Thursday, November 27, 2008

India power past Pietersen's ton

Steve Harmison bowled Sachin Tendulkar, but wasn't enough to stop India.

Whatever challenge is put in front of this Indian team they conquer it with skill and flair. In Cuttack, England managed their best batting performance of the series, led by Kevin Pietersen's unbeaten 111, but it was made to look a long way short as they cantered home by six wickets with more than six overs to spare. The hard work was done by an electric opening stand of 136 between Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar, meaning the others barely had to break sweat.

As has been the case with each match of the series there were signs of improvement from the visitors, this time with the bat, as Pietersen and Owais Shah added 112 for the fifth wicket. Pietersen's seventh ODI ton was the first by an England captain outside of London and only the third by an England batsman in the last 30 one-dayers. However, any momentum gained during the final few overs evaporated as Sehwag sped out of the blocks with another display of fearless clean striking.

At times the bowlers could only shrug their shoulders as the ball raced to the boundary. When Tendulkar on-drove Andrew Flintoff, the bowler spun on his heals and headed back to his mark. It was batting in its purest form. Sehwag was set for a thrilling hundred before receiving a rough lbw decision, but the required rate was comfortable, leaving Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Suresh Raina to stroke steady half-centuries and keep India on course for a whitewash. It's hard to see how they'll be stopped, especially as Stuart Broad hobbled off with a hamstring injury.

Steve Harmison's second over, to Tendulkar, was a maiden but it provided false hope - 13 came off Harmison's next over as Sehwag cut loose. One shot, a front-foot pull over midwicket, was as dismissive as they come. In the blink of an eye, and a flash of Sehwag's bat, England were losing control. Flintoff was summoned into the attack, but even when the bat was beaten, or the inside edge found, there was no breakthrough.

Pietersen tried to make things happen. He experimented for one over of Samit Patel before calling the Powerplay, then threw the ball to Graeme Swann inside the fielding restrictions. To say the move backfired is an understatement: Sehwag proceeded to take 21 off the over. Swann was slammed through the covers three times and swung miles into the stands for a huge six before being given a rather hollow pat on the back from his captain.

Tendulkar's fifty was a quieter affair, but still took just 54 balls, played with textbook skill after a slightly sticky start. The moment he tried something a little more agricultural, heaving across the line, he lost his off stump to Harmison. England's celebrations were muted, partly because the damage had already been done and also because walking in at No. 3 was Yuvraj Singh - series average 160. But, Ravi Bopara, bowling just his 13th over in ODIs and for the first time this series, did what no else has threatened to do and removed Yuvraj cheaply with a gentle caught and bowled.

Sehwag was dispatched the next ball, Broad's first delivery of a new spell, and momentarily England's frowns turned to smiles. However, they couldn't build on the breakthroughs and Pietersen had to gamble on bowling out his strike options, while Broad couldn't finish his ninth over. Dhoni survived a close stumping appeal on 22, with 73 still needed, but it would have been unlikely to alter the result.

As is the modern way, England will no doubt "search for the positives" and Pietersen's hundred was a tick in the right column. He has led the call for the top order to score more centuries and showed how it should be done with a well-constructed innings.

Where Pietersen should bat has provided much debate inside and outside the England team. He has moved up and down during the previous two matches, rising to three in Kanpur then oddly back to No. 4 in the 22-over chase in Bangalore. Despite Shah's success in that match, hitting 72 off 48 balls, he was back at No. 6 and the captain returned to first drop. Still, though, making the most of the Powerplays was an issue as the two five-over blocks produced 45 runs.

It's all symptomatic of the muddled thinking in the England camp, but Pietersen's innings showed that No. 3 should be his long-term position, while Shah again demonstrated his flexibility with a 57-ball 66. With Paul Collingwood's continuing to struggle for form - he laboured 40 from 64 - Shah could well be on the move again to No. 4. One day, he might find a settled home.

On the theme of being unsettled, Alastair Cook and Bopara formed England's eighth one-day opening pair since Peter Moores took charge as coach in 2007. Both gave their starts away with loose strokes and the innings wobbled again when Flintoff fell for third-ball duck. Dhoni pulled off another impressive piece of captaincy, throwing the ball to Ishant Sharma when it would have been easy to maintain an all-spin attack against Flintoff. Dhoni can do no wrong for India, and his team continue to ride on the crest of a wave.