India level series in thriller

India won an incredible match at The Oval to keep themselves alive in the seven-match ODI series against England. Robin Uthappa played a magnificently level-headed hand at the denouement of the game to rescue a chase which had stalled after a 150-run opening stand between Sourav Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar. This was after the hosts had set a total of 316 for 6, including 152 in the final 14 overs and 5 consecutive sixes to close the innings. A flat pitch, some short boundaries and the customary fast Oval outfield produced a match which regularly swung one way and the other and ended-up producing a result which keeps the series alive, setting-up a decider at Lord’s on Saturday the 8th.

The Indian chase was a fine team effort, with contributions from Gautam Gambhir and Mahendra Dhoni, who stuck with Uthappa as the required-rate touched 10-an-over. Ganguly and Tendulkar, however, had put their side well on track with yet another superlative opening stand. Unlike previous opening salvos in this series, the experienced pair were forced to play strokes virtually from the word go, and they recaptured all their old glories in the first and second Powerplays. James Anderson struggled badly, with his opening over costing 11 and his first 4 conceding 35. Stuart Broad was better, and gave up just two boundaries in his first 5. The second of these, a trademark Ganguly slap over extra-cover, saw several words exchanged between batsman and bowler, Umpire Aleem Dar being forced to intervene.

The floodgates really opened, however, in the 13th, bowled by Paul Collingwood. Tendulkar, who already had 40 off 36 balls by then, struck three consecutive fours, followed-up with 10 off Dimitri Mascarenhas’ opening two deliveries of the next over, and Ganguly took the cue by walking down the pitch and hammering Anderson over mid-off, then pulling him hard over square-leg when he dropped short. Collingwood was forced to delay his third Powerplay, but he could not stem the flow, and after 17 India were galloping along at well over 7-an-over, at 124 without loss.

Shortly after Collingwood did take the final bout of field-restrictions, however, Tendulkar begun to cramp up. This, along with the 7 men in the ring, made singles a difficult proposition, and despite a boundary in each of the 19th, 20th, 21st and 22nd, Ganguly was clearly frustrated by the inability to capitalise fully on the Powerplay, and in attempting to loft Broad once again over the off could only find Kevin Pietersen on the edge of the circle at extra-cover. Tendulkar continued to struggle, and off the final ball of the 26th from Panesar attempted to flay through wide mid-off but saw the stroke intercepted by Collingwood. For the 4th time in a row in ODIs upon reaching 90, Tendulkar had fallen without managing to complete a century.

Gambhir and Yuvraj Singh, promoted once again to number four, did enough to keep in the game, finding gaps and striking the occasional massive blow. Owais Shah’s maiden over in ODIs did not cover the Middlesex batsman in glory, and was extremely fortunate to concede just 4. Perhaps in frustration at this and Shah’s next over conceding no more, Yuvraj failed to control a drive at Mascarenhas, returning in the 35th, and gave the Hampshire all-rounder a straightforward return catch. Worse was to follow, as Rahul Dravid got a leading-edge to a Shah delivery which, had no contact been made, would have been a leg-side wide. As it was, Collingwood gratefully snapped-up his second catch of the day. 5 overs later, as the rate climbed, Gambhir attempted to loft Mascarenhas over the leg, and skied a catch to long-on. Panesar kept his eyes on the ball and pouched the catch. At the end of the over, India required 82 from 54, with Dhoni struggling to find gaps and Uthappa into unchartered territory – the Karnataka opener has only ever batted in the top three for India and was now asked to come in at seven and finish a floundering chase.

Panesar’s final over cost 10, and after four excellent deliveries of his final over, Mascarenhas fired one down leg to concede five wides. This allowed India to remain in the contest, as Collingwood and Anderson returned to the attack.

Anderson’s 45th over outstripped his previous 5 by some distance, as he fired in pinpoint yorker after pinpoint yorker, complete with some inswing. Crucially, however, a misfield from Pietersen at long-off allowed Dhoni four from the final delivery. Still the Indians could not find inspiration, Collingwood managing three dot-balls in the 46th. The following over at last brought them back into the contest, as searing strokes combined with edges to produce 15. Broad immediately dragged this back, conceding just 4 off the 48th, the final ball bowling Dhoni as he tried to flick to fine-leg. Uthappa remained ice-cool, and despite Agarkar being run-out off the final ball took 13 from the 49th. A two and a dot-ball (from which Zaheer was run out) to start the final over meant that 8 were required from 4. But Uthappa struck gold, as he first succeeded where Dhoni had failed by flicking over short-fine-leg, then responded to Collingwood bringing up mid-off by driving it firmly past him. Uthappa finished on 47* from 33 balls, and the dressing-room reacted with ecstasy, the players streaming onto the ground in scenes not unlike their victory in the NatWest Series final 5 years previously.

Initially it had looked extremely unlikely that the chase would be anywhere near as tall an order as it turned-out to be. Collingwood had won his second consecutive toss, to offset Dravid’s opening four, and had elected to bat on a surface which was expected to be slow by the ground’s normal standards. Sussex batsman Luke Wright won his first cap after several destructive innings in the Pro40 recently as a replacement for the injured Ravinder Bopara, and Mascarenhas returned in place of Jonathan Lewis who had bowled poorly at Headingley. Uthappa replaced the ineffectual Dinesh Karthik for India, and Wright shared with him the need to change roles, having opened for his county in the shorter game.

Zaheer Khan ensured Alastair Cook’s recent poor run continued, producing a beauty that seamed away and took the outside-edge off just the 2nd ball of the match. Ian Bell, however, continued to look in superb touch, caressing his 1st ball for four, and ensuring that as so often Ajit Agarkar’s spell started with a boundary. Matthew Prior was starved of the strike, and perhaps it was this that caused him to play around an Agarkar delivery on middle-and-leg in the 4th over. Despite its straight line, however, replays and HawkEye suggested the delivery would have passed over the stumps. Nonetheless, it was another failure for Prior, who may soon find his team-mate Wright offering serious competition in the pinch-hitting role.

Kevin Pietersen, struggling for form in recent matches, was given an easy start by Agarkar who offered leg-side deliveries aplenty to both batsmen. With just two specialist seamers, India found Ganguly and Piyush Chawla bowling in tandem as early as the 14th over. Both impressed, however, and Bell was sufficiently frustrated, despite being just 1 short of a half-century, to play over the top of a Chawla delivery which rattled into the middle-stump. The following over Pietersen called Collingwood for a suicidal single as he hit one straight to Karthik at cover. A poor throw, however, meant the batsman got close to making his ground – so close that Umpire Peter Hartley did not even consult the third-Umpire. Until, that is, he (and the Indian fielders) saw a replay on the big screen. Collingwood appeared displeased at this intervention, but had to go.

Pietersen and Shah undertook a solid rebuilding effort, with just 5 boundaries in their 13 overs, with Pietersen finally completing his first half-century since the World Cup. The stand was ended, though, when Pietersen appeared to completely ignore Shah’s sensible call of “no” for a second to deep cover, and simply kept on running. Yuvraj Singh allowed himself a leisurely 3 or 4 seconds to remove the bails.

After struggling for a couple of overs, Shah and Wright begun to express themselves. Wright showed little indication of fear or awe at the occasion, and struck the spinners powerfully to off and leg. Chawla and Powar, who had done an excellent job for most of their spells, were suddenly made to look like they were bowling footballs. Everything the two struck seemed to hit gaps, despite a very fortuitous let-off for Shah on 40 when he got an edge to Powar onto his pad, which Dhoni swallowed but Aleem Dar did not notice. Wright brought-up a seemingly effortless 50 from just 39 balls. When he was run out by a direct hit from Uthappa at mid-on, Shah took over, firing blow after blow to seemingly wherever he fancied. Finally, Mascarenhas took over, and slammed Yuvraj Singh over the boundary in the arc between deep-mid-wicket and long-on 5 times in the final 5 deliveries. Shah finished on 107*, beating his previous best by 45. The total was intimidating, but India’s batting has long meant virtually nothing is out of range, and thanks to Uthappa they head to Lord’s knowing they can still go home with a sweep of Tests and ODIs. It would be a phenomenal summer’s work.

England 316 for 6 (50 overs)
Ian Bell 49, Kevin Pietersen 53, Owais Shah 107*, Luke Wright 50

India 317 for 8 (49.4 overs)
Sourav Ganguly 53, Sachin Tendulkar 94, Gautam Gambhir 47, Robin Uthappa 47*

India won by 2 wickets

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