dhoni and Dravid) to march past yet another 50; Kevin Pietersen lived a lot less dangerously to add 22.
India, however, lost one man – their spearhead no less – at least for the day: Zaheer Khan. He hobbled away after bowling 13.3 mesmerising but not so threatening overs, clutching his thigh. He had a smile on his face which must be reassuring.
He was responsible for the two wickets to fall, trapping Alastair Cook leg before the wicket and luring captain Andrew Strauss into a fatal hook shot. Praveen Kumar was much more humble in his ways, especially with his speed, but was probably that much more dangerous: he moved the ball sharply, both ways, and was clearly unlucky to miss the edge.
Ishant Sharma, the third arm, was nippy through the air, quick off the track and, not too surprisingly, a little wayward. The pacers were probably a yard short which allowed the batsmen to stay committed to their back foot. They needed to be drawn out, forced into driving, for India to make the best of the opportunity.
There were many hits and misses but that doesn’t count anymore; India paid the price for playing the waiting game.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni won the toss and, happily, opted to bowl. But the team somehow lacked the fire or enthusiasm that you expect to see in a champion outfit; the players almost ambled in, gathered in the now-perfunctory huddle before taking their allotted positions.
By the time the first ball was bowled, the ground was bathed in twilight. It was almost surreal, with the grand Victorian stand at one end and a spaceship-like media centre at the other. It was enclosed by shimmering white stands on the other two sides, all filled to the brim.
By 3.30, as twilight made way for the inevitable darkness, the floodlights were switched on too. All this only added to the grandiosity of the occasion in its own charming way. 100th Test between the two nations, the 2000th overall. It couldn’t get bigger than this. Dhoni, true to his instinct, experimented with unorthodox field placements: staggered slips, leg-slip, a man about 10 yards to the right of the umpire (with another right behind him), short mid-off and a deep square-leg for Strauss right from the start. He could have considered cajoling his pacers to work around the pitch too.
It may not have been easy for Zaheer or Praveen with two left-handers at the crease; it became more complicated when Trott dug in, defending stoutly and executing the poor deliveries with firmness and finesse too. The focus shifted to Pietersen once he came in but it was still a waiting game. It was just a sad twist, and surely not the last one, that tea had to be taken 20 minutes before schedule; it kept raining steadily after that, as predicted, until , after yet another inspection, stumps were drawn.