England in charge early on

England took charge on the first day of the final Test at Mumbai, with Andrew Strauss stroking a fantastic 128 to leave his side on a healthy 272-3 at the close of play. Debutant Owais Shah also notched up a half-century, before being forced to retire hurt at the tea break with cramp in his wrists. Shah had found himself thrust into Test cricket after Alastair Cook was forced to withdraw from the game overnight with a stomach upset.

The toss had earlier been won by the home side, with Rahul Dravid inexplicably choosing to bowl first – the return of Sri Sreesanth at the expense of Piyush Chawla may have been one factor influencing his decision, but whatever the reasons for it, he was made to pay. England’s opening pair of Strauss and Ian Bell, united for the first, and probably last, time in that position, made a solid start. They calmly negotiated the opening spells from Irfan Pathan and Sreesanth, while Munaf Patel was ineffective as first change – England’s score had progressed to 52 in the 21st over by the time the first wicket fell.

Bell had stuck it out for a gritty 18 from 68 balls in an unfamiliar position, negating the early swing with little trouble – but his 69th ball saw him drive loosely at a slightly wide one from Sreesanth, and guide the ball straight into the open palms of Harbhajan Singh at point. Not for the first time, Bell had given his wicket away in slightly easy fashion after playing himself in. This brought Shah to the crease for the first time in Test cricket, and he wasted no time in stamping his authority on the game, smashing a cut for four off Harbhajan to get off the mark. He and Strauss continued serenely past the lunch break, and throughout the afternoon session, putting on 106 for the second wicket.

Shah became the latest in a long line of England batsmen to impress during the early stages of their Test careers in racking up an attractive half-century – he brought up the milestone shortly before the tea interval with another sumptuous boundary off Harbhajan. It was a well-deserved celebration for the young man who had found himself out of international cricket for more than three years, following his 15 ODI appearances in the early part of the decade. He played fluently and aggressively, with scarcely a false shot – it was a shame when he failed to reappear after the interval, having suffered cramp in his wrists and forearms shortly before; he also appeared to be suffering from dehydration, having rushed off the field at the break without even picking up his bat.

Strauss, meanwhile, looked in better touch than he had at any point since the Ashes of 2005 – he cut out the rash cross-bat strokes that had been his downfall in recent months, and as such looked much more assured and secure at the crease. He played the spinners with authority, using the sweep shot well – indeed, it was the sweep that brought him his eighth Test century, brought up with a boundary through midwicket shortly after tea. Having almost fallen victim to a lightning-sharp catch from Dravid at slip off the previous ball, he was relieved to reach the milestone – India’s fielding all day was some way short of razor-sharp.

Kevin Pietersen had joined Strauss after tea, and looked in a slightly withdrawn mood for the early part of his innings – however, he moved into the twenties with a flat, straight six off Harbhajan, and from then on looked much more comfortable, despite being tested by some hostile short bowling from Munaf Patel. He and Strauss moved the score along to 230 before Strauss was finally dismissed for 128 – Harbhajan persuaded him to get a thin edge through to Mahendra Dhoni behind the stumps, who almost made a meal of the chance, but eventually held on to it. He departed to a rousing reception from both sets of fans, having played a brilliant hand in a good day’s batting from England.

Pietersen departed soon after, nicking one behind off Sreesanth for 39, and with Shah seemingly content to remain in the pavilion until tomorrow, Paul Collingwood and Andrew Flintoff negotiated the final hour with watchful defense. Barring one huge hit from Flintoff late in the day, the two seemed content to wait for tomorrow – with the Indian bowlers looking in slightly edgy form, England will look to take full advantage. While Patel and Sreesanth both posed a threat at times, the two spinners, Harbhajan and Anil Kumble, were played carefully by the batsmen, while Irfan Pathan was profligate and wasteful in conceding close to five runs an over.

England have taken charge of the early stages of this match, despite losing yet another player to injury – their bowlers will need to replicate the effort shown by their batsmen if they are going to take a victory and level the series. James Anderson returned to the side for the injured Steve Harmison, and Shaun Udal regained his place at the expense of Liam Plunkett. There is still more work for the batsmen to do tomorrow – but a lot will rest on the ability of England’s bowlers to ensure they have a sizeable first-innings lead on a good pitch. If they can manage that, then a severly depleted England may find themselves with a great chance at achieving a hard-earned drawn series.

Stumps, day one, Mumbai

England 272-3 (89 overs)
Andrew Strauss 128, Owais Shah 50*; Sri Sreesanth 2-51

Cricket Web Player of the Day – Andrew Strauss, 128 (239b, 17×4, 1×6)

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