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Windies takes first game of ODI series

Prem Panicker

Rain seems to be following the Indians around on this cricket tour, doesn't it?

Whether it was in South Africa earlier in the year or in the West Indies now, the Indians land in a centre to play cricket - and lo, as the ancients say, the heavens open up. At times, said rain falling in places which had been bright and sunny right up until then.

Rain disrupted the first ODI in the four-game Cable And Wireless Series. Not arguing here that the disruption affected the ultimate outcome - India had sown the seeds of defeat even before it went out to play. But with rain again forecast for the second game, at the same venue, on Sunday, this series doesn't appear too likely to produce scintillant cricket.

To me, the standout incident of the first ODI occured not on the field of play, but in the dressing room. Namely, the omission from the ranks of Saurav Ganguly.

Now here's a man who, in his last game - a practice match at the same venue on Thursday - hit up a superb hundred. And in his earlier game - a four day warm up before the fifth Test - he had scores above 80 in both innings that he played.

This kind of performance would argue a player rediscovering his touch. So then, why is he being dropped? In the fifth Test, it was argued that India needed to make room for an extra bowler, so Ganguly had to go. But if a side tries to make room for a bowler by displacing a batsman, then surely it is not at the expense of a batsman in good nick, but rather at the cost of one who has been struggling throughout the tour? To name names, would not Mohammad Azharuddin have been a better omission for the fifth Test than Saurav Ganguly?

Anyway, that is history. Fact remains that in the warm up game, Ganguly opened with Sidhu and scored a century - and, on the second day after that, found himself dropped from the ODI squad. Why?

Was it because Sidhu's return meant that the opener's slot had been filled? The argument does not follow - simply because Ganguly opening with Tendulkar, thus creating a left-right combination for the opposing new ball bowlers to bowl to - made better cricketing sense, more so since Ganguly is, as mentioned, in fine touch. A better bet would have been to have retained Ganguly, opening with him and Tendulkar, retained Dravid at one drop in the role of anchor, and had Sidhu come in at two drop - the ball by then is older and softer, and Sidhu with his penchant for driving on the up and over the infield would have been the right person to provide impetus in the early middle order, before the Jadejas and Robin Singhs got stuck in at the death.

The omission of Ganguly, therefore, defies logic. And what is amazing is that the tour management, comprising Sachin Tendulkar, Anil Kumble and Madan Lal, did not have a single word of explanation to offer.

It could be argued that the combine does not owe explanations to either the media, or the fans. But the counter to that would be to remind them of what happened in England, early in 1996. Navjot Singh Sidhu was dropped by the then tour management (of which Tendulkar, as vice captain, was part) and the resultant flareup made for one of the less savoury moments of Indian cricket.

Must we subject the game in this country to a repeat? More to the point, must the confidence of a young, upcoming player be blighted in this callous fashion?

It is easy to see where the problem lies. Sachin Tendulkar, all of 24 years old, does not feel himself old enough and settled enough to be able to ask the senior pro, Mohammad Azharuddin, to step down for a game - it is far easier to drop the axe on the neck of a Ganguly.

The result is all-round embarassment. Embarassment for Azhar - a great player going through a bad patch, true, but the fact remains that each successive outing of his has more people wondering why he is still in the side, and Azhar surely deserves better than that. Embarassment for Tendulkar - because he is now being seen as a weak leader who does not have the guts to do what is right in the team's interests. And let's not forget, heartburn for Ganguly - who must be wondering just what more he should do to cement his place in the side, what security of tenure he has when the next season begins and the likes of Vinod Kambli also come into the reckoning for middle order berths.

And the ultimate loser - as we all saw too clearly at Port of Spain on Saturday - is Indian cricket.

Which brings us to the game itself. If the first mistake Tendulkar made was to drop Ganguly from the side, then the second was to have read the pitch wrong.

Look at it this way - the wicket was used for a one day game on Thursday, and on that day it took spin to such an extent that the rookie, Noel David, was almost unplayable even though no less than Chanderpaul, Hooper and Lara were at the crease. The same pitch was being used Saturday - so how was it made match fit? There is only one way a pitch with cracks on it can be made to look firm in the space of 24 hours - and that is by soaking it heavily, then rolling it over to paper over the cracks.

What does soaking do? It creates a layer of sub-surface moisture - in other words, the "juice" fast bowlers love to see early on in a game. The moisture does dry up in time, making the wicket play more like its normal self - but when it is overcast, as it was at Port of Spain, and there is no sun, the drying process takes longer and, consequently, the pitch provides alarming bounce and movement for a good part of the first innings.

Which brings us to Tendulkar's second mistake - opting to bat first on winning the toss, on that wicket, was a no no. And he discovered it in the very first over, when Ambrose banged one in on a good length spot, and the ball literally stood up on him. The television screens provided a close up of the Indian skipper's face - and the expression was one of pure amazement. He had obviously been taken by surprise.

It is not a cardinal sin to misread a wicket - even the greats, like Chappell and Benaud and Brearley, have on occasion erred. But the fact does explain the course of the match.

To Tendulkar's credit, he quickly realised that normal tactics wouldn't serve on this pitch - and immediately changed gears, launching a breathtaking blitz on the West Indies bowling. Ian Bishop was the first to feel the impact - to the tune of four fours in his second over. The first of those was a truly remarkable shot, Tendulkar dancing a good four paces down the wicket with the footwork one normally associates with a batsman playing an offspinner, and hitting effortlessly back over the bowler's head. Ambrose was glided square and driven through the on, Walsh was contemptuously picked from off stump and over midwicket, and India was off to a flier of Sri Lankan proportions.

At the other end, Sidhu seemed rather bemused by the ball's antics, but was beginning to middle it when one of those acts of God interfered with proceedings. Ambrose bowled one on off and middle, bringing the ball back in with the seam. Sidhu was well forward and, in trying to work to leg, missed and was rapped above the knee roll of the front pad. There was not one, but two reasons why the LBW appeal was not tenable - the height at which the ball struck the pad, on a wicket playing tricks early in the day, indicated that it would have climbed even higher and missed the stumps altogether. More importantly, the ball was cutting in from off and middle - which means that its natural progression was outside leg stump. And yet, up went the umpire's finger and off went Sidhu, LBW Ambrose for 5 off 14, and India were 46/1.

Rahul Dravid came in next and, seeing his captain in murderous mood, concentrated on giving him the strike as much as possible. At which point, along comes act of God number two. Ambrose, again, made one climb from a good length. Tendulkar, who by then seemed to be seeing the ball large as life and twice as natural, dropped his wrists and took the bat out of harm's way. The ball passed a good two feet over the bat, rapped the batsman high on the upper arm, and went to the keeper. The appeal for caught behind was in itself surprising, because the bat was well away from the line of the ball. Even more surprising was the speed at which it was upheld. And even Tendulkar, the most phlegmatic of batsmen, was provoked into an exhibition of his surprise, as he looked at the umpire, shook his head and then walked - with 44 off 43 balls with 10 fours against his name, and India 65/2 on the scoreboard.

From then on, the effect of the earlier mistakes India had made kicked in. Mohammad Azharuddin is in awful form - and it is when your touch is shot that you look possitively out of it at the batting crease. Franklyn Rose is normally an incredibly accurate bowler. After starting off with a maiden - a huge relief to the West Indies, who had just seen Ambrose, Bishop and Walsh treated with cavalier disdain - Rose then bowled his first bad ball, short and wide of off stump. Azhar picked the right shot, rocking back and attempting to square drive past point - but with his timing gone to pieces, all he managed to do was get an inner edge and drag the ball, which would have sailed harmlessly past, onto his stumps, with his score on 3 off 12, and India 71/3.

Ajay Jadeja found himself coming in ahead of schedule, thanks to the quick blows. And to his credit, he realised that with over 35 overs to go at that stage, he could not indulge his penchant for innovative batting, and quickly changed tack, preferring to work the ball around and take the singles. Just when it seemed as though Dravid, whose form has been a feature of the tour thus far, and Jadeja were about to turn things round again - and remember that thanks to the start Tendulkar gave the innings, it was possible at that stage to maintain a good run rate simply by taking three, four singles per over - Rose bowled a swinging yorker on leg stump, Dravid leaned into his pet shot, the flick off the pads, only to miscue and pop it up to square leg for Hooper to hold. Dravid's 17 took 44 balls and contained 2 fours, and India was four down for 86.

That brought Nayan Mongia to the wicket - and with him, sanity. Mongia and Jadeja concentrated on running the singles well, pushing the Windies fielders and not taking the slightest chance. But Rose, who had settled down into an immaculate length and line and who, in the event, bowled his ten overs on the trot for an analysis of 3/25 with two maidens, dream figures on his ODI debut, produced the ball of the match, a lovely outswinger pitching on off stump, drawing Jadeja forward and leaving him just enough to take the edge to the keeper. Jadeja's score was an uncharacteristic but, in the circumstances, thoughtful, 19 off 60 deliveries with two fours. India 119/5.

Robin Singh hasn't had much chance of putting bat to ball on this tour thus far and, in the practise game at this venue on Thursday, all he managed was a simple catch off the first ball he faced. Here, he survived 8 deliveries - time enough for us to realise just how woefully short of practise he is - before chasing at a very wide ball from Bishop to give Lara, at slip, some catching practise. Singh scored 2, and India was 123/6.

That was pretty much the end, really, as far as the Indian innings went. Mongia with 29 off 70 deliveries, and Kumble with 13 off 25, did offer some resistance, but the eventual total of 179 all out in 48.2 overs was a good 60, 65 runs short of the ideal. And India had paid the price for two umpiring blunders, compounded by the even greater blunder of picking an off form player and dropping one in very good nick, thus enormously weakening the batting.

Of course, all this did not occur in uninterrupted fashion - the players were forced to go off for as many as four interruptions due to drizzles. And the upshot was that the number of overs possible for the Windies, and the consequent target, was revised as per the dictates of the Clarke's Curve (regular readers will remember this phenomenon coming into operation in South Africa, in the penultimate game against Zimbabwe and in the final against the home team) to 146 off 34 overs.

No problem, really, because even towards the end of the Indian innings, the wicket had shown signs that the moisture that made batting so difficult early on had dried out, and the ball was coming nice and easy onto the bat - vide the displays of Kumble and Mongia.

For Shivnaraine Chanderpaul, riding the incredible form that has seen him top the averages for both sides in the Test series, and Stuart Williams, who in any event loves to give the ball a hefty thump, the bowling of Prasad and Kuruvilla on this track was meat and drink. In fact, it was Kumble who provided the first breakthrough, getting Williams to lift one high, and straight to mid off for Prasadd to hold. Williams had made 14 off 26 balls with one four, and the Windies were on 42/1 at that stage.

Shortly thereafter, it should have been 62/1. Robin Singh, after being thumped for successive boundaries by Chanderpaul, produced a good delivery on off stump, leaving the left hander. Chanderpaul drove at it, was beaten by the movement, the ball took the edge and carried to Rahul Dravid, keeping for Mongia who had taken an Ambrose snorter on his fingers while batting. And that produced act of God number three, with the umpire showing utmost disinterest in the attempt of the keeper, the bowler and the fielders to persuade him that the batsman was out.

After that, there was no stopping Chanderpaul. Since his maiden Test century, the lanky Windies batsman has gained enormously in confidence, and the result has been that where, earlier, he used to nudge the ball around to make his runs, now he is confidently onto the front foot, driving on both sides of the wicket and, when the ball is short, rocking back to pull and hook with precision and impeccable timing. By the time he finally left, miscuing a pull off Prasad to Kuruvilla, he had hit up 83 off just 87 balls with 12 fours, and given an indication that he could have as much of an impact in this one day series as he did in the Tests. The West Indies at that stage were 132/2, and Brian Lara (25 off 44) and Carl Hooper (9 off 11) finished off the formalities to take the Windies to 149 off the fifth ball of the 27th over, to complete a fine eight wicket win.

The defeat must have been galling for Tendulkar, who had before the series started expressed the determination of his team to turn it round in the ODIs. But what will be interesting is to see what lessons he learns from this game.

Will he, for instance, opt to bat first if he wins the toss today? He should. Because the pitch has not been watered between Saturday's game and Sunday, and therefore the "juice" factor will not come into play. The upshot will be that it will keep lower as the game progresses, and aid spin, making batting second a very dicey proposition.

And that brings us to the second lesson - will Tendulkar at least now drop the out of form Azharuddin, and bring Ganguly back in to the opener's berth?

And lastly - will he replace Robin Singh with Noel David? Two reasons for this. The Port of Spain wicket is not the kind that Singh revels in. His brand of strokeplay is possible only when the ball is coming nicely on to the bat - and at the Queen's Park Oval, he is not going to get that. The other reason is even more important - with the wicket taking spin, an off spinner will complement Kumble and Joshi admirably - and it pays to remember that David bowled with immaculate control, giving just 29 runs in his 10 overs, in the practise game against Chanderpaul, Lara and Hooper when those batsmen were looking to go after the bowling.

And lastly there's this. With Mongia off the field, David had come in as substitute fielder. And by the fifth over, the Queen's Park Oval crowd was cheering his fielding even more vociferously than they applauded the strokeplay of Chanderpaul and hometown boy Lara.

David is incredibly electric in the outfield, right up there among the best in the world. And that, again, will help lift the outcricket of this Indian side. Question being, will he get the chance here?