At one end, Alastair Cook was magnificent, offering a master class in neutralising spin on a slow, low pitch. But there were hardly any takers for his route in the England top order.
The England captain though found an able ally in Matt Prior and the two defied India to push the first Test to the fifth day with a wonderful display of will and skill.
With Cook making a magnificent 21st Test hundred, his third against India, and Prior supporting him with a fine unbeaten fifty on Sunday, England reached 340 for five, giving them a slender lead of 10 runs. It still was not enough to put seeds of discomfort in the Indians, who may still believe that a win is just an arm’s length away.
When the England top-order crumbled, leaving them at 199 for five at one stage, the Indians would have prepared themselves for an early finish, but they ran into two rocks in Cook and Prior, easily the best players on view in the England line-up against spinners.
The unbeaten sixth-wicket pair showed how exactly spinners and the pitch should be negated while stitching together 141 runs. Cook (168 n.o., 505m, 341b, 20x4) and Prior (84 n.o. 203m, 190b, 10x4) put to use their long strides to good effect to smother the spin, however slow it might have been, and they also displayed lovely footwork to go back into the crease and play with the turn.
The pitch has also went progressively slow as Indian spinners struggled to make an impact, but that won’t take anything away from the knocks the English pair played on the day. Ditched by his colleagues in the top-order, Cook flowered in the company of an equally determined Prior, blunting the Indian spin duo of R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha. It was quite baffling to see Dhoni holding back the part-time but effective left-arm spin of Yuvraj Singh once he discovered the ineffectiveness of his frontline spinners.
By the time he was introduced in the 102nd over, both Cook, who brought up his hundred with a double off Yadav, and Prior had already built their fort in the middle, resisting the Indian bowlers for 505 minutes. Indeed, Cook has played one of the finest innings on this shores but the overwhelming feeling of the day was that they have just delayed an inevitable Indian victory that should come at some point of time on day five.
The path towards that goal was opened up by the failure of the England top-order, with names such as Ian Bell, Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen — touted as fine players against spin — falling cheaply. Eagerness than patience and nervousness than solidity marked their stay at the crease, in stark contrast to the innings of Cook. While none of the Indian bowlers made an impression on Cook, the other worthies seemed out of their depth at the Motera.
Nick Compton showed resoluteness during his 146-minute stint, but his stay eventually came to an end when Zaheer Khan managed to convince umpire Tony Hill with a shout for leg before. The breakthrough took a while to come, but it seemed to rejuvenate the Indian bowlers, who pegged back England with regular strikes from that point.
When in form, Trott is a fine batsman to watch but this year hasn’t gone his way, and his travails continued unabated here as well, as he edged Pragyan Ojha to Dhoni behind the stumps after an unconvincing innings. Pietersen was castled by Ojha for the second time in as many days, this time the left-arm spinner didn’t have to plot his dismissal as the Surrey batsman himself found a way to give his wicket away.
Pietersen moved across more than necessary even before Ojha had released the ball, and paid the ultimate penalty for pre-meditation, failing to connect his sweep as the ball rearranged his woodwork. Bell and Samit Patel too didn’t last long – evicted in successive balls by hard working and impressive Umesh Yadav – as England slipped to 199 for five.
That was the stage when the visitors lost five wickets for 76 runs, and the end seemed nigh. Cook and Prior then joined forces to make sure England lived to fight another day.