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Sehwag and Pujara give India control of first Test

16 November, 2012

AHMEDABAD: Welcome to India. The greeting came from Virender Sehwag and, this being Sehwag, rather than scatter rose petals on the bed he scattered England fielders in all directions with a buccaneering century which brought a rousing start to the opening Test in Ahmedabad on Thursday.

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This being India, where Test cricket no longer draws the crowds, there was only a few thousand in the stadium to watch it. That England recovered some ground by the close of the first day was almost entirely due to Graeme Swann, who, as their only specialist spinner on a chronically slow surface, bore an onerous responsibility and took all four Indian wickets to fall. In the process he passed Jim Laker as the most successful England offspinner in history. Roughly half of them have been left-handers, an advantage Laker never enjoyed in an era when lefties were in shorter supply.

Only Swann, late in his innings, was able to stem Sehwag's progress as he struck a run-a-ball 117, his first Test century for two years. It was a strange first session, dominated by Sehwag, who was adventuresome but far from explosive. His innings was typically more reliant upon eye than footwork as he manipulated the ball with disdain, drove at an excess of wide deliveries and defended only as an afterthought. He is a character cricketer in the manner of Chris Gayle or Kevin Pietersen, an unconventional batsman with a commanding presence and a style all of his own and, at 34, especially on low, ponderous pitches such as these, he is not quite done yet. Swann's wickets served to strengthen the conviction that England had erred in omitting a second specialist spinner in Monty Panesar. This is a virgin surface, of lower clay content and with no time to bed down, which threatens to drive the pace bowlers to distraction and turn sharply as the Test progresses. Doubts about Stuart Broad's fitness will have made England especially reluctant to field only two fast bowlers and they will wave all manner of statistics to support their selection but the evidence of the game was against them.

Swann's success was in strict contrast to the mood elsewhere. The only impression England's pace bowlers made was on the footholds. Anderson was wearing his worried expression, his new-ball spell limited to four overs. Broad stubbornly dug balls into an unsympathetic surface, saw them bounce no higher than the top of the stumps and looked at them quizzically as if he could stare it into behaving differently. Tim Bresnan went at nearly six an over. It was a huge toss for India to win. By lunch, at slip, Alastair Cook pondered whether his elevation to the Test captaincy really was a good idea after all. By the close, Swann had reminded him that in a four-Test series Sehwag's assault was merely the beginning, but a trial by spin still awaits England. Gautam Gambhir was Swann's first victim after an opening stand of 134 in 30 overs, bowled trying to fashion one of his high-risk carves through point and beaten by a hint of turn and weary bounce. Sehwag had briefly fallen into contemplative mood in mid-afternoon, as if recovering energy for his next assault, when he was bowled, sweeping.

Swann's third wicket the most remarkable of all, that of Sachin Tendulkar who lofted to deep midwicket in an extraordinarily misconceived manner only a few minutes before tea. Finally, Virat Kohli, who had played circumspectly, was deceived in the flight and bowled through the gate. A Gujarati hero emerged for the crowd to applaud. Cheteshwar Pujara, upright and accomplished, was two runs short of his second Test century by the close and looked a convincing replacement for Rahul Dravid in an understated innings, showing a collected manner and good timing. But he needed a let-off on 8 as James Anderson, who ran in too far at mid-on, misjudged his gentle leading edge against Bresnan. England spurned three other opportunities. Sehwag was dropped on 80, glancing Anderson, whereupon Matt Prior spilled a difficult chance and Prior also missed a stumping against Gambhir. The most embarrassing drop, though, belonged to Jonathan Trott, who fluffed a slip catch off Swann from Kohli and rolled the ball into the turf before shamelessly claiming the catch in a slightly perplexed manner. The umpires sought replays; for Trott they did not look good.

Gambhir and Sehwag had been an alliance in decline, and fleetingly there were hints of vulnerability, but these were not conditions to ask questions of defensive technique. Gambhir had proclaimed before the match that they were the best opening duo in the country and few would find much cause to question that as India sailed to 120 without loss by lunch. It was their first century opening partnership since India faced South Africa in Centurion in 2010. Sehwag spoke of playing watchfully, and met by a deep point, he did glide regularly to third man, but his 50 still came in only 45 balls and by lunch he had 79 from 66 with 12 fours and a six. England's pace attack strayed wide too often and runs came at a tempo that Test cricket rarely sees: 50 by the 12th over; 100 by the 20th. Sehwag possessed a hunched, insouciant air that suggested the match was of little consequence and he was just having a bit of a bash. England calculated that the ball might reverse for Bresnan, as it did as early as the ninth over in a warm-up match on the adjacent B ground, but Bresnan had a dispiriting day, never worse than when Sehwag took him for 4-4-6 in his sixth over, the second boundary, a drag through mid-on against a ball that crept past the fielder verging on the insulting; the six over wide long-on that followed, a full swing at a length ball. India has never lost a Test at home after beginning with a century stand. That statistic tells England that their chances are already slim. It was all a long way from England's domination of India in English conditions last summer.

End.