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May 19, 1999

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India snatch defeat from the jaws of victory

Prem Panicker

Before this game began, a variety of experts -- Geoffrey Boycott, Tony Greig, Sunil Gavaskar to name just three -- speculated on the emotional significance of this game.

With Sachin Tendulkar flying home to pay his last respects to his deceased father, the experts said, the Indian team would want to lift its game, to 'do it' for an absent colleague they respect, and whose loss they mourn as their own.

By the halfway stage of the innings, those words had a hollow ring to them. A hollowness, as we watched India turn in a most indisciplined performance with the ball; a performance so shoddy that it impacted even on the fielders who got progressively more sloppy as the game progressed.

And even then, all was not lost -- Zimbabwe did its level best to hand India the game; only for the Indians, polite as you please, to hand it right back.

I don't know, you think these guys are allergic to winning or something? They sure seem to find the damndest ways of ensuring that they are on the losing side, don't they? With no intention of belittling Zimbabwe, this was a game India lost on its own -- and in so doing, proved their versatility by losing first with the ball, then with the bat.

Mohammad Azharuddin won the toss and opted to chase. A decision that might be debated -- Boycott, right at the outset, said that India could be getting itself in trouble because, in his opinion, the side does not have the nerve for big chases -- but on the whole, seemed fair enough. As Azhar said at the time, there would be a good bit of moisture to exploit in the first hour, and that could make the difference in what looked like turning out, as the game progressed, into a good batting track.

Srinath obliged with a superlative first spell that had pretty much of everything in it. There was pace, there was movement both ways off the seam, there was immaculate line and length -- a 5-0-12-1 first spell being in fact a testimony to how well he bowled. And most importantly, he took out the dangerous Neil Johnson cheap, and gave India a huge bonus.

At the other end Prasad, while not being quite as sharp as Srinath, was adequate in support, using his experience to make up for his relative lack of pace. The fun and games began once Ajit Agarkar got the ball in his hand. In his last outing, the young third seamer was incredibly wayward, and one assumed that the management would have taken him aside and taught him the virtues of line and length bowling. If they did, Agarkar definitely wasn't listening -- if he wasn't overstepping, he was bowling wide, and if it wasn't a wide, it was either too short or too full.

The result? Agarkar went for 27 in his first spell of 3 overs, a further 17 in his second spell of three, then came back in the 40th over and went for 14 runs in one over alone, ending with 71 against his name off 9 overs.

That kind of performance from one of the four main bowlers was always going to be difficult to make up for. Robin Singh added to the pressure on the fielding side by producing a very ordinary second over which saw him being taken off the attack -- effectively, that reduced India to three frontline bowlers, and two part-timers in Ganguly and Jadeja. Those two produced 9 overs between them, for just 44 runs, taking two wickets into the bargain.

But more than this, what hurt was the sheer indiscipline that reflected in the extras. 51 of them, a world record of the kind you don't want against your name. An excuse we hear trotted out throughout this tournament is that the new Duke's balls are causing the problem, by moving a bit too much in the air. I don't know -- if that is the case, what then were the bowlers (this, of course, applies to all teams) doing during their two, three weeks of practise? And even more pertinently, how do you explain 16 no balls -- surely the Duke's balls were blameless in that department? One more point to think about -- if the ball was so uncontrollable, how come Srinath, who among the bowlers on both sides was easily the one who got the most movement both in the air and off the wicket, had only one wide to his name?

Another blunder India committed in the field was in its over-rate. Granting that a sum total of 6 extra overs were sent down thanks to wides and no balls, there was still no excuse for India overshooting the time allotted and being docked four overs -- because even after it became apparent that time was running out, there was no attempt on the part of the team to hustle. Bowlers walked languidly to their marks, field adjustments were made and remade, fielders ambled around as if they had all the time in the world -- it all spoke of a complete lack of thought out in the middle.

For Zimbabwe, the two Flower brothers flowered. Grant, in the opening slot, played a dour anchor role, weathering the early blitz by Srinath and Prasad, getting runs where possible but more importantly, concentrating on keeping one end up -- a vital role, given that Zimbabwe lost two quick wickets early on. In this context, it was interesting to hear Martin Crowe's explanation of why Paul Strang was sent in at number three -- Crowe called Strang the pace watchman, and indicated that his role, as defined, was to shield the regular batsmen from the pace and fire of Srinath and the movement of Prasad. Interesting thinking, that -- "We were sure that once those two bowlers were seen off, our regular batsmen would get runs against the others," was how Crowe summed it up.

Murray Goodwin flattered to deceive, but Andy Flower then produced a perfect middle order innings, full of bustle and hustle, working the ball nicely into gaps, driving and cutting with fluency and power when the bowlers erred, and ensuring that he batted right through to the end. A brisk innings from Campbell, and some late order hitting by Streak ensured that Zimbabwe posted a sizeable total for its bowlers to defend. In fact, the score on the board would have been considerably higher but for Srinath and Prasad, who returned at the death to strike some quick blows and stem the momentum somewhat.

The fielding started off well, but as the bowlers erred and the runs mounted, the fielders' heads dropped as well. Which is another peculiarly Indian problem -- other teams lift mediocre bowling by being sharp in the field, the Indian team makes good bowling look mediocre by going around their work like a bunch of convicts hampered by leg irons.

One thing for sure -- the way this team played on the day was nowhere near the standards it touched in its opening encounter, against South Africa. Saurav Ganguly, who in Sachin Tendulkar's absence qualified as the senior partner, played a needless hook to a short ball from Johnson, uncaring of the fielder placed precisely for that shot at backward square. Rahul Dravid, who looked to be stroking fluently from the moment he came in, chased after a ball quite wide outside off, slamming a square drive at it that put the coverpoint fielder in business. Mohammad Azharuddin, as is his wont, stood in his crease with both feet anchored, pushed his bat out at a nothing ball outside off and gave first slip catching practise. Not a particularly impressive performance from the top three, considering that they were going in with the added responsibility of making up for Sachin's absence.

There are times when it is a pleasure to be proved wrong. In an article this morning, I had argued a case against Ramesh going in at number one, pointing to his lack of practise. On the day, Ramesh mocked at that statement with a fluent display, in which the most noticeable feature was that his feet appeared to be moving a lot more easily than had been the case the last time we saw him bat.

At the other end, Jadeja seemed on song, playing easily, keeping the ball in the V, eschewing flashy shots and, when opportunity afforded, coming up with blazing drives through the covers to keep the board ticking over. The two stitched together a 100-run partnership that saw India bat itself into a winning position, getting the score to 140/3 in the 27 over mark.

And then, the inexperience of Ramesh -- and in the circumstances, a certain arrogance -- came to the fore and all the good work was undone. At a point when the game was well in control, Ramesh decided to take on Grant Flower, who was bowling a tight line at one end. One wild foray down the wicket produced a mishit that nearly went down the throat of long off. Jadeja promptly marched down the pitch and was seen angrily telling his junior partner to calm down, to cut out the risks. So what does Ramesh do? Off the very next ball, down he goes and flat bats a very ordinary ball into mid on's midriff.

Streak then took out Jadeja with a good ball on the wicket to wicket line, the batsman trying to flick across to leg and missing completely. His dismissal could well have been the turning point, but for a brilliant cameo from Mongia that brought India right back into the game after Agarkar failed, going for a second run, to beat the direct throw from Murray Goodwin at long off.

Mongia swept, pulled, chipped and, on one occasion, played an extraordinary straight batted swat to have the score gallopping along and, more importantly, bring the asking rate back under the six an over mark. At the other end, Robin Singh was making amends of sorts for his poor performance with the ball, by batting sensibly and well within himself, letting first Mongia, then Srinath, make all the running. Srinath, for his part, responded with some clinical big hitting, an extraordinary flat hit that was taken from outside off, the ball zooming at about seven feet, right across the ground, to sail over the midwicket fence being the standout.

Robin, lucky to be reprieved once when Andy Flower fumbled a stumping chance off his brother Grant, had done all the hard work and brought the ask down to 7 runs off the last 12 balls. All it took was to do it in singles, but the left hander essayed a hard drive at Henry Olonga for Campbell to fling himself forward at mid off and hold a good catch.

All was still not lost -- remember, Olonga was the man who had gone for 17 off his first three overs, and been banished from the attack before Campbell recalled him for that penultimate over of the Indian innings. Srinath and Kumble, by chipping the ball around, could have got the runs required -- but the former decided to do it with sixes (yet another manifestation of the Indian attitude of chosing the spectacular over the safe and sure) and aimed a huge hoik at a full length delivery that splattered his stumps. And with one ball to face, Prasad managed to play all across the line and get it on his pads, Peter Willey's finger upraised terminating the game, and with it India's chance of putting up a couple of points against its name.

The most reprehensible aspect of the defeat was this -- India went in to the chase with the handicap of having four less overs to do the job in. By their prodigality, the Zimbabwe bowlers, with 26 extras in the form of wides and no balls alone, negated that advantage by giving India a free gift of 4.2 overs, not to mention the 26 extra runs. And still this team lost -- a task that must have taken some doing on this track, against this bowling attack.

Raise a cheer for Grant Flower, though. A quality performance with the bat was followed by a lovely display with the ball, Flower sticking to the virtues of tight line and length to peg back the run rate at one end just when it seemed India would canter through to a win. It was the pressure he produced that saw the Indians, starting with Ramesh, losing their nerve and making a complete meal of an apparently easy task.

At Hove, India fought and lost to what was clearly the better team on the day. Here, it performed with a prodigality, a sheer lack of application that has been so much the feature of recent outings. "We now have to win the next three games," said Azharuddin after the match was over -- but to do that, this team will have to go in for an emergency attitude transplant.

At the end of it all, one's thoughts go out to Sachin Tendulkar -- who, today, has two things to mourn; the demise of a much-loved father, and the death of spirit, of pride, in his mates.


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