England claim consolation win

England’s poor run of ODI form was given a lift today with an efficient victory over an out-of-sorts India at Jamshedpur. Andrew Strauss stroked 74 before retiring hurt for the tourists, while Mahendra Dhoni’s typically belligerent 96 was not enough for the home side. India were dismissed for only 223 on a good batting strip, and England suffered few alarms in winning by five wickets.

Both sides went into the game with what looked like makeshift batting lineups, with England having rested captain Andrew Flintoff following a tough recent schedule. India also chose to rest some key players, with Virender Sehwag taking the captaincy from Rahul Dravid, and Irfan Pathan watching from the sidelines as VRV Singh made his international debut. An expected debut for Robin Uthappa, however, failed to materialise, and Dhoni himself strode out to open the innings with Sehwag on his home ground. Having won the toss and batted, Sehwag was under pressure to get India off to a strong start himself.

With the new captain striding to the middle alongside the promoted Dhoni in temperatures reportedly touching a scorching 50 degrees celsius, the stage looked set for an early onslaught of boundaries. Conditions made pinching singles a difficult practice, and when Sehwag bashed James Anderson’s first ball for a boundary, the Indian crowd were expectant. Their anticipation was short-lived, however, as Sehwag received a peach of a delivery from the Lancastrian four balls later, which he could only divert into the hands of Vikram Solanki at second slip.

Sehwag’s usual boundary-heavy style of play is made to look positively pedestrian by that of Dhoni, however, and that was certianly the case today. Dhoni wasted no time in taking advantage of the early fielding restrictions, blasting 15 off Matthew Hoggard in the only the second over. It was the start of another bad day for Hoggard, whose figures for the two matches he has played in this series now stand at 17-0-118-0.

Hoggard was the only one of England’s four-man pace attack to come in for such punishment, however, as the other three shared eight Indian wickets between them. Sajid Mahmood’s wicketless start to his international career came to an end when he trapped Mohammad Kaif lbw for only 15, while Anderson and the recalled Liam Plunkett each claimed valuable top-order scalps as India were reduced to 79-5. Plunkett forced Yuvraj Singh to pull one onto his stumps, while Suresh Raina and Venugopal Rao came and went, both caught behind. India looked vulnerable when the rotund Ramesh Powar joined Dhoni at the crease in the 16th over – but 23 overs and 107 runs later, the two had brought India back to something resembling a good position.

Dhoni was his usual swashbuckling self, playing more than a few outstanding strokes during the middle overs. The ball fizzed to the boundary time and again as a combination of powerful leg-side play and confident cover-driving brought him a steady flow of runs. The remarkable wristy nature of his strokeplay was a sight to behold, as the England bowlers struggled to find a place they could bowl to him without being hit for four – or, indeed, for six, Dhoni hoisting three trademark maximums on his home ground.

Powar, meanwhile, chugged along steadily, content to play second fiddle to a spectacular innings. His usefulness as a bowling all-rounder in one-day cricket is rapidly growing, and he showed his talent in rotating the strike well today – the lack of batting beneath him in the order placed a lot of pressure on his broad shoulders, and he dealt with it well. He lofted Ian Blackwell over the covers for six in a rare moment of expansive strokeplay, but took no unnecessary risks in racking up his first international half-century, a vital one in the circumstances.

By the time Powar’s half-century arrived, however, Dhoni had departed – four short of a well-deserved hundred, he hit Sajid Mahmood straight to midwicket, to give the Lancastrian the second of his three wickets. His departure signalled the end of any attacking intent from India, and with almost twelve overs remaining, Powar and the tailenders were content to scrape out whatever runs they could. An innovative piece of captaincy from Andrew Strauss saw Kevin Pietersen brought into the attack for the 41st over – and as if by magic, Pietersen claimed his maiden international wicket, bowling Harbhajan Singh with one that went straight on.

Powar struck a Paul Collingwood slower ball to Matthew Hoggard at midwicket soon after, and the Indian innings ended with a whimper. The last three batsmen contributed only 16 runs from 36 balls between them, as numerous wild slogs failed to connect. Having been bowled out for only 223, India were at least 30 runs short of what looked to be a competitive total on a fairly even-paced, placid wicket.

Rumour had it that Matthew Prior and Ian Bell would open the innings for England, with stand-in captain Strauss dropping to number four – but with Prior having virtually wilted keeping wicket in the heat, Strauss emerged with Bell to begin the reply. The two seemed to gel immediately as a partnership, feasting on some appetising bowling from the two Singhs, Rudra Pratap and Vikram Rajvir. Neither bowler had a day to remember, as both went for over six runs an over. Bell looked solid in only his second outing as an ODI opener, and with the likes of Owais Shah having failed miserably earlier in the series, one wonders why Bell only now found himself playing his first game of the six ODIs so far.

Bell progressed serenely into the forties, despite being caught off a VRV Singh no-ball shortly after passing twenty – he looked completely at ease, playing several sparkling cover-drives when the bowling was too full. Strauss, likewise, looked far more comfortable than he had at any other stage in the series – dsepite his 61 in the third match of the series, he had never looked in good touch. Here, however, he was more than willing to punish anything loose from the three pace bowlers, and had few problems with anything other than the heat. Bell eventually departed on 46 from 64 balls, caught behind off the bowling of Harbhajan Singh, who was brought into the attack as Munaf Patel struggled with a no-ball problem.

Vikram Solanki arrived at number three following a century partnership from the openers, and promptly departed, impetuously dancing down the wicket to Powar and seeing his stumps knocked back. Kevin Pietersen looked in characteristically fluent form in stroking 33, while Strauss was forced to call for a runner and eventually retire hurt after suffering in the heat. With extreme cramp in his left leg, he was struggling even to walk, and retirement on 74 seemed a safe option with only 65 more needed.

Once Pietersen was caught and bowled by Harbhajan and Prior departed for only three, swishing at the same bowler and gifting a catch to VRV Singh, England needed only 20 more to win. Paul Collingwood contributed a handy 23 not out from number five, and despite a duck from new number seven Liam Plunkett, the victory was soon secure. England took their time in getting within eight runs of the target, before Ian Blackwell ended things quickly with a four and a straight six off Powar.

India’s pace-bowling attack had looked rudderless without Irfan Pathan, and their batsmen came up well short ofa competitive total – despite a decent effort from the spinners, they never looked like threatening to steal a victory. England can take some heart from the performances of Strauss, Bell and Sajid Mahmood in today’s game – Mahmood’s three-wicket performance could see him in the side for the coming summer if the likes of Steve Harmison are not declared fit. The series rests at 4-1 going into Saturday’s final match – one can expect to once again see two makeshift sides at work in a game that neither side, when all is said and done, cares very much about.

India 223 all out (48 overs)
Mahendra Dhoni 96, Ramesh Powar 54
James Anderson 3-28, Sajid Mahmood 3-37

England 225-5 (42.4 overs)
Andrew Strauss retired hurt 74, Ian Bell 46
Harbhajan Singh 3-30

Cricket Web Player of the Match
Mahendra Dhoni – 96 and a catch

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