Mahendra Singh Dhoni must have felt the chill when he walked in to bat on Wednesday afternoon. A heavy breeze was blowing across the Edgbaston ground, the sky was still overcast and India had already crumbled to 92 for five.
He knew that his moment had come. After being 2-0 down, and at the receiving end for his batting and wicket-keeping too, he had to turn to his old counter-attacking self. But then, he had to quell the doubts within first.
First ball: short and wide. It should have been the perfect way to break the shackles. He lunged at it with a cut, but without even moving his feet. A miss. Maybe, he decided, that was not the way to go. He settled down. The mask was back on. Captain cool.
It’s only when VVS Laxman and Amit Mishra too fell at the other end, and India were in deeper trouble at 111 for seven, that Dhoni invoked his basic instinct. Over the next 100 minutes or so, he unleashed a sequence of attacking shots to zip away to 77 runs.
It included 10 boundaries and three big sixes and, sadly, came to an end just when England’s shoulders were drooping. Six deliveries later, without the addition of a single run, India were all out for 224. Dhoni had given himself and his side breathing time.
England had the tricky task of driving home the advantage now. Alastair Cook and Andrew Strauss have not exactly been in top form and the pitch was still fresh. The sun had come out but survival wasn’t going to be easy. Cautiously, they took it delivery by delivery, over by over. At stumps, England were 84 for no loss.
Earlier, Strauss succumbed to the temptation and invited India to bat first. He was rewarded quickly with Virender Sehwag’s wicket but as Gautam Gambhir and Rahul Dravid dug in, he must have been worried: the track clearly lacked pace to bother quality batsmen.
But James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Tim Bresnan were attacking in tandem, bowling to a careful, deliberate plan. By the first drinks, India had moved to 47 for one, with Gambhir taking care of the score card. Had they crossed the danger?
But it all started happening in the 20th over: Bresnan, who strayed down the leg side, suddenly found the perfect line outside the off-stump. A series of away-swingers were suddenly followed by an in-cutter. Gambhir, lured by the width, drove and only managed to draw it back into the stumps.
Strauss brought Anderson back into the attack the moment Sachin Tendulkar walked in. Tendulkar, wary of the in-swinger, poked at one just outside the off-stump; a few deliveries later, he played and missed another that sailed just over him stumps.
On his eighth delivery, the inevitable thick edge materialized. Anderson couldn’t get him this time; but he did take his catch at third slip. On current form and conviction, there is only one way to get Dravid out: a beauty. Bresnan conjured it four overs later to signal a perfect lunch for England. India: 75 for four.
Suresh Raina didn’t last long. Laxman showed signs of a revival, tackling all the bowlers with caution and skill. He was looking particularly good, a flick followed by a perfect off-drive, when a pull left him with a bewildered look on his face.
Dhoni overcame the initial jitters to launch his own version of the fightback. He hit big shots all around the wicket to deal mostly in boundaries; he almost forced England to bowl short at him and made the most of the gaps. Strauss promptly changed tactics.
He had virtually all his men on the field, hoping to cut off the big runs and inviting the tail to take strike. Dhoni averted that by rejecting the singles and playing through barren overs. Eventually, it had to give though.