By no means are they out of the woods just yet, but a battling partnership between Alastair Cook and Matthew Prior significantly brightened England's prospects of avoiding defeat on day four of the opening Test against India in Ahmedabad.
The pair shared an unbroken sixth-wicket stand of 141 to put England in the lead - by 10 runs - as they closed on 340 for five in their second innings having been asked to follow on.
The imperious Cook led the way with an unbeaten 168 and having seen his side reduced to 199 for five, found a willing ally in Prior, who made a valuable 84 not out in 190 balls.
These two have been by a distance England's most accomplished batsmen - indeed at no point during either of England's innings has one of them not been at the crease.
After the hosts had piled up 521 for eight declared in their first innings, England had collapsed for 191 and closed day three at 111 without loss. It reflected a will to fight back from the English batsmen but they had a mammoth job ahead of them. Somehow they managed it.
Cook and Nick Compton (37) continued from where they left at stumps on day three, but Zaheer Khan provided an early breakthrough, trapping the latter LBW. It took about half an hour to prize out the first wicket. Then Jonathan Trott (17) and Kevin Pietersen (2) were sent back by Pragyan Ojha quickly, to have England in a spot of bother again.
Trott was snapped up by Mahendra Singh Dhoni off a sharp chance and Pietersen was clean bowled, his 25th dismissal in Tests against left-arm spin.
At lunch, they were 182 for three with Cook and Ian Bell at the crease. The lone moment of cheer for them came in the 61st over of the innings as the captain brought up his 21st Test century. He became the only man to score a hundred in each of his first three Tests as skipper, the first two coming against Bangladesh when Andrew Strauss took a breather in 2009-10.
After lunch, Cook and Bell continued their partnership, and were up to 39 runs when disaster struck in the form of Umesh Yadav. He got two wickets in two balls, trapping both Bell (22) and Samit Patel (golden duck) in front.
Both decisions seemed a little dubious, though Bell’s seemed a lot closer to the naked eye. However, the Patel decision was very disappointing when replays showed that he had edged the ball.England had meanwhile collapsed to 199 for five and were staring down the barrel.
It was at this moment when Prior joined Cook at the middle and the duo couldn’t be parted at stumps. They were patient against the spinners, using their feet and defences well, and the pacers couldn’t get much help in terms of reverse swing either. Zaheer (1-38) finished with just the lone wicket and Yadav (2-60) couldn’t further add to his tally, despite both toiling hard on an unhelpful pitch.
Prior stroked his way to a deserved half-century after falling just short the first time around. He reached the mark in the 104th over of the innings, and two overs later, Cook brought up his 150. Their battling partnership of 141 runs helped England avoid defeat, at least on day four.
At the end of the day, Cook was unbeaten on 168 off 341 balls, with 20 fours. Prior closed at 84 not out off 190 balls, hitting 10 fours.
The manner in which India bowled left a lot to be desired. Ravichandran Ashwin went wicketless in 41 overs, conceding 104 runs. He experimented with his line and length but couldn’t get even one wicket. Ojha (2-102) meanwhile did no such thing, despite there being a sizeable rough at the wicket. He didn’t bother much about coming round the wicket and altering his line.
The other fault from India’s point of view being that they refused to try any part-time options with Yuvraj Singh brought on to bowl very late.
The chances of them winning the Test outright are still remote, despite India reduced to nine batsmen as Gautam Gambhir has flown back to Delhi due to family concerns. But if they can bat long enough to force a draw out of the Indians, it will be a huge morale booster for them. England’s fight back and Cook’s glorious innings mean that they have set up an intriguing final day of this first Test.
Umesh Yadav on India’s performance and plans for day five: "England batted beautifully today, especially Cook. The wicket has got slower, more than first two days, and batting has become easier. We couldn’t do much, but we tried both spin and reverse swing. Tomorrow we intend to take five wickets quickly and win this match. We want to, and we will certainly try to."
England batting coach Graham Gooch on England’s fightback and chances: "We wanted to fight and we showed that today. Tomorrow is another day but we are only concerned about here and now. We are not thinking beyond the first ball. Then, the second ball, third ball and so on. We don’t want to think about what will happen at lunch or at tea. We shall see when we get there. But we will continue to fight. Anybody who knows cricket can see India are still in a very strong position."
On Cook’s brilliant hundred, he said: "He is one of the best batsmen in the world right now. He has got the skill but so do many other batsmen. It’s his temperament that makes him stand out. He is not flashy, perhaps doesn’t have that flair. He knows his weaknesses and knows his scoring strengths better, and he maximises them. Leadership has done wonders to his batting as we can see. There are batsmen who score hundreds, they go out to play, have a good day. Very few make them happen. Cook made a hundred today."
© Cricket World 2012
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