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Windies face uphill struggle

Last updated on: June 12, 2006 03:37 IST


Munaf Patel struck twice in successive deliveries to put India in a commanding position against the West Indies at the end of day two in the second Test at St Lucia on Sunday.

The West Indies were precariously placed at 65 for three in reply to India's huge score of 588 for 8 declared.

Earlier, Mohammed Kaif (148) scored his maiden Test hundred and along with captain Rahul Dravid (146) saw India pile the agony on the hosts.

Patel gave India the breakthrough with the wicket of West Indies opener Darren Ganga and then trapped Ramnaresh Sarwan on the very next ball.

Veteran Indian spinner Anil Kumble then claimed the all-important wicket of Brain Lara to put India firmly in control.

Morning session

Shortly before start of play on day two, Dean Jones in conversation with Virender Sehwag made a point: He said the commentators had been puzzled by the look of the pitch, and weren't sure whether batting first made sense on it (Brian Lara had the same mindset - he supposedly said he had already planned to field first had he won the toss). `But you guys had no doubt at all, you seemed happy to bat,' Jones said.

In response, Sehwag said something about the team having decided on the previous evening itself that it would bat first if the coin went in their favor.

That's twice in two outings - and I was intrigued enough to tap into the team's thinking on this one. Word out of the Indian camp is that this whole ploy was in fact discussed at some length even before the Tests began.

Apparently the collective reasoning went thus: Indians have the reputation of being poor travelers who tend to panic at the first hint of green. That, they believe, all oppositions buy into; more to the point, it plays on the team's consciousness.

The best way to break out of it, they reason, is to take the bull by the horns and bat first anyway - unless it is clearly ridiculous to do so; hence the prompt, decisive call both times, even though they nearly came a cropper at Antigua before pulling things right back in the second innings.

The events of day one clearly put the West Indies on the defensive. Brian Lara took the overdue new ball after just one over this morning - but the field of just two slips, with the rest spread to contain runs, indicated that containment was the name of the game.

Curiously, Lara opted to use the clearly below par Corey Colleymore as Jerome Taylor's partner with the new ball - and the undercooked bowler seemed for the most part to be going through the motions, while Mohammad Kaif and Rahul Dravid eased themselves back into the game after the overnight break.

Dravid's century - his 23rd, and 3rd against the West Indies, off 169 deliveries and with 12 fours - came in the first ball of the fourth over, with a pull that didn't really come off against a ball staying lower than he anticipated given the length.

That in fact seems to be an unnoticed nuance of the pitch - the ball is coming slower onto the bat; the odd one is not getting up as much as you would think given its length, and all of that translates into a pitch on which insouciant batting will get penalized as the game goes on.

Coupled with a sluggish outfield on which the firmest of drives limped along, that pretty much dictated how the Indians played the morning session - despite the close set fields, the two ran for almost everything, using tip and run tactics to keep the board moving along and getting fours almost exclusively on the leg side, where you could play the angles and make the bowler's pace work for you.

A scrambled single, turned into 5 by a wild throw from Shivnaraine Chanderpaul, took Kaif to his 53 (87 balls, 4 fours). The middle order bat, who appears to have gotten a measure of his confidence, and this thinking, back together, celebrated with two back to back fours off Pedro Collins in the very next over - the first a back foot drive through the covers, the second off the front foot in the same direction.

What was interesting about those two shots was the presence of a short extra cover placed to inhibit just that kind of shot - Kaif beat him first to his left, then to his right, indicating a growing confidence in the pitch, and in his ability to score fluidly on it.

The two batsmen are known more for grafting than aggressive shot-making - yet the first hour of play produced 68 runs off just 13 overs at a healthy 5.23.

Collins, who did whatever damage had been done on day one, was targeted for tap on the second morning - in successive overs, Kaif took 8 runs off the left arm seamer and then Dravid chipped in with 10, including a stylish extra cover drive and a clinical dispatch of a bad ball short outside off. (Collins, to his credit, held his nerve to come back with a maiden in his next over).

With the seamers bleeding runs, Lara finally tried Chris Gayle in the 105th over (and Sarwan in the 110th) of the innings in a defensive role, after the two not out batsmen had added 100 runs in the morning session. There was little evidence of turn - and Gayle didn't even try, focusing instead on keeping it three quarters, skidding it through slow and low on the stumps with fielders drawn up to keep singles at bay.

Strategically, the use of two part timers towards lunch came as a bit surprising - the ground was by then shrouded under heavy cloud cover; there was a stiff breeze blowing across the pitch. You would have thought conditions were good to attack from at least one of the ends, with a genuine seam/swing bowler, say a Bradshaw angling across the right handers, or a Bravo with his gentle swing.

A wicket fell almost on the stroke of lunch and against the run of play when Sarwan bowled one about five feet outside off, and going further. Dravid, that epitome of patience and circumspection, walked, then ran, still couldn't get there, so flung his bat out at the ball - and managed only to miscue the cut to point (146/234; India 485/5; 179 run partnership for the 5th wicket).

The session produced 124 runs off 29 overs for the loss of just the one wicket; it has left Kaif within sighting distance of a first Test century, and it has brought Dhoni out to the middle.

A little curiosity: There has been much talk of the Windies resurgence; that talk reached a crescendo at half time in the first Test, with the home team leading by 130 and looking set to run away with the game. Since then, they have bowled 264.5 overs and taken 11 wickets for 1006 runs.

What this has done, very visibly, is drain the Windies of that buzz they showed in the ODIs, and at the start of this Test series - increasingly, the bowlers have looked to go through their prescribed motions; the fielding has gotten a touch naughty, and the signs of frustration are in greater evidence.

The likes of Ian Bishop and Tony Cozier were speculating during the first hour about when the declaration will come - with Cozier at one point suggesting, ridiculously IMHO given the match situation, that India would be looking to "touch the 500 mark".

I'd be surprised as heck if India was aiming for anything under 650; if a declaration came till about an hour before close of play, frankly. In fact, the Indian mindset has been evident in the way they played the morning session - while actively looking for runs and in fact scoring at 5-plus, the two batsmen eschewed all risk, content to give the corridor to the bowlers. Finesse, not muscle, has been the preferred mode of scoring - and that indicates a team intent on building a very big one.

Having gotten in, the obvious strategy would be to construct a mountain of runs, making the real big push with the likes of Dhoni and Pathan only nearing and after tea - and use that to prey on the minds of the home team, whose batsmen know that when behind by 600 and more, you can't just throw your bat around in neck or nothing fashion but have to focus on hard, gritty, attritive defense on a pitch that, I suspect, is going to get slower, and lower, and play tricks as the game goes on.

Post-Lunch sesion

This session of play was bizarre - and not for the way the players played, but more for the way the commentators talked it through.

Every single one seemed to be of the opinion that India should have just blasted away and declared - clearly, the dichotomy in those words missed their minds. For instance, if the conditions are conducive to India blasting away, whence comes the presumption that the West Indies with Gayle, Lara, Bravo et al cannot do likewise?

The best comment on the nature of the pitch at this point was made by Brian Lara - when, after the lunch break, with a thick cloud cover overhead, a stiff breeze blowing across the pitch and light diminishing, he opted to bowl Gayle and Sarwan, rather than use any of the five seam bowlers at his disposal.

Keep an eye on that number - five bowlers, and none of them thought good enough to bowl at the start of a session, with one batsman on zero. Would you, as captain, willfully present such a track to the opposition to bat on?

Or would you try and spend as much time as possible in the middle, with a twin objective - firstly, to make sure you only need to bat the one time; secondly, to allow the heat to work on the pitch that much longer (this session, incidentally, saw the most dramatic instance of what I spoke of in the first session - the odd uneven bounce; Bradshaw here bowling a grubber to Kaif that pitched midway, and scooted through at ankle height, indicating a disintegration of the wicket); and finally, to push the game into that indeterminate period, towards close, when the fielding side is tired from two days out in the sun, and force them to negotiate a tricky hour of play, while keeping the new ball still relatively fresh for the third morning?

If in fact this was how the Indians scoped it out, their play post lunch made sense - neither Kaif nor Dhoni looked to explode. There was just Pathan left in the hut with bat skill; the left arm seamer's recent form has been a touch dodgy; his confidence has been as low as it is possible to get, to the extent that he asked the team management to give him a break in the first Test so he could get his mind back together.

Given that, it was imperative for the two batsmen in the middle to play time as well as runs, and not get out too early in the proceedings. Best laid plans and all that - get out early is precisely what Dhoni managed to do, though.

He is not the sort of player to play the waiting game. When he is let loose, he hits at anything in his zone; ask him to bat judiciously, and his regular strokes are shelved, and the odd loose one played.

Here, he managed to play maidens off Chris Gayle; when a huge rain cloud hovered over the ground, the batsmen took the light offered. But the first ball after the interruption, bowled by Ian Bradshaw, was short, it was wide and going wider on the angle and Dhoni, almost in a reprise of the Dravid dismissal before lunch, lunged a long way over to get the toe of his bat to the ball, and pat it to point in a needless dismissal (9/34; India 517/6).

Pathan took over, and joined Kaif in batting sensibly and within themselves, inching the score along with singles, hard run twos and just the odd boundary. The left hander was just about beginning to show a semblance of form with the bat, however, and had swept Gayle with good timing to the midwicket fence, when he fell - chasing the last ball of the same over, wide of off and turning wider, and getting the toe (third successive dismissal, incidentally, off that part of the bat) of the bat to point (19/52; 555/7).

In between all this, Kaif progressed with calm assurance. A Sarwan full toss, banged over to the midwicket fence, got him to his first Test century (166 balls, 10 fours) and also brought up India's 500. He collected the applause from the dressing room, the hug from his partner Dhoni, and promptly took fresh guard and started all over again.

For a batsman who hasn't yet cemented his place in the side, the knock albeit in not-so-demanding conditions must come like a tonic. Getting that first Test 100 - after missing by 9 against England in Nagpur - and being able to continue with nary a false step, could well be the confidence boost he has looked in need off in this form of the game; it will be interesting to watch how well he parlays this in future outings.

Meanwhile, the pitch continued to display its vagaries - and finally, the commentators took note, as a Gayle delivery sprayed dirt off the track from good length. "That is interesting," went Jeremy Coney, and Ian Bishop wonders whether India has batted on the best part of the pitch. And then the two talk of why India would now want to bat on - conveniently ignoring the chorus they were setting up just moments before, for a declaration.

Judging by the way they have played thus far, you would have to think the Indians have read this track to a nicety - they are banking on the fact that it will break up and produce more uneven bounce - which not only suits their main strike bowler Kumble to a T, but also works for the two right arm seamers landing within the stumps, and for the left armer looking to bend the ball back in; that their game plan in consequence should be to deny Windies conducive batting conditions for as long as they can, then make them climb a mountain with slippery underfoot conditions.

The session produced 99 runs in 32 overs for the loss of Dhoni and Pathan. Look for the Indians to try and play through at least the first hour after tea - ideally, declaring with 8, 10 tops, overs to bowl at the Windies this evening.

Post-Tea session

13 deliveries after tea, Jerome Taylor got Anil Kumble to chop one onto his stumps, bowling tightly in the corridor and getting it to lift just enough to cramp the attempted forcing shot through point (14/31; India 588/8).

Immediately, Rahul Dravid applied the closure, giving the West Indies 24 overs to negotiate before close. Mohammad Kaif remained unbeaten for a classically compiled maiden Test ton, going in on 148 off 243 deliveries.

And then a funny thing happened - under cover of the cloak of invisibility, a bunch of blokes came out, carefully removed the strip on which they had been playing all that while, and substituted another one - a minefield, this, full of unknown horrors.

Or so you had to think -- - on the same track on which the commentators were unanimously castigating the Indians for not going hell for leather despite a 4-plus run rate, the West Indies came out and struggled to put bat to ball.

The two Indian new ball bowlers produced an exhibition that indicated they had been watching proceedings pretty closely. On a track where the bounce is questionable (and even given that variable bounce is not that much of a factor with the hard new ball), the two homed in on the stumps, bowling tight wicket to wicket lines to force the batsmen to play at almost everything.

It is what the Windies bowlers consistently failed to do; the Indian seamers apparently had done their homework while watching their mates pile up runs.

Chris Gayle, as always, got the mandatory life (in the case of this innings, two already inside the first five overs). Pathan in his first over set him up very nicely, first going down the off channel, setting Gayle up to come forward and across and push at his deliveries.

Having got the batsman doing that by rote, he then arrowed one in on the stumps; Gayle again moved into that push, got the ball on the pad, and got the benefit of mythical doubt. As per usual, he celebrated by cracking the next ball through point for four.

At the other end, Munaf Patel produced a lovely spell. He started with a maiden, bowling six of six in the channel outside off challenging Ganga to drive at him. Dravid here produced an interesting field setting - no point for either Gayle or Darren Ganga; the ploy likely being that the Indians don't think hitting square is a percentage shot on a track where the odd ball stays low, and want to encourage both batsmen to try.

Ganga nearly fell into the trap; in that first over from Patel he flashed and missed. In the bowler's sixth over, Munaf found the edge - and saw it flash wide of Wasim Jaffar at third slip. So the bowler straightened his line a trifle, and found the clear edge again - and this time, VVS Laxman at second slip did his imitation of a Madame Tussaud's waxwork as the ball flashed between him and Jaffar, and to his right.

All of this produced a readjustment - Dravid moved Jaffar to first slip and took up position at third.

At the other end, in the fifth over Pathan again nailed Gayle in front of middle and leg - with the pitch not bouncing, that was heading to the middle of leg stump (as Hawkeye confirmed), but again, the batsman got the benefit. Elsewhere, since he wasn't being given out LBW, Gayle had a shot at bowling himself - Munaf Patel angled one across, hit the line an inch outside off and straightened the ball and Gayle left it alone, for the ball to taste varnish from off stump on its way through.

It was scratchy cricket, played around a little interruption for a drizzle, and it indicated just how difficult this innings is going to be, under the weight of the runs on the board. Against that, the first 9 overs produced 7 fours (in a score of 36), indicating that runs could still be made, if you had the patience to wait for the error, and the skill to negotiate the good stuff.

Finally, the 10th over produced the wicket that had been threatening all along. Patel had stayed relentlessly on line of the stumps (in the previous over, all six deliveries were on line and would have hit the stumps if the batsman hadn't intervened); Ganga came forward with bat tucked behind pad, a ploy he used, and was lucky to get away with, twice before in this knock. This time, there was not even a hair's breadth of doubt - the strike was in line, the ball was in line, and the stumps were in danger of being disarrayed (16/33; 36/1).

And then, Patel really hit the jackpot - the very first ball Ramnaresh Sarwan got was a carbon copy of the delivery to Ganga. Very straight, very full, very much on line of off and middle. Sarwan came too far across, couldn't get his bat around his pad, and was nailed in front of middle (0/1; 36/2).

In the 11th over, Pathan deviated from the game plan, bowling too short too often, and was creamed for successive boundaries by Gayle first through cover point, then to the third man fence. Dravid promptly switched him off, and brought Kumble on in the 12th over. Pathan's first spell was a mixed bag - some very good deliveries, way better than he had bowled in recent times, but not the consistency his partner showed at the other end.

Lara, who seemed physically under par judging by his limping second run to a Gayle stroke before he had opened his own account, got going with a fluent drive through cover point off Munaf Patel.

In his first over, Kumble indicated what was to come - six balls out of six landed within the three stumps and on the very full length; ball after ball took the tall Gayle on the pads. The batsman on each occasion had a big stride out, and that saved him. In his second over, against the shorter Lara, Kumble homed in on that line and length again and sure enough, thudded into the batsman's pad to invite the clear decision (7/14; 55/3).

Patel's immaculate first spell of 8-3-20-2 ended finally; VRV Singh took over in the 18th over of the innings and began with a maiden; the pressure stayed right on. A couple of steady overs later, with play winding down, Dravid switched him out and brought Sehwag on, to pair with Kumble.

At the other end, Kumble nailed Gayle with a straight one, and again the weird thing of `height factor' and `long stride' were used to explain why the batsman was still in after at least four clear shouts - apparently there is an unwritten rule that anyone over 6 feet can't be given out in that particular fashion.

In the final over of the day, Kumble again hit the right line and length - and this time, Chanderpaul was lucky to get off on benefit-of-doubt grounds, to a ball heading onto off stump of all things. All that remains is for them to now fine the Indians for appealing so much and making their lives hell.

The Windies finished on 65/3 at stumps in 25 overs; an indication of the escalating pressure is afforded by the fact that the last 13 of those overs produced 15 runs, including two Kumble no-balls in the final over.

The game is nicely set up now - a grim, uphill struggle awaits the home team tomorrow morning on a pitch that will only get lower as the game goes on, in the process removing even that `benefit of doubt' from the equation.

Prem Panicker