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India in a tight corner
India's inconsistent batting showed up again on the opening day of the fourth and final Test against the West Indies [Images] at Kingston [Images], Jamaica, on Friday.
Electing to bat after winning the toss, Rahul Dravid's [Images] men were bowled out for 200, the captain working as a cement to his team's crumbling fortunes.
Dravid was out after a painstaking 81 from 215 balls, while his Bangalore mate Anil Kumble [Images] offered some support with the bat, scoring a dogged 45.
Jerome Taylor [Images], with five wickets for 50, was the most successful bowler for the hosts.
India failed to take advantage of first use of the wicket and found themselves two down by the fourth over, opener Virender Sehwag [Images] and Wasim Jaffer [Images] back in the pavilion.
VVS Laxman and Dravid then batted dourly and took the team to 29 without further loss at lunch.
But after Laxman (18) departed in the first over after lunch, wickets fell at regular intervals, as none of the batsmen could come to terms with the Sabina Park pitch.Morning session
I have this friend who, a while ago, spent many boozy evenings trying to figure out what TS Elliot meant when he wrote: In the beginning was the end.
Now he knows - the poet was doing a match report on India.
In a throwback to the first day of the first Test of the current series, India opted to bat first on a track that was a gamble, either way.
On the one hand, it is soft - the Windies quicks, after an attempt each, didn't even bother to try banging the ball down. Also, the ball doesn't come on quick off the pitch.
If both those are functions of a pitch that, as Jeremy Coney graphically showed before start of play, has a good amount of sub-surface moisture, it also meant that the ball would swing and seam around early, before the heat of the sun dried it of some juice and settled it down into the sort of track on which you can score runs.
In other words, Antigua Redux; and Rahul Dravid, as he had then, won the toss and opted to risk the early seam movement. His explanation: The pitch will turn and maybe even crack as it dries up, bringing the spinners (the Indians went in with an unchanged lineup) into play towards the second half of the game.
Brian Lara [Images], too, seemed a touch hesitant about calling the pitch, unlike in Antigua where he said he would have bowled first anyway - here, he suggested he was looking forward to a bat.
If Lara actually meant that, then both captains were bucking history; the commentary team pointed out that in eight matches after the Sabina Park pitch has been re-laid, the average score for the first innings is a mere 298, and teams opting to bat first on winning the toss have lost more often than they have won.
India's problems began with the third ball of the innings. As deliveries go, Pedro Collins has bowled far better ones with no luck - this one started on middle and leg and was going down leg side; Virender Sehwag played a firm flick off the middle of the bat and Ramnaresh Sarwan [Images] at a very short square leg held it, the lord knows how given there was almost zero reaction time (1/1; 0/2).
At the other end, Jerome Taylor cut down on his pace a trifle, and concentrated on length and line, getting the ball to seam away appreciably past the outer edge of Wasim Jaffar's bat. Time and again, the batsman was turned inside out; time and again he was fortunate not to get the touch.
Lara promptly began experimenting with his field, putting in three slips, gully, a close point, a short cover, a short square leg and a leg slip - that last, intended to cramp Jaffar on his favorite play off the pads.
In the third over, more drama - Collins banged one down, the ball climbed gently to about waist high and Jaffar, rocking back, pulled hard, and straight onto the knee cap of Sarwan, who collapsed in agony and had to be carried off the field.
Taylor meanwhile tormented Jaffar for seven deliveries, and took him out with the eighth -- a beauty angled in on middle with a hint of inswing, again squaring Jaffar on the angle, then straightening off the seam just enough to slip past the edge of the defensive push and clip off stump (3/2; 1/14).
From then on, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman could do little more than concentrate on digging themselves in, and waiting for the sun to dry the pitch out a bit. It was Test cricket of a kind not often seen these days: Collins bowled a 6-3-3-1 first spell, and Taylor had 7-3-8-1 against his name.
At one point, 18 overs had produced 17 runs; the first boundary of the Indian innings in fact came off the last ball of the 19th over, when Dravid pushed Dwayne Bravo [Images] through mid off to finally get more runs on the board than overs bowled.
India's plight could have been worse. Corey Colleymore, who seems to have a happy knack of taking a wicket in his first over, nearly did it again when he made one seam away from outside off. Laxman, who early in his innings tends to play a lot away from his body and from the top of the crease, pushed at this one and Lara at second slip, with one of the softest pairs of hands in the business, actually grassed a regulation chance (13/2 India at the time, and Laxman 5/41).
It's all uphill just now - the only thing the Indians have going for them just now is that already, the pitch is easing considerably; the exaggerated seam movement has died down to manageable levels, and the easing-off process should continue in the heat of the afternoon sun. Plus, already on the first morning, the odd ball has taken to keeping low - a sign that Lara was spot on when he said at the toss that this track is under-prepared.
India at lunch are two wickets down with little to show for it by way of runs, and with a horribly off-form batsman in next - it really is down to these two to bat the team out of a hole they, at least in part, dug for themselves. If they can, though, the tight, pinching shoe could well slip onto the other foot.
The second session was a continuum of the first - the West Indies bowlers continued attacking, and the Indians went ah heck, might as well give up.
The first over after lunch saw Laxman easing into an on drive that found the fence; later in the same over, he tried to repeat the shot to a ball wider of him and managed merely to get the thick edge to gully - yet again his habit, before he is really set, of opening his bat a touch much proved his undoing (34/3; 18/96).
Yuvraj Singh [Images] came out, displayed the early jitters that go with his abysmal recent form in the longer version of the game, showed a brief glimpse of his much lauded talent with a forcing shot through backward point followed by an elegant whip off his pads off Bravo, and just about seemed to be settling in when Lara, in a move that actually seemed delayed, brought back Taylor for a second burst.
With the first ball of his second spell, the quickie struck - an inswinger straightened on off and middle on very full length, Yuvraj tried to flick off his pads, was beaten for movement and trapped bang in front. Adding injury to insult was the fact that the strike was painful, on his shins, forcing the batsman to hobble off the pitch, with VRV Singh coming out to lend assistance. (58/4; 19/34)
A pumped-up Taylor gave Mohammad Kaif a short one first up, and the batsman was lucky his awkward fend didn't go to hand in the gully-point region. No matter - Taylor put all he had into the last ball, producing a vicious bouncer that again saw Kaif fending; this time, the ball flew to gully and Darren Ganga made a meal of an overhead catch he should have held with ease. Taylor kicked the turf with venom; it looked for all the world like he was wishing it was Ganga.
Taylor kept up the short-pitched attack, and Kaif for once opted to fight fire with fuel, whipping a pull to square leg and, in the bowler's next over, caressing one through the covers. The bowler struck back an over later - almost predictably, with a short ball outside off that had Kaif defending awkwardly, only to get a glove on the lifting ball to Lara at second slip (78/5; 13/25).
Dhoni [Images] pushed a three to get off the mark and with the next delivery, Taylor produced a throat ball that finally breached even Dravid's defense - the batsman had both feet off the ground as he pushed in defense; the ball flew high and this time, Runako Morton leapt for all he was worth, at gully, but couldn't do more than get a fingertip to the ball.
Two deliveries later, along came another short one - and Dravid shifted smoothly into a controlled pull through midwicket, nodded to himself, and hit the shot again to the next ball, this time even better. Those two shots doubled the batsman's tally of boundaries at that point.
In the next over, Colleymore bowled one short and in the channel; Dhoni played a hard cut at it, failed to keep it down, and hit it into the gut of Dwayne Bravo at second slip (91/6; 3/4).
Dravid and the obdurate Anil Kumble saw India through to tea; the team total topped the 100 mark shortly before the break, in the 54th over of the innings. The middle session produced 73 runs off 26 overs, for the loss of four Indian wickets.
The session was dominated by the brilliance - and endurance -- of Jerome Taylor. And perhaps the best indicator of his efforts lay in the fact that none of his colleagues could get the ball to bounce more than waist high, for all their trying; yet Taylor produced a spell of hostile quick bowling that was classic West Indies.
He always works up a lively pace; here, he added to that good control on length and direction, and impeccable use of the short stuff, which he employed with discretion, except during a brief bouncer war against Dravid.
The other seamers slipped into a support role, focusing on keeping things tight and keeping the pressure up at the other end while Taylor provided the attack with its serrated edge. His bowling was clearly the difference between the two sides - and on the day, the difference proved crucial.
It took one man with the patience of a saint, and another with a heart as large as all outdoors, to show up the pitch, the bowling and, most importantly, their mates.
Unlike his more celebrated peers higher up the batting order, Anil Kumble has a limited technique, and just two strokes. When he has to defend, he stays side on, plays with bat beside the body, and looks clumsy. When the ball is on a length and outside off, he glides his front foot forward and with a free swing, hits it anywhere from point to extra cover; when it is short and, again, outside off, he rocks back and blasts it through point or, with the delicacy of a surgeon, threads it through the slips and down to third man.
That is the sum total of his game - but with these limited resources, and with that heart of his, he absorbed all that the West Indies could throw at him, and threw it all right back. But just when it seemed like he could bat forever, he fell in a fashion peculiarly his own - defending to a gently lifting delivery from Bravo, with bat again beside the body, which gives him no second line of defense.
The ball caromed off the edge onto the stumps for the third time in this series; it ended yet another gritty knock from the veteran. It also ended a 93-run partnership that hauled India from the depths of ignominy - to what, is too soon to tell, though. (184/7; 45/101)
At the other end, Dravid demonstrated why he had opted to bat first: As Lara said, this is not a track on which you want to bat last; the ideal game plan is to bat first and bat big. And for all the swing and seam of the morning, and all of Jerome Taylor's solo heroics, it could be done - if you were determined enough to hang in there, tough it out, and wait for your turn to cash in.
The evening session was about cashing in, as Dravid gradually eased forward with drives, cuts and flicks; noticeably, no one bothered to try bouncing him (Bravo tried, Dravid pulled from a line outside his off stump, and that was pretty much that). It was not carefree batting - it rarely is, when Dravid is at the crease. But it was precise, engineered to the conditions, and remarkably effective in blunting an attack that had till then seemed unstoppable.
Corey Colleymore, whose strike rate in this series has been inversely proportional to his pace, finally ended the vigil when a ball in the channel seamed just that fraction to move past the middle, and find the edge, of Dravid's bat as he looked to use his wrists to work runs past the slips and down to the third man region (197/8; 81/215).
Once Dravid left, the coup de grace had to be quick. Taylor banged one down, Sreesanth [Images] panicked, took his eye off the ball, and managed only to glove down a midriff high delivery onto his stumps (200/9; 0/7)
Taylor fittingly closed the innings out, and collected his first ever five-for, with a lifter that was way too good for Munaf Patel [Images]; the ball took the handle through to the keeper and the Indian innings ended on an even 200. It also closed out play for the day.
Taylor was a standout - on a track that gave his colleagues nothing, he turned in figures of 18.4-4-50-5 - and deserved every one of those wickets.
The wicket had been steadily easing off through the afternoon and evening sessions and, as the Dravid-Kumble stand progressed, it gradually settled into a perfect one for batting. Had the earlier batsmen shown the skill and, more importantly, commitment to tough out the morning session, the final session and all of tomorrow would have been time to cash in. Having thrown away their wickets, four of them, in the second session, India however ended up with no one to go to the bank.
And there lies the real danger - the West Indies, at some point tomorrow, can come out to bat without the pressure of a big score weighing them down, and bat deep and big on a track that will provide very little to the seamers, and marginal turn at best to the spinners. India, clearly, has already by close to the evening of day one painted itself into a very tight corner.
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