England in good shape
Captain Andrew Flintoff struck his fourth consecutive half-century as England’s anticipated victory charge became more of a tip-toe at the Wankhede Stadium.
England spent five and three quarter hours scoring 160 today (Tuesday), having resumed on 31 for two, to set India a 313-run victory target.
Flintoff’s depleted side, moreover, allowed themselves only 98 overs to dismiss the hosts and level the series.
James Anderson gave an England team lacking five of last summer’s Ashes winners another step-up in their quest when he dismissed makeshift opener Irfan Pathan in the eight overs possible as India closed on 18 for one.
Nine wickets went down altogether, the number England now need on the final day to retain their number two world Test ranking.
However, their lack of urgency - they scored at two an over throughout the fourth day - made it hard to tell for the most part which of the sides did need the victory for a 1-1 scoreline.
But coach Duncan Fletcher argued: “It’s a complicated game and you sometimes have to change your gameplan along the way.
“At the start it was quite straightforward - we just wanted wickets in hand so we could accelerate at the end -but we just kept losing wickets at vital times.
“We would have liked to have set 350-360 with 120 overs at them, that was the target we considered all along, but we changed it as we went through the day.
“I would rather be in our changing room than theirs at this stage.
“We appreciate it will be a lot of hard work to bowl them out but we believe we can do the job.”
The equation would have been drastically tilted in the home team’s favour had fortune not been with Flintoff.
He offered the most difficult of chances to Yuvraj Singh at silly mid-off before getting off the mark and generally struggled early on against spinners Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh.
A rare attacking stroke should have seen him perish, on 14, but he got away with charging off-spinner Harbhajan as wicketkeeper Dhoni fumbled a stumping opportunity, while Kumble could not get his fingertips under the ball, diving in his follow-through, to seize on a leading edge.
Flintoff’s intent altered after tea as he hammered Munaf Patel for two boundaries in the first over, which cost 11 in all, only for Paul Collingwood’s departure to promote conservatism once again.
The skipper rode his luck to reach 50, including a towering six off Harbhajan and six fours, from 145 balls.
The next ball he faced was his last, charging down the track to be beaten by the wily Kumble.
No matter the manner in which they have come, the 28-year-old’s runs here outweigh his return of four winters ago ten-fold.
Now, as the joint world cricketer of the year, Flintoff has truly overcome his previous deficiencies against spin, which meant he mustered only 26 runs in five innings in 2001-02.
“He has put in performances over the past two years that have been outstanding, ones which have got better and better,” said Fletcher.
“He is a very good cricketer and very good cricketers put in performances like that.”
The top order had been glued together by Owais Shah, whose concentration finally lapsed immediately after lunch.
The debutant batted throughout the morning session and had taken two and three quarter hours for his 38 when he misjudged a run in the first over.
Fifth-wicket partner Collingwood squeezed the ball to backward point but Shah was left well short of his ground as Sachin Tendulkar’s throw was taken in by Dhoni.
Just as first time around, Shah batted with composure, and his only previous moment of concern against the India came when, immediately after pulling a boundary through mid-on, he edged Sri Sreesanth narrowly short of second slip.
With all three results still possible, caution spread through the play of both sides with England, unable to pierce the infield previously, unwilling to try often thereafter.
“India’s spin twins, meanwhile, operated from around the wicket for large spells, aiming into the rough, often settling for only two fielders on the off-side while others littered the boundary on the leg.
Those were two quality spinners out there and they had to work really hard for their wickets,” said Fletcher.
“We didn’t score very freely off them but all the players showed they can play quality spin now.”
It was not until the 14th over of the morning that nightwatchman Shaun Udal - dropped in the final moments of Monday's evening session - departed as he drove at an outswinger from left-armer Irfan Pathan and was held at second slip.
Udal’s Hampshire colleague Kevin Pietersen succumbed to Kumble for a single-figure contribution when he squeezed a return catch high to the bowler’s left off a leading edge.
From 85 for five, Flintoff shared 66 runs with Collingwood at a snail’s pace before Harbhajan spectacularly grabbed a caught-and-bowled chance diving to his left.
Geraint Jones then miscued off the same bowler to expose the tail, but by that stage England were in a position they would have only dreamed of when captain Michael Vaughan, Marcus Trescothick and Simon Jones returned home in the first fortnight.
“You have got to compliment the whole side,” declared Fletcher.
“We lost lots of players at the start of the tour and yet we have played some really good cricket in all three Tests.
“It was just one bad batting session that let us down in Mohali and even here in most of the sessions we have come out on top.”
India set off in the knowledge that 164 is the highest score to win a Test on this ground and, with Virender Sehwag unable to bat until number seven – he rested his injured back during England’s innings – they lost Pathan to a full toss which hit off stump via an inside edge.