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February 24, 2000


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Proteas take honours on day one

Prem Panicker

These last couple of days, I sat down and through intensive study and thought, finally figured out what e equals mcsquare means.

That was by way of practise. Now that I have had my 'nets', so to speak, I figure I am ready for the real test -- which is, figuring out the whys and wherefores of India's team selection.

Yesterday evening, the national selectors went into a quick huddle at the Wankhede Stadium, and announced their 12 for the first Test. A most interesting list it was, too -- for one very big reason.

Six days ago, when the 14-member team for this Test was announced, Ajay Jadeja's name did not figure. What does that mean? That the selectors, in their wisdom, did not think Ajay Jadeja was good enough to even make the squad of 14.

Suddenly, six days later, he is in the playing XI. I could maybe understand him being in the 14, as replacement for Azharuddin. But in the XI?

How does a player not good for the 14, make it to the 11 just six days later?

Figuring out the Einstein thing was a cakewalk compared to this one.

The pitch -- Krishnamachari Srikkanth's tough talk (How did it go? 'We will produce a fast pitch, no matter who says different, if the team management doesn't like it that's their problem') notwithstanding -- looked brown and baked, and Bishen Bedi, who I bumped into at the Taj Hotel the previous afternoon, sniffed and said, "Humph! This one will turn by lunch on the second day!"

India won the toss and opted to bat. Quite right, too -- batting can only get harder, not easier, on this one.

Wasim Jaffer walked out for his international debut, on his home ground. And found out what it means to go up against the thinking man's fast bowler. Alan Donald, steaming in and bending his back, tested him with pace, seam, swing and lift in a fiery burst -- and then, getting oh so quite, bowled a gentle off spinner at about the pace Anil Kumble generates. Jaffer pushed forward, misreading the change down in pace completely, and saw the ball pitch outside off, turn in gently and go through the gate to disturb the furniture. Applaud, folks, another demonstration of the fact that there is more to pace bowling than mere brawn.

Rahul Dravid came out to bat at 8/1 -- a situation he has been familiarised with through the Australian tour. And though he started off with a fine four off his pads, promptly reverted to his defensive, boy stood on the burning deck till kingdom come style of batting. At the other end, VVS Laxman didn't seem to know quite which way to go. For the most part, he spent his tenure perched on the leg stump, fending at off stump offerings with feet well away from his body. Every once in a while, he would move nicely into line and play the way he is supposed to -- but then, shocked perhaps by his own audacity, immediately reverted to the previous clumsy fashion of strokeplay.

One thing is for sure. India had, in Laxman, the chance to bring in a good middle order batsman. By pushing him up to open, we have lost that, without the offsetting benefit of having found an opener.

The big problem with the two was the fact that neither seemed prepared to push the ball off the square and get runs. Let's try out a statistic to underline the point: when the score was 39/1, India had played out exactly 100 dot balls. And in that same score, there were just seven singles. What this kind of batting does is allow bowlers to hit a line and length, hold it, and sit back waiting for the inevitable mistake.

Which came when Jacques Kallis gave Laxman a wide one outside off. Completely static, score-wise, for a long time, Laxman decided to go for it. But it isn't always easy, going from first gear to fourth -- here, Laxman suddenly switched to aggression, and without getting fully across, went to hit on the rise. The movement off the seam found the thick inner edge, the ball flared to point and Laxman was gone, for 16 off 49 balls.

Sachin Tendulkar walked out to applause. But then, this is his home ground -- he was walking out to applause even in Adelaide and Sydney. What was more significant was that the ground remained half empty all day, despite the fact that Indians were batting -- the first signs, perhaps, that fans are getting a bit tired of filling stadia for lacklustre performances?

In any case, Tendulkar looked easy and in touch from the get-go, while Dravid at the other end continued his obdurate defence. It did seem, then, that despite the two openers going back into the hut, the real business was about to begin.

But then, shortly after lunch, Dravid lost it. To a ball of very full length, the batsman shaped to play across the line, looking to on drive and ending up playing outside the line of the ball, which ricocheted off his pads onto his off stump. End of an innings that never promised to amount to much, and further indication that there is a long, hard haul ahead for the Indian number three.

That brought Saurav Ganguly to the crease -- in strangely subdued mood. Somehow, the feet didn't seem to move, the body stayed away from the line and though the bowling wasn't exactly ferocious, Ganguly stayed strokeless -- a rare occurrence, admittedly. Perhaps the very fact that he wasn't getting his shots going produced the mistake -- a ball held back a bit had the left hander going for the drive, opening the bat face only to hit too early and pat it straight to mid off for the softest of soft dismissals.

At the other end, Sachin was batting as if he were playing in a different game, and a short arm pull over midwicket for six off Eksteen brought up his 50. Jadeja, meanwhile, walked out to replace Ganguly and survived a very early chance, when he jabbed at an Eksteen delivery on line of off, got the edge and found the ball going off Boucher's glove, the keeper failing to wrap his fingers around the chance.

Left arm, round the wicket, pitches leg stump and Sachin quickly across, paddles fine, long chase for the fine leg standing square. Very fine touch on that shot, SRT has been paddling every time the bowler went to leg. Shot! A bit short and SRT rocks back and pulls, fiercely, over midwicket, six. 108/4 India.

India went in to tea at 142/4. 73 runs had been scored in the session after lunch for the loss of two wickets, and Sachin had contributed 57 of those.

Once the teams returned from tea, everything went haywire. Jadeja, who never looked even halfway comfortable during his tenure at the crease, drove at one from Hansie Cronje, in his first over, with feet well away from body to give Pollock at first slip a nice chest high take. Nayan Mongia lasted exactly one ball -- Cronje, who was getting the ball to swing around, pitched on off and the outswing found the edge for Boucher to hold very nicely, low to his right.

Anil Kumble hung around for a while, giving Sachin some support while the Indian captain waged what looked like a lone battle. During this period, proceedings were further enlivened when Donald beat Tendulkar's bat with a lifting leg-cutter. There was a huge appeal for caught behind. On the replay, there was no visible sign of deviation, but on the snickometer, there was an indication that there was some noise as ball passed bat. In any case, the umpire turned it down, and Donald went ballistic, yelling at the Indian captain, then returning a ball later to mouth some more endearments.

Shrugging the incident off, Sachin progressed into his nineties. The South Africans concentrated on tightening things in the field and denying him runs, bowling a tight line, denying width and flinging themselves about to stop the hits. The squeeze was on, and the mistake inevitably followed -- Sachin pushed to mid on, the single was easily on, but Kumble, in the fashion of an absolute novice, turned his back on his partner and stood there, looking at where the ball was going. Mid on fired a throw in at the bowler's end, but Sachin was home. Cronje, the bowler at the time, showed admirable presence of mind to duck out of the way of the throw and let it sail through to the keeper, who got the bails off before Kumble could make it.

It all seemed to have played havoc with Sachin's concentration. Time and again, he went for and failed to middle shots he would normally have put away with ease. The South Africans for their part kept things tight and waited Tendulkar out. And finally, a ball going down to leg saw Tendulkar flick, and Boucher flung himself a long way to his left to take in style. The Indian skipper, looking back at where the ball was going, walked the minute Boucher gloved it, without waiting for the umpire -- the manner of his leaving indicating that perhaps he was making a point to the South Africans that to his mind, he hadn't nicked the earlier one?

Srinath hasn't of late found it necessary to trouble the scorers too much. This outing was no different -- off the first ball he faced, he waved airily at one of full length, got the bottom edge, and found his off stump knocked off, the second time in the game that a bowler has found himself on the verge of a hat-trick.

The fact that it was Agarkar walking out must have given Kallis the hope that he was due to get the third -- but in marked contrast to his performance in Australia, Agarkar here turned in a swashbuckling display of batting, hitting hard at pretty much everything that came his way and, glory be, middling just about every shot he tried. There were drives, pulls, flicks, slashes over the slips, as the runs came in a torrent.

What was equally interesting was the gritty display of debutant Murali Karthik, who showed impeccable temperament and some sign of batting ability (certainly more than was demonstrated by the seniors immediately preceeding him in the batting order). Together, the two held the South African bowlers at bay while putting together the highest partnership of the innings.

Equally significantly, Agarkar ended unconquered on the second highest score of the innings, while Karthik displayed guts and grit in an innings of 14 that ended when Pollock swung an inswinger in on a very full length to go through the gate and take out middle stump, to end the Indian innings.

For South Africa, Pollock was the most impressive bowler, consistently bowling a testing line in each of his spells, generating good pace and swing right through the day. Donald had his moments, fiery little bursts that demonstrated his class, but there were also patches when he consistently pitched too short to trouble the batsmen. Kallis focussed on pitching just outside the stumps for the most part and holding it there, while Klusener, as always, went for runs in plenty thanks to the very full length he bowls, permitting batsmen to hit him on the half volley. The surprise packet was Hansie Cronje, who bowled a very intelligent, probing spell, generating large quantities of seam movement and, more to the point, bowling the perfect line to trouble all the batsmen he bowled to.

South Africa got to face eight overs and negotiated them without too much trouble, both Kirsten and Gibbs punishing the loose deliveries -- and there were quite a few on offer from Srinath and Agarkar -- and seeing off the good ones to take the visitors home without loss to end a very productive day.

On balance, the honours rest very much with South Africa at the end of day one. A side batting first, on this track, should have been looking at a minimum of 400 to create some kind of pressure for the side batting second -- India fell a good 175 short of what would have been a testing total, and this means the home team will go into day two already on the back foot.


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