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March 11, 2001

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Bajju's trick spurs India's fightback

Prem Panicker

Harbajan Singh. A beautiful bowler when he first came on the scene. Called for chucking, and suddenly, he found himself out in the cold -- with neither his team-mates, nor his board, standing up for him.

He worked on his bowling, he came back, stood around waiting in the wings, hoping to be noticed, and in the meantime, seriously worked on his batting and his fielding as well. And finally, got his chance.

The story would have been amazing -- big word, I know, but comeback stories have gone out of style in Indian cricket with the exit of Mohinder Amarnath -- had it stopped right there. But today, he added another chapter.

When he first came on to bowl, it was obvious that the Aussies, keeping in mind his spell in Bombay, had marked him out for special treatment. Mathew Hayden, playing an innings of rare brilliance and brutal bellicosity, repeatedly swung at him, missing some, shrugging them off, and connecting with enough big hits to have him forced off the firing line, in the morning session and again in the afternoon.

To come back from that and continue to attack, to then become the first Indian to take a Test hat-trick and in the process, to swing the game India's way at a time when a brutal battering seemed on the cards, took rare character. And that display of character, even more than the 5 crucial wickets he took, deserves sustained applause.

Australia, 191/1 at one stage, ended the day on 291/8 and on balance, India after losing the first two sessions, came back fighting in the third to keep the game on even keel heading into the second day.

The pitch rolled out true and, going by its nature, should be good for batting on the first couple of days, before it starts keeping lower and turning more. A batting track was what India's captain wanted -- but then, Saurav Ganguly also needed to win the toss. He didn't, and Steve Waugh happily took first strike, the intent obviously being to make good use of perfect batting conditions and an outfield like a well-greased butter slide, on which defensive pushes tended to skid to the fence.

To packed stands -- mercifully, despite the lukewarm air going into this game, Kolkatta fans lived up to their reputation and turned out in numbers, to produce that famed atmosphere at the Gardens -- the Australian openers got away to a blazing start. Michael Slater, edgy but bellicose, and Mathew Hayden, in brilliant touch, got off the blocks with seven fours as their first scoring shots, and a leather hunt seemed on the cards.

At this point, pause for applause -- this time, for Saurav Ganguly. With Venkatesh Prasad proving innocuous (never pacy at his best, he now appears to have lost even the leg cutter that was his stock weapon and main wicket-taking delivery all in one -- why, oh why, is Ashish Nehra on the bench, and Debashish Mohanty out in the cold?), Ganguly took the onus on himself, brought himself on at the bowling crease, and produced the best spell of the morning, getting swing and seam in ample measure and troubling both batsmen. That spell checked what was starting to look like a run riot, and Ganguly was singularly unfortunate to produce a good ball, get the edge of Slater through to second slip, and find the umpire's hand out to signal the no-ball.

Australia went in to lunch at 88/0. At that point, the two spinners had bowled a mere three overs apiece.

Immediately after the break, Zahir Khan started an inspired spell of swing and seam bowling by taking out Slater in the third over of the afternoon. A very full length on off, seaming away, forced the opener to push at it, the angle and seam away finding the edge through to Mongia.

Zahir almost brought India back into the game in his next over, when after turning Hayden inside out with a superb yorker, he got the next one to reverse swing away from the left-hander, Hayden being tempted into the drive and getting the thick edge. The ball flew hard and true, at just over head height, to first slip where Dravid reacted late, getting both hands to it and then letting it down, with Australia at that point on 120/1.

Hayden then began the counter-attack, going after Harbajan with a vengeance and time and again, clearing the field on the on side with some power-packed hitting. A few of the shots were hit with rare brilliance, others were chancy, but overall, the plan to hit the young offie off line, length and confidence, worked with Ganguly removing him from the firing line.

During this period, Hayden had a further slice of luck. One of those attempts to swing Harbajan around, with the offie bowling around the wicket, found the ball taking the under edge, and going through Mongia's legs down to the fence for four. Surprisingly, Umpire SK Bansal appeared to have missed the nick, signalling byes.

Justin Langer, meanwhile, was playing a very patchy innings, completely in contrast to his dominant partner. The number three appeared to have decided to hit out at everything in sight, and ended up in a tangle more often than not. He was, too, very lucky on one occasion -- Raju got one to jump and turn off a a length, Langer pushed at it, the bat-edge caught the pad en route to silly point, but Umpire Bansal, yet again, failed to hear the edge and turned the appeal dwn. Langer's grin, at the bowler, only rubbed salt into that particular wound.

Tea was taken with Australia on 193/1, off 53 overs bowled. Hayden was batting 97, Langer 45, and Australia seemed to have set its sights on 500 minimum.

And then came a session that turned it all around. In the second over after tea, Zahir, returning for his third spell and continuing his superb form (one wonders, in passing, what more it will take before the selectors realise that he, and not Ajit Agarkar, deserves an automatic entry into the lineup?) and at the other end, off the first over after tea, Harbajan broke through. What was nice about his bowling was that though Hayden was going for him with a vengeance, he showed a spinner's heart and mindset, continuously tossing them up, varying the angles, making Hayden work and constantly attacking. Hayden came down the track looking to chip to the on side, failed to get the pitch, and Hemang Badani, substituting on the line at midwicket, anticipated, came in smartly and held a good catch to send the opener back on 97.

Zahir Khan, at the other end, made one kick off just back of a length. Langer hustled into a pull, was beaten for pace and bounce and Tendulkar, at square leg, dived, managed to get both hands to the ball, and put it down.

Zahir, though, got his revenge an over later, when he got one to swing, then leave the left hander on a line just outside off. The batsman pushed at it, got the edge, Mongia held and most importantly (given that till then, the umpires appeared to have come out with earplugs), Langer walked, making Umpire Peter Willey's life easier.

Suddenly, the pressure was squarely on Australia with the two Waughs in the middle and neither really looking comfortable. Harbajan lured Mark Waugh down the track, made one go straight with the arm, found the edge, and Dravid at slip reacted late to a clear chance. Ironically, it wouldn't have made a difference even had it been caught -- once more, umpire Bansal had failed to see, or hear, the edge, and signalled byes.

Harbajan had, by then, added another weapon to his armoury. Every now and again, he would get close to the stumps and really fire one in on line of off, the fact that the ball often went through straight instead of turning putting extra doubt in the batsman's mind. After sending down one such ball that had Mark Waugh scrambling, he then floated one right up on the same line. The batsman -- rated the best player of the turning ball in the visiting side -- pushed hesitantly, misread the ball that straightens with the arm, got the edge, and Mongia this time held. Equally to the point, Umpire Bansal heard the edge.

Harbajan and Ponting have a bit of a history going. The last time they faced each other, in Sharjah, the offie had taken the Australian middle order batsman out with a beautiful ball, going away with the arm to strand the batsman down the crease and get him stumped. That led to some hot words and a bit of shoving. Then came Bombay -- and now Kolkatta, with the battle continuing. Harbajan forced Ponting onto the back foot repeatedly. The batsman attempted to counter by clipping off his pads, across the line -- but the one Bajju was firing through full and quick beat the shot and caught the pad, bang in line of middle on the back foot.

And that began the drama. Adam Gilchrist, the destroyer at Mumbai, came up to the plate -- and got an identical delivery. Like Ponting, he went back, was beaten, and got it on the pad, to find the umpire's finger going up. There has been, on television, much debate about the dismissal -- to which, the best answer possible is, look at the replay. The debate centers around the fact that the ball hit the bat.

It did. But it hit the pad first. Was Gilchrist in front of the stumps then? Yes. Did the ball pitch within the stumps and would it have gone on to hit the stumps? Again, yes. Which is why I found the debate about whether or no the ball hit the bat a touch mystifying -- once the ball hit the pad first, it did not matter that it also, then, hit the bat; the touch of bat would have made a difference only had it come first, before the ball hit the pad.

Gilchrist gone for a first ball duck, Shane Warne to the wicket and for the second time in two Tests, Harbajan found himself on a hat-trick. This time, he got it. The ball was tossed up on middle turning to leg. Warne flicked, getting the ball on the halfvolley -- and Ramesh, at short square leg, took a brilliant reflex catch to give Harbajan his moment of glory.

Australia, suddenly, had slumped from 193/1 to 252/7.

Kasprowicz, who owes his place in the eleven, at the expense of Damien Fleming, at least partly due to the fact that he can bat well, held one end up with his captain battling at the other. But with the score on 269, the quick bowler made the mistake of trying, once too often, to go back and across and flick from off to fine leg. Saurav Ganguly, who had taken over when Zahir Khan pulled up in the middle of his 19th over with a touch of cramp, had just been flicked for four off the previous ball. This time, he bowled it fuller (Ganguly, in fact, bowled so well today as to have you wondering why he didn't bowl himself in the session between lunch and tea, instead of giving Prasad another long spell) and Kasprowicz, beaten on length, was trapped bang in front of the wicket.

Australia would have been nine down at stumps, but for another lapse by Mongia having a terrible day behind the stumps. Venkatapathy Raju, who whenever he got the ball bowled with an easy rhythm and, given the placid nature of the track, sufficient venom, made one jump and turn from middle to outside off, finding Gillespie's edge. Mongia snatched at it and like a football goal-keeper, only managed to palm it past Ganguly at slip -- the catch was Mongia's but had he not grabbed at it, slip could have got it as well.

Australia ended on 291/8 -- and India went in at the end of day one breathing easy, knowing that it won't have to face a mountain of runs on the first innings.

Harbajan was easily the pick of the bowlers, but credit also goes to Raju, who when Bajju was bowling on song, quickly settled down to bottling one end up and keeping the pressure on. He was, strangely, underbowled while Prasad, who never ever seemed likely to break through, bowled seemingly endless spells. Zahir Khan and Saurav Ganguly were the pick of the seamers.

A word, too, for the Indians in the field. As in the first Test, too many catches went down here as well, and sadly, it was the senior cricketers who let the side down. Also, the old Indian habit of pretending to be anywhere but on the field when things go wrong surfaced during the post-lunch session, when Hayden was at his best. To their credit, however, they came back charged up, after the tea break -- and their renewed sharpness in the field contributed to Harbajan's display.

Ganguly could be deemed guilty of having underbowled both Raju and himself -- but to his credit, on the other hand, he kept faith with Harbajan despite the initial battering.

And finally, a word about the Cricket Association of Bengal. Rediff is not among its fans, thanks to its attitude on the question of media passes -- but we would like to think that unlike the BCCI, we do know how to give credit where due.

The organisation was impeccable, with people being able to get into the ground quickly despite the stringent security. More to the point, their 'Eyes for Cricket' initiative deserves unstinted applause.

The CAB invited people to donate their eyes -- and held out the promise of free tickets to thsoe who did so. Thus, 300-plus people, who came forward to donate their eyes, were given VIP passes, provided with lunch and al other facilities, and put squarely in the spotlight.

A superb gesture, that, using cricket to further a social cause, and an indication of what is possible when the mind and heart combine. One hopes -- and prays -- for many more of these. Also, that other cricket associations around the country were watching.

Detailed scorecard

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