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March 17, 2000


Indian Safari
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India pull it off with one ball to spare

Prem Panicker

India, under Saurav Ganguly, have the Pepsi Series wrapped up, 3-1 ahead in the 5-game series making the final match, on Sunday at Nagpur, irrelevant.

But the win didn't come without its share of heartburn -- India pulled it off with one ball to go.

To understand the tenor of the game played out on a flat pitch at the IPCL Stadium in Baroda, the runs per over progression of the two sides provides a clue. Here's how they went:

South Africa: 28/0 in 5; 70/0 in 10, 95/0 in 15, 115/1 in 20; 129/1 in 25; 150/2 in 30; 175/2 in 35; 205/4 in 40; 231/4 in 45 and 282/5 in 50.

India: 28/0 in 5; 69/0 in 10; 100/0 in 15; 127/0 in 20; 153/1 in 25; 176/2 in 30; 203/2 in 35; 234/2 in 40; 256/2 in 45 and 283/6 in 49.5 overs.

Two things are immediately obvious. Well though South Africa got off the blocks, the Indians not only matched them stroke for stroke, but in fact, barring the ten over stage when they were one run behind, led the scoring right through the rest of the game. Obvious, too, is the fact that the South Africans, with wickets in hand, played the middle overs badly, the run rate slowing to a complete crawl, resulting in the 300+ total that looked possible after 15 overs being scaled down considerably at the end.

Equally obvious is that the Indians, who played the opening and middle games to perfection with the bat, completely lost the plot thereafter and despite getting into the last five overs needing a mere 27 runs off 30 balls with 8 wickets in hand, came perilously close to losing the game thanks to faulty thinking and mindless batting.

The track, as mentioned earlier, rolled out into a batting beauty, and Hansie Cronje, winning the toss, opted naturally enough for first strike. The wisdom of resting your lead bowler for a series is always debatable (ask Cronje what he thinks of the decision to rest Donald, for instance, now that he has failed to defend a total three out of three). And Srinath appears to have compounded that unwisdom by getting into this game cold, with no preparatory work. His bowling was at its shoddiest this morning, the ball too full, on a track that cried out for the three quarter length he normally bowls, with the result that he was driven and cut to the tune of 43 runs off his first 5 overs. Agarkar at the other end got his line and length right, but whatever pressure he could apply was let off as Kirsten and Gibbs made merry at the expense of Srinath.

Yet again, it took Joshi and Kumble to halt the South African charge. Gibbs got cute to Joshi, looking to run a ball down to third man, misreading the arm ball pitching on off and straightening, taking it on the pad to be out LBW.

Ganguly mixed his bowlers up very well and yet again, brought on Tendulkar early. And the former skipper, who seems to be enjoying bowling at this point, produced a tight spell that had Kallis reduced to strokelessness, and Kirsten, till then coasting and in fact looking good for another century, frustrated. Kirsten in fact had till that point hardly put a foot wrong, hitting through the line when Srinath pitched up, rocking back and smashing square when the length was short. Kallis' inability to work the ball off the square and rotate strike, however, got Kirsten antsy, he made several false starts looking for non-existent singles and one of those proved his undoing as Kallis played Tendulkar to midwicket, straight to Ganguly, Kirsten charged down the track regardless, and was out by half the length of the pitch -- a rather unfortunate end to an innings that seemed poised to take SA to a huge score.

The very next ball almost brought another wicket. Tendulkar produced an arm ball outside off that hastened off the pitch, Kallis tried to cut, under edged, Saba Karim stayed low and held well, but the umpire turned the appeal down much to the openly displayed disgust of bowler, keeper and captain. At that point, SA were 136/2.

Kallis, while keeping his end up, continued to have difficulty even in picking off the singles. This meant that like Kirsten, Cronje too was under pressure as the Protean skipper saw what seemed a mammoth total dwindling rapidly against steady bowling and tight fielding by the Indian spinners, operating in rotation with Robin Singh chipping in with a three-over spell in between. Also, Ganguly played his bowling cards right yet again -- Srinath was brought on immediately to Cronje, and challenged him with deliveries kicking into his ribs. Two overs by the speedster produced just 3 runs at that point, and before Cronje could set himself, Srinath was taken off, and a slow bowler brought back on.

The SA skipper began setting himself and heaving, with more power than science and skill, producing a succession of cross bat shots that, while perhaps appalling to the aesthete, at least brought back some form of momentum to the run-scoring. A superb hit for six off Joshi in the 36th over gave yet another indication of how much Joshi has learnt in this second comeback into the ranks -- earlier, when hit, his instinct was to run for cover, and bowl flat and fast. Here, in this series, he has learnt to hold his nerve, challenge the batsman and continue with flight and loop.

Two balls after being taken for six, Joshi tossed one right up, this time the arm ball, Cronje went for another heave, was beaten by bounce and change of delivery, got the top edge and Agarkar running in from midwicket held an easy catch.

Niky Boje got in ahead of Klusener, and threw his bat around, but not for long. Anil Kumble, bowling a full length and not giving the batsman room to hit through, thought he had him when Boje tried to swing over long off and ended up hitting it straight to Robin Singh. Normally safe in the field, Robin got both hands around the sitter, and grassed it. The very next ball, however, was a flipper outside off, Boje slashed at it, hit too much in the air and Joshi, at point, dived to hold a beauty.

Benkenstein came in next, ahead of Klusener, and produced a fine little cameo that, in the process, also appeared to have jolted Kallis out of his apathy -- to such an extent that the burly number three twice went down the track to hoist Joshi for sixes. Srinath, coming back, took out Benkenstein with clever bowling, a very slow off spinner beating the bat and a very quick, very full ball next up cleaning him up as the batsman tried to run it down and played around the line of the ball.

Klusener, finally getting a hit, played some good blows in a crisp little cameo, and SA made 77 runs in the final ten overs, compensation of sorts for the slow batting in the middle overs.

The Indians walked out and within an over or two, their gameplan was obvious -- Ganguly, who after getting the captaincy seems to fancy his chances with the bat as well, once again taking on the role of aggressor while Sachin was left to anchor at the other end.

The Indian skipper, in a word, dazzled. Generally, early on, the drives through the off are a forte, but bowlers have been quick to work out that the way to bowl to him is deny him room and length around off for the shots he loves best. That line, in earlier games, has seen Ganguly struggle a bit to up the tempo, but he seems to have thought the problem through, judging by his game in the last two outings. His gameplan now is to disrupt the bowler's plan by stepping deliberately to leg, exposing his stumps and getting under the ball to lift over the off field, where earlier he would step into line to drive through it. And interestingly, every once in a while he would go the other way, stepping well to off to hit the ball out on the leg side, producing a situation where the bowler was never quite sure what he would get up to next. His blistering 50, off just 41 balls, was primarily the reason India exceeded South Africa's scoring in the first 15 overs, while at the other end, Sachin Tendulkar bided his time, played shots only when the ball was in the slot, and concentrated on working singles around.

With Ganguly in no mood to slow down after the field restrictions went off, India in fact seemed to be running away with the game, as the two exceeded their own earlier record first wicket partnership of the Proteas of 139, and got the total up to the 150-run mark into the 25th over. Off the last ball of the 25th, however, Ganguly, who had twice before waltzed down to slam the spinners for superbly hit sixes, tried the shot once too often to Strydom, failed to get to the pitch, and holed out to wide long on. The batsman got enormous height on the hit but failed to get the distance he needed -- but his innings of 87/84 balls had set it up for India. When he left, India needed just 130 runs off 150 balls -- with Sachin looking rock solid and Azhar, Jadeja and Robin to follow, a comfortable ask.

Sachin and Azhar then settled into a nice partnership, the former picking up the pace of scoring once his skipper had left, and Azhar using his tensile wrists to work runs on the on side and occasionally, crashing the odd ball through the off cordon just to make things more interesting for the rival skipper and bowlers. As evident from the run progression given at the outset, the pace of run scoring never flagged, both batsmen seemed completely sure of the demands and their own ability to meet them, and worked singles and hit boundaries with an unerring precision that appeared to make the game a no contest.

In the process, Sachin got to his 25th international hundred, his second against South Africa, while Azhar at the other end kept the board ticking over and the run rate always ahead of the ask rate. At 256/2 in 45 overs (oops, I forgot -- Dravid made a brief appearance and, yet again, seemed completely at sea against the spin of Boje -- a bit of a surprise, really, the way he has been fumbling against spin of late, and departed thick-edging a drive without getting to the pitch, for Cronje to hold well at cover) India in fact seemed to be coasting, and then everything began to go horribly wrong.

Till that point, both batsmen were working singles with clinical precision. At the end of 45 overs, Azhar and Sachin got together for a chat, and judging by the gestures, they seemed to be deciding to finish it off with a flurry of big hits. Mistake -- the situation on the board gave no call for risk-taking, but risks they took, and paid for it. Sachin, first, as he predetermined that he was going to heave Kallis over the largely untenanted on side, got an inswinging full toss, and hit it straight to mid on. Sachin in fact nearly broke his bat, as he crashed it to the ground in disappoinment after what can only be called a soft dismissal.

Jadeja looked a touch nervy out there, but Azhar seemed in nice touch, and completely unflustered -- till Kallis produced another full toss, which Azhar, looking to whack back down the ground, hit fiercely back down the track for the bowler to stop in mid follow through, dive forward and produce a blinder. A huge man, Kallis, yet he is remarbakly agile especially off his own bowling, and off hand, before you saw that take, you would have said it was impossible for a man that size to get that low, that quick.

Jadeja's dithering, and the fall of those two wickets, meant that the ask had suddenly gone to 16 off 15. Pollock, coming back, made it even harder as he cleaned Jadeja up, with yet another full toss (the South Africans at this point had settled into firing a stream of swinging full tosses aimed at the stumps), the batsman trying to hit to leg and edging onto his stumps. 10 needed off 8, as Jadeja walked back.

Joshi came out, knelt to the first ball -- the slower one from Pollock -- and smashed a sweep through square leg for four. 6/7 the ask at that point. Next ball, the perfect yorker, starting outside off, swinging in to middle and leg, and Joshi, looking to drive, played over it and lost his leg stump. 6/6, with Kallis bowling the final over.

Two singles off the first two balls, and the equation remained in balance. Ball three was another full toss, Robin fell into the trap, heaved, got it on the high part of the bat as Sachin and Azhar had before him, put it high in the air and Lance Klusener, at mid on, got under the simplest of catches -- and grassed it.

Saba Karim then got a run, the two batsmen got together in mid pitch, apparently deciding to run for everything since at that point they only needed a single to tie. The penultimate ball was another full toss, Robin again mishit, this time over mid off, and Karim showing very good presence of mind was running even as Robin put bat to ball, going flat out and turning blind, to race the second -- his speed on the first run made an impossible second run easy, and India had pulled it off with a ball to spare.

"I thought we played very good cricket for 95 overs and then almost lost it in the last five, but I am glad the boys (strange, how the captain's armband confers, on its wearer, the aura of pater familias -- it feels a touch strange to have the likes of Sachin and Saurav refer to the Azhars, Jadejas, Srinaths and Karims as boys) held their nerve, we played as a team and it's nice that things are now turning around for us," was Ganguly's verdict, at the end of the game.

And oh yes, in passing, Sachin Tendulkar for a good 10-over spell and his anchoring century, got yet another man of the match.


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