All day the crowd at the Oval was abuzz. But there is buzz and there is buzz. Two years ago everyone was rapt as England battled to recapture the Ashes.
On Friday there was constant chatter, which grew more raucous as the day wore on.
People were delighted to be there in the late summer sunshine, watching the England batsmen conduct yet another pitiless massacre of the Indians. But rapt? Nah. Most of the conversations I heard involved corporate gossip or the weather. On this bizarrely one-sided Test series, there is not much left to say.
Four months ago, amid national euphoria, India’s cricketers won the one-day cricket World Cup: national revelry deep into the night; a presidential welcome; triumphalist editorials; an offer of free houses in Bangalore for the whole squad (as if they needed free anything). Until last week, they were still officially ranked as the world’s Number One team in Test cricket.
As they trudged round the Oval on Friday, the Indians looked a rabble, even more than they have done in the three previous Tests this series. A ragtag army retreating in disarray, having hardly fired a shot.
By the close of the second day, England had taken their first innings score to 457 for three after a stand of 350 – 20 short of England’s all-time third-wicket record – from Ian Bell, still there on 180, and Kevin Pietersen, out just before the end on 175.
It is not certain England will win this Test to complete the 4-0 whitewash. The loss of most of Thursday to rain does make life difficult. And on this blander pitch, it is hard to imagine India’s batting folding quite so abjectly yet again. Surely the moment is coming when Sachin Tendulkar finally makes the hundred he craves.
But who knows how low India might sink. I never glimpsed their coach Duncan Fletcher on Friday. It is impossible to imagine what this once-fearsome curmudgeon is saying to his charges. I now think of him as Mr Barrowclough, the warder in Porridge, helplessly trying to reason with the inmates.
The odd thing was that the Indians started the day looking much perkier. Damp chill had given way to sunshine, which seemed to awaken some deep memory that they quite enjoyed playing cricket. The ball swung a little too and Alastair Cook was caught at second slip in the first over for the unCooklike score of 34: normally if he gets past 20 he is unstoppable. Less than an hour later, his captain Andrew Strauss had gone for 40, which has become his kind of score. It was a battle all morning, and England scored just 51 runs in the session.
They were only teasing. The next session produced 171 as Bell and Pietersen got established and the bowlers’ first flush of energy faded. The attack, led by Ishant Sharma, was once again backed up by Ican’t Singh, Iwon’t Sreesanth, and Notmeeither Mishra.
The fielding grew ever more hopeless: balls through legs, players falling over, men lumbering round the boundary as though it were a village match. Bell and Pietersen looked brilliant for sure, mixing discipline and creativity to perfection, but the poverty of the bowling exceeded the excellence of the batting.
Bell reached his fifth Test century of 2011 before tea, gradually shedding his customary apologetic air and hitting poor Mishra for two successive straight sixes. Pietersen reached his hundred the ball after tea, was dropped next ball, and then grew ever more outrageous, running through his repertoire of trick shots as if this were an exhibition match. The most outrageous thing was that he got out. One had forgotten wickets had any part in the game.