Alastair Cook, eventually supported by Matt Prior, made England’s last stand in Ahmedabad as a heroic rearguard action took the Test into its final day.
There are many examples of an English batsman holding firm as the rest of his side collapse around him but there are very few that demonstrate the mental strength, determination and leadership Alastair Cook showed in this innings. He stood virtually alone for a large part of the day, his bat the only barrier between India and certain victory. England will, barring an absolute miracle, still lose this game, but the importance of the fight their captain showed cannot be underestimated. It is a feat of endurance which has already lasted over eight hours and were he to bat into the afternoon session – which he surely must if his side are to pull this off – it will overtake Mike Atherton’s match-saving marathon in Johannesburg. It is almost certainly the greatest innings any English batsman has played in India and, in its own way, perhaps England’s greatest anywhere since Atherton’s epic at the Wanderers a terrifying seventeen years ago.
Once the tourists’ top order subsided in the first innings this Test was written off; all we asked was for them to punch back and avoid the sort of ritual humiliation that looked on the cards. Thanks to Cook and Matt Prior, they have done so and given themselves the tiniest slither of hope for salvation.
Before Cook and Prior came together, England’s middle order once again failed to deliver, with the only saving grace being that they were marginally better than last time. Where once there were batsmen being bowled middle stump failing to play a basic forward defensive shot, running down the wicket to their doom first ball and being given out LBW for no obvious reason beyond the umpire getting a bit bored, now there were batsmen bowled off stump round their legs, trapped in front by medium paced straight balls and, er, given out LBW for no obvious reason beyond the umpire getting a bit bored.
The upper middle order has been a serious issue for England this year, as their collective averages have spiralled off a cliff into the watery chasm of mediocrity below. Against Pakistan and India in 2012 the third, fourth and fifth wickets have managed only 367 runs at an average of just 15 apiece. For all the constant chopping and changing of the bowling attack, no team will win many games with such a dearth of runs from their – supposedly – best batsmen. It’s also something of a myth that their problems stem entirely from an inability to play spin; almost a third of their dismissals having fallen to pace bowling. Perhaps that’s something to revisit in the cold, less sleep-deprived, light of day.
Pray to any and every God you can think of, stumble across staggering amounts of luck, poison the Indian side’s morning lasagne and choreograph some sort of rain dance and England may just about save the game. Anything less than a plague of locusts and India will surely, belatedly, seal the deal on Monday. Although, having said that, Graeme Swann may never have a better chance to make that century…