Southampton: Skipper Alastair Cook marked his return to form with a dogged 95 while youngster Gary Ballance hit his second successive century as England reached a comfortable 247 for two against India on the opening day of the third cricket Test, here on Sunday.
The highlight of the day was Cook`s dour batting after getting reprieve on 15 when Ravindra Jadeja dropped a sitter at third slip off debutant Pankaj Singh`s bowling. Cook, who missed out on a 26th Test century by five runs, has now gone without a three-figure mark in 29 consecutive innings.
Once he got a `life`, decided to grind it out as he played 231 balls hitting nine fours frustrating a pedestrian Indian attack in the process. Cook added 158 runs with the in-form Ballance who struck his third Test century, and second on trot against the visitors remaining unbeaten on 104 at the end of day`s play.
At stumps on a rather disappointing day for Indians, veteran Ian Bell gave Ballance company, batting on 16. It was Jadeja who got rid of the England skipper after frustrating him with a packed leg-side field. Cook in his bid to pull got a faint nick as Dhoni took a smart catch down leg-side. The England captain didn`t seem too amused with umpire Marais Erasmus` decision but returned to a standing ovation from the spectators having gone through one of the toughest phases in his international career.
The Indian bowlers didn`t get much help from the Ageas Bowl strip with only debutant Pankaj, who was inducted after Ishant Sharma opted out due to ankle injury, looking good in patches. Pankaj (0/62 in 20 overs) bowled some lovely deliveries including the one which Cook edged to Jadeja, who failed to latch onto a ball that was eminently catchable.
With the second new ball, he produced a delivery that swung from leg to middle to trap Ian Bell in-front but umpire Rod Tucker didn`t seem interested.
Mohammed Shami (1/62) got Sam Robson`s wicket but was the most disappointing of the pace trio erring in length on a number of occasions.
When the post-tea session began, Cook (82 batting) needed another few runs to score his first Test century in more than a year. He began well, reaching the nervous 90s quickly, but once there the Indians mounted the pressure on him and it resulted in his dismissal. Cook faced 231 balls and struck nine fours during his knock. It was his highest score since the 130 runs he made versus New Zealand in May 2013 and in doing so, reached 8257 runs in his career to overtake David Gower (8231 runs) and Kevin Pietersen (8181 runs) in the overall Test runs scored by Englishman.
At the other end, Ballance was solid even after Cook`s dismissal. India took the new ball as soon as it was due and Pankaj and Shami bowled a testing spell first up. But the left-handed batsman continued his resolute batting and brought up his century in the 84th over of the innings, off 189 balls with the help of 15 fours.
Earlier, Cook and Ballance started the post-lunch session in an effort to thwart the Indian bowling and make good use of this pitch at Ageas Bowl. The odd ball did something, but overall the bowling didn`t look sharp enough in the absence of genuine aid. And so the two batsmen carried on in the same vein they had before the break, enhancing their 23-run stand. The English skipper first got the monkey off his back and got to his 36th half-century in the 31st over of the innings, two overs after the break.
He got to the milestone in 98 balls, with five fours, and was given a standing ovation by the Sunday crowd. Three overs later, the 100-run mark came up for the hosts. Ballance on his part hit 15 boundaries in his 204 ball unbeaten knock.
In the 33rd over, bowled by Shami, there was a loud appeal against Cook for caught behind but the umpire didn`t budge, even though replays later showed that there might have been a little edge in there. Dhoni tried regrouping his team at the drinks-break with a pep-talk over a huddle, but it didn`t really work out as Cook made his way through to his highest Test score in 13 innings.
The runs started coming easily as Ballance too reached his fifty in the 56th over, off 107 balls with 5 fours, two overs after the 100-run partnership had been completed between the two. In the morning session, Cook overcame his poor run of form thanks to a reprieve from Jadeja at third slip. The big moment for Cook came in the 12th over then, bowled by Pankaj, only for the all-rounder to spill an easy chance. The score read 25/0 at that time with Cook batting on 15 as Pankaj missed out on a maiden Test wicket.
To his credit, Cook then tightened up further and didn`t give another chance to the Indian bowlers, who also improved their lines to the batsmen. The 50-partnership for the opening pair came up in the 19th over, when Cook played an immaculate cut shot for four. This was only his second four over nearly 90 minutes of batting, and 50 balls after his first boundary, showing how hard he was trying in the middle. But then India did break through as Shami returned in the 21st over to snap up Robson`s wicket.
He edged a marginal out-swinger from back of length to third slip where Jadeja redeemed himself this time around. Robson scored 26 runs off 59 balls with 4 fours and added 55 runs for the first wicket. India lead the five-match series 1-0 after winning the second Test at Lord`s by 95 runs. The first Test in Nottingham ended in a draw.