For a Test match, this was no sparse crowd. The stands were a spread of shawls, mufflers and a knowledgeable Kolkata crowd gorging on fish and boiled potatoes on a winter day.
They seemed to have foreseen in the morning itself where the Test was headed. India will get to 350; their spinners will limit the England lead to 75; ‘Shewag da’ will make amends for a needless run-out in the first-innings. Then their ‘Shochin’ will bid them farewell with a hundred that’s long due. And finally, a delightful last-day finish!
If they felt like ill-fated romantics at close of play, they didn’t show it. In fact, they rose in unison to applaud that tireless run-machine Alastair Cook, who propelled England to 216 for one with another hundred — his fifth in as many Tests as skipper, and his 23rd, which put him right at the top of English centurions.
They say you must never undermine the twits and turn of a Test match. Should England lose a few early wickets on Day Three, India may still breathe at the Eden Gardens. That seems wishful thinking at this point, for there’s now an ocean of difference in class between the two teams.
When India reflect on where they let the Test slip, where will they pause? The low-key batting performance in the first dig, or the early reprieve granted to Cook on the second day. Cheteshwar Pujara couldn’t close his hands to a low catch offered by Cook (off Zaheer Khan) at first slip when he was on 17. Error is the byword of the game and this should go down as just a lapse. What was incomprehensible, however, was the presence of R Ashwin at second slip. We’re told it’s a position for specialists; Virender Sehwag is a regular there. After Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman’s
Test exits, there’s an obvious void in the slip cordon. But surely, Ashwin, one of the most immobile bodies on a cricket field, can’t be a slip option. Even Team India fielding coach Trevor Penny was puzzled why Ashwin stood there.
The casualness in thinking reflected on the field too. A general sloppiness had crept in leading to a sequence of overthrows. Not that the fielding was the main reason why India were on a leather hunt on Thursday; it’s their mediocre bowling which should take the big blame.
On a slow wicket that demanded accuracy and variation in flight, India waited for England to err. But this was no Wankhede. As opposed to their counterparts who seem capable of spinning the ball on sand, the Indian spinners’ lack of turn was striking. It allowed Cook to play the sweep freely yet again. R Ashwin persisted with a leg-and-middle line and Ojha was, by and large, too flat to plant doubts. Clearly, they hadn’t learned.
Cook and Nick Compton (57) put together a 165-run opening stand to make India’s first innings score of 316 even smaller. After Ojha snaffled Compton leg-before for 57, Cook (136*) powered England to an unassailable position.
Before benumbing the spinners, he flayed the medium-pacers with a hail of cut shots. Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma didn’t appear half as effective as England’s quicks, who got more purchase and reverse swing from the same 22-yard strip.
Cook now joins an illustrious club of visiting captains (Clive Lloyd, Kim Hughes and Alvin Kallicharan) who have been a thorn in India’s flesh. What should give him more cheer is the prospect of a series win in India which is already resonating loud here.