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India toss a won game in the trashcan

Prem Panicker

We need to start this with a major apology to cricket fans: a big time technical problem at our end has prevented us from putting this report on the net with our usual promptitude. Excuse it, folks, please - we will do our best to ensure that this doesn't happen again.

There were two moments, during the third ODI of the ongoing Cable and Wireless Series between India and the West Indies, when memory took one back a few weeks in time, to the final of the ODI series between India and South Africa, played in Durban.

The first was when India, chasing a daunting target and having lost Sachin Tendulkar early, took command of the situation with calm, unhurried batting. And the second was when India, having the game well and truly in its pocket, then proceeded to toss it in the dustbin with an exhibition of sheer, mindless batting.

Consider the parallels between the two games. The Indian target was 251 then; here, it was 250. True, in Durban, thanks to rain, India had to get the runs in 40 overs while here, the full 50 overs were available to it. But to offset that, the Durban wicket and outfield were both designed to fit into the fondest dreams of batsmen, while the wicket at Kingston, though quite even in character for the most part, did have the odd patches where the ball kept low, putting that little shadow of doubt in the minds of batsmen.

There, as here, India entered the last leg of its chase comfortably poised. ODI theory has it that if a team chasing can go into the last 10 overs needing less than a run a ball, and have half or more of its wickets standing at that stage, then defeat is extremely unlikely. In Durban, India at the death needed 57 off 60 balls with seven wickets standing; here, at the end of 40 overs, India needed 56 off 60 balls with seven wickets in hand.

Both were positions of extreme comfort - and yet, in Durban, India lost by 17 runs, here the margin was 18.

How does one explain it? By repeating what we said after the Durban incident - that all the talent in the world will not serve, if the mind, the will, the nerve, is not steely. And in this modern age, a team looking to get consistent results at the top needs more than a well-meaning Madan Lal to provide background support - we had argued, after Durban, the urgent need for a sports psychologist to accompany this side; BCCI president Raj Singh Dungarpur had in fact mentioned this as one of his priorities; but three months later, the situation remains exactly the same as before.

And now to the game itself...

The wicket, for once during this tour of the Caribbean, looked good going into the start of the game. It was hard, with a slight, even layer of grass well-rolled in. The possibilities were that it would provide maybe the least bit of life early on, but roll out into a good batting track as the day progressed.

The West Indies made one change - a most predictable one - to its lineup. Ian Bishop, who has been treated with less than respect by Tendulkar in the first two games and who, besides, has added to his problems by being too prodigal with wides and no balls, sat out the game in favour of Ottis Gibson.

India, meanwhile, ended up with an unchanged team - purely by chance. On the morning of the game, the idea was to bring Navjot Singh Sidhu back into the side, batting at number three, while Rahul Dravid who had been hit on the shoulder by a Courtney Browne drive in the second game, and who since then had been going around with his arm in a sling, was to be rested.

However, just an hour before start of play, Sidhu reported that an old shoulder injury was troubling him again, and that he would like to be omitted from the lineup for this game. Regulars of Rediff's coverage will remember that when we analysed his inclusion for the Windies tour, we had said that neither Sidhu's ability nor temperament were in question - if a doubt existed, it had to do with his falling prey to injuries real or imagined. And that prediction, sadly, has come true here as well - this is the second key match Sidhu is sitting out. It must be pointed out that earlier in his career, he has sometimes been asked to feign injury by then manager Ajit Wadekar - that, however, is not the case here. And this is something that Sidhu will need to pay careful thought to - no matter how talented you are, if you are prone to getting "injured" an hour before the game is due to start, then you won't find too many people around to sympathise with you if and when the axe descends.

In the event, Tendulkar won the toss and opted to field, figuring that whatever life the pitch had to offer was only in the beginning stages. In the event, there really wasn't much in the wicket for medium pacers - possibly, the West Indian bowlers, especially Ambrose and Walsh, would have bowled with greater fire in the first ten overs, merely because of their greater pace. In a sense, then, Tendulkar's decision to field first meant India did not have to face Ambrose and Walsh early in the day, and that is justification enough for having opted to field.

To their credit, Venkatesh Prasad and Abey Kuruvilla judged the conditions immediately, and bowled brilliantly. Neither of them bothered to work up to their top speed. Rather, bowling well within themselves, they concentrated on moving the ball both ways off the seam, forcing the batsmen to keep guessing about where the next one was headed. And a measure of their success is afforded by the fact that Shivnaraine Chanderpaul, in brilliant touch this season, was forced to prodding and pushing and poking at the ball like a novice, before Kuruvilla finally trapped him LBW with one cutting sharply back in off the seam to reduce the Windies to 11/1.

That brought Brian Lara to the wicket. And the Indian fielding, sharp till then, suddenly returned to its usual ham-handedness. If there is one thing more than another that puzzles me, it is this penchant for extreme swings in performance from the near-sublime to the ridiculous. In this spell, when Williams and Lara, in the face of immaculate bowling by the medium pacers, were reduced to tip and run, the fielders let the pressure off with wild throws and two bad misses on run out chances, both off Williams before the latter had got into double figures. Williams, all at sea against the opening bowling, was allowed to hang in there and find his nerve again - and India was to pay a high price for that, as he went on to top score with 76 off 110 deliveries with six fours and a six.

Lara, meanwhile, figured that attack was the best form of defence, and went full throttle after Anil Kumble, lifting him over the infield time and again. This was, however, not vintage Lara - the strokes had more of bravado than timing in it, and time and again, the ball ballooned very close to the hand of fielders in the deep. Inevitably, then, Lara perished playing that one stroke too many - in this case, his favourite late cut, played at a delivery from Robin Singh that was too close to off stump to permit such liberties. Lara, 33 off 38 with five fours, ended up dragging it back into his stumps (this ball again did not get up to the height it should have - a feature of the pitch that was to cost India dear later) and Windies were 71/2.

I am not sure why Walsh hit upon the idea of promoting Jimmy Adams ahead of Hooper - Adams may be a good man to keep one end going, but he is most definitely not the kind of player you want when an off spinner is operating, while Hooper is a brilliant player of spin. In the event, with Noel David bowling with immaculate control, Adams was reduced to launching sweeps at every delivery, till the inevitable top edge ballooned the ball to Rahul Dravid, stationed for that particular shot at backward square leg, to give David the wicket and reduce Windies to 86/3. Adams lasted 14 deliveries, and made 9 scratchy runs.

The brought Hooper to the crease, and the best phase of the Windies innings began. Hooper is a player of exquisitely soft touch, judging his defensive pushes to a nicety and placing it just far enough from the fielders to saunter singles at will. And he used this ability well here, in the face of good tight bowling from David and Kumble, to keep the board ticking over, and in company of an increasingly assured Williams, took Windies to 170 before the latter succumbed to the trap of trying to hit an innocuous looking Tendulkar out of the ground and holed out to Robin Singh at long on.

Holder, the next man in, led a charmed life, on one occasion putting the ball high in the air behind the keeper in trying to sweep, only for four Indian fielders to dash towards it and watch the ball drop between them. If either keeper Karim or square leg Robin Singh had had the elementary cricketing intelligence to call for the catch, Holder was a goner. But in the event, it was Hooper, 48 off 69 with one four and one six, who went with the score at 193/5 in the 43rd over, trying to work a Kumble flipper to leg and ending up getting the leading edge to give the bowler a return catch.

Ottis Gibson is a hard-hitting all-rounder, but his running between wickets has always been a weakness. And again here, he proved rather tardy responding to a call as Holder pushed to cover, and Tendulkar, racing in, threw down the stumps to reduce the Windies to 197/6.

Talking of run outs, I will never understand why Kumble and David did not appeal, after the latter, with a brilliant sliding stop and throw from a prone position, broke the stumps at the non-striker's end when Williams was out of his ground. The replay clearly showed the bat in the air when the bails flew - but no appeal meant that the umpire just did not have to even make a decision.

In came Ambrose - and almost immediately, Prasad had the mortification of seeing him take a ball on middle and off low down on his pads. Almost the entire Indian team went up for an obvious appeal - umpire Larry Barker, however, thought there was some doubt for the batsman to take advantage of, and ruled against the bowler. Ambrose, for his part, celebrated by sticking his foot far down the wicket and swiping at everything, to such good effect that he got 13 off 16 deliveries. Meanwhile Holder, having let a ball from Prasad through, decided rather strangely to take off for a run, and ended up giving Karim an easy stumping. Ambrose slogged at one too many, and missed a straight ball from Prasad which crashed into his stumps. Browne hit out lustily for 10 off seven, Rose played intelligently to get nine off seven before Jadeja ran him out with a lovely pick up and throw, and Windies after 50 overs were 249 for nine.

For India, the pick of the bowlers were Kuruvilla, with figures of 10-1-34-1, and Noel David (10-1-38-1). Kuruvilla, on this tour, has gained immensely in confidence and is now, if anything, bowling better even than Prasad (though, to give the latter his due, Prasad has been working like a horse ever since the England tour, while Abey is relatively fresh). David, meanwhile, grows in stature with each outing. He has good control of flight and loop and, even on this wicket, an ability to extract sharp turn in to the right hander. Most importantly, he appears totally immune to reputations - neither Lara nor Hooper, two of the best batsmen in the game, managed to put him off his rhythm even though both tried to hit him off his length. A very positive sign, this, and one does hope that the Indian management doesn't make a mess of his career, as they have earlier with the likes of Maninder Singh and Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, to name just two.

The Indians began by needing to score exactly five an over. And Sachin Tendulkar, who during this one day series has looked in ominous touch, appeared yet again in prime form, taking an over to guage the wicket and then opening out with a trademark square drive off Walsh that rocketed the ball to the fence. It is an unfortunate facet of Tendulkar's career that when he is not in touch, he gets out to some of the most idiotic strokes ever witnessed - and when it touch, to either an extraordinary piece of bowling or fielding, or some vagary of the wicket. Again, here, the wicket did for him - a ball from Walsh, who had intelligently chosen to open the bowling, backing his own vast experience, cut in sharply and kept ridiculously low to sneak below Tendulkar's (nine off 15 with one four) bat and peg back his stumps, reducing India to 27 for one.

Ganguly, meanwhile, was handling both Walsh and Ambrose with a fair degree of comfort, relying in the early stages of his innings on working the ball into the onside for runs off his hips.

Rahul Dravid came in at number three - and straightaway proved the wisdom of his captain who, in announcing the toss, said, "Dravid is only 50 per cent fit, but even then he is the best batsman in the side and we prefer to go with him." Batting with ease from ball one, Dravid concentrated on working the ball into the gaps for runs against Walsh and Ambrose. But when Ottis Gibson came on, he greeted him with three blazing fours including his favourite on drive and pull, posing problems for Walsh who had to remove Gibson after just two costly overs.

In the event, both Ganguly and Dravid batted with an easy assurance that laid to rest the myth that the Indian batting begins and ends with Tendulkar. Never trying anything extravagant, they kept the run rate steady at around the 4.5 mark and, more important, ensured that the asking rate at no point got beyond the six an over mark - the ideal way to play the middle part of a long chase.

When the score got to 157 in the 33rd over, the two had registered India's highest partnership for the second wicket. And immediately thereafter, Dravid fell, a victim in part to his own hurry and in part to the wicket. The ball from Gibson, returning for another spell, was wide of off stump. Dravid went down on his knee to blast it through the covers. The ball however did not get up as expected, and the result was a bottom edge that dragged the ball back onto the stumps, to end Dravid's innings at 74 off 105 deliveries with six fours.

The platform, however, had been well and truly raised. At that stage, India had another 16 overs - 96 deliveries - left to score 94 runs. And all that Ganguly and Azharuddin had to do was ensure that they kept getting the singles - easily available at that stage as Walsh, forced to use the likes of Adams and Hooper as Gibson had proved rather prodigal, had kept his fielders well back.

Ganguly had, throughout his innings, played with calm commonsense and done more than enough to indicate that he should, for the foreseeable future, be the one to open the batting with Tendulkar. And then came that rush of the blood, as he slogged at a ball from Rose that was not in the slot, to present Ambrose with a good catch at long on. Ganguly scored 79 off 108 with five fours, and before his exit, had guided India to the very strong position of 185/3 in 38.4 overs.

Going into the death, India were 195/3, with 56 still to get, 60 balls to come, and seven wickets in hand. And that is what makes the events of the last ten overs totally inexplicable. Fair enough, Jadeja did get one of those deliveries that kept a shade lower, causing him to drag a ball from Gibson in off the bottom edge onto the stumps while trying to drive through covers. But I'll never understand the impulse that made Robin Singh, at that stage of the innings, try a huge swipe off Ambrose of all people. Or the reason why Azhar (24 off 37 with two fours), who till then had been getting his runs easily with deft placements, tried to launch Gibson out of the stadium for Hooper to take an easy catch at extracover. Or why Karim decided that he had to try a similar stunt against the same bowler, and ended up holing out to Lara. Or why Anil Kumble, having edged a ball straight to the keeper, took off on that mad dash down the wicket for a non existent single, off the very first ball he faced. Or why Kuruvilla, from the non-striker's end, raced through for a single that existed only in his imagination and lost his wicket before he had even faced a single ball. Or, again, why Prasad, off his very first ball, raced down to the wicket after the inner edge had taken the ball straight into the gloves of the keeper, who merely had to throw down the stumps to end the Indian innings on 231 in the second ball of the 48th over, leaving Noel David undefeated on 8 made off the same number of deliveries.

What is most ironic about the final outcome is that the most successful bowler for the West Indies was a certain Ottis Gibson - who, so obviously, looked to be the weakest link in the attack. In the event, Gibson ended with four wickets for 61 runs off his ten overs, and had cause to thank the Indians most sincerely for making him look better than he was.

And at the end of all the mayhem, India went back to their hotel rooms with the knowledge that yet again, they had got a game in the palm of their hands, and threw it all away with sheer recklessness. International cricket today is intensely competitive, the difference between teams not as much as they used to be, and therefore, a team that hopes to do well in the rankings has to display a ruthlessness, an instinct to put the boot in when the other side is down. India, rather, seem to make a speciality of getting their opponents down, and then gifting them with a match they had almost given up on - and for this very reason, deserve to find themselves at the bottom of the cricket ladder, while teams less talented but more determined overtake them in terms of results.

And so it is down to the wire in the fourth and last game - a win for the Windies, or even a spell of rain washing out the game, gives the series to the Windies. While India, yet again, go into a game knowing that it just has to win.