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Batting hiccup marks India's win in opener

Prem Panicker | February 12, 2003 23:45 IST

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It was very difficult to do a ball-by-ball audio commentary of today's game between India and The Netherlands  -- India's first -- at Boland Park.

That this was my first try at audio was partly responsible for what in gymnastics circles you would term the degree of difficulty; but the real reason is that Holland was an unknown commodity, in terms of personnel and ability and, more to the point, India's performance left you embarrassingly short for words.

Coach John Wright suggested, before play, that he wanted his players to be "ruthless". He was looking at his team piling up runs, then blasting the minnows out cheap with the ball and piling up a humongous net run rate, to take care of any last minute eventuality when it came to deciding qualifiers.

The curator at Boland Park, meanwhile, told my colleague Ashish Magotra that the Dutch bowling was so inept he foresaw the Indian batting lineup piling up a mammoth total, even perhaps topping the 400-mark and setting a record.

"I myself have been hitting these guys (the Dutch bowlers) for 15, 16 an over in practice," the curator told Ashish.

Wright and the curator, Davies, must have been tearing out their hair at what transpired. India won the toss -- count one for the good guys. And from that point on, proceeded to get it all wrong, failing even to bat out the full 50 overs.

The surprises began before the first ball was bowled -- Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly walked out to open, with Virender Sehwag slotted at number three. What was the objective -- to give both Tendulkar and Ganguly a good hit ahead of the key game Saturday against Australia? Perhaps -- we'll know more once our guys in SA manage to get the coach in a corner for a few questions.

Holland had an advantage no one had realized before the game began -- they have been based at Paarl for their WC campaign, they know this ground and this wicket, and their coach Emerson Trottman (A Barbadian who played for Border in the South African domestic circuit and was in fact one of that country's cricketers of the year in 1989) worked out the perfect strategy -- slow it down.

The results were immediately obvious -- Ganguly and Tendulkar both seemed puzzled as they kept reaching for the ball only to find it hadn't gotten to them yet. Ganguly's dismissal was illustrative -- to a shortish ball around his off stump coming at him at a gentle 118k or thereabouts, the Indian captain went back, thought of cutting, changed his mind for the bounce, thought of guiding to third man, changed his mind, thought of pulling out -- and ended up touching through to the keeper.

Virender Sehwag's dismissal was an instance of lack of concentration -- it was almost as if he didn't expect to have much batting to do. A wide full toss outside off saw the batsman slash at it, looking to hit over cover without allowing for late swing -- he got the toe of bat on ball and Bas Zuiderent, the only full time professional in the Dutch ranks, dived and held superbly in the covers.

Tendulkar was equally tentative at the outset but once he sussed out the conditions, he launched into a series of fierce cuts and drives in an innings of 52 that saw him overtake Javed Miandad as the top run-scorer in World Cup history. His dismissal, in a sense, mirrored Ganguly's -- to a short delivery outside off, Tendulkar reacted instinctively, shaping to square cut; the ball however climbed gently at excruciatingly slow pace, and caught the handle and glove en route to the keeper.

Tim de Leede, the all-rounder who went on to be named Man of the Match for his performance with the ball, then did for Dravid with a ball that was slow and kept low -- fast, bouncy South African tracks anyone? The Indian vice-captain, looking to force it on the on side, ended up playing around the line and had his middle stump pegged back.

Mohammad Kaif continued his bad run of form. Like Ganguly, he could have done with a decent outing in the middle; but like Sehwag, he fell to a nothing shot off a full toss when he clipped it off his waist to midwicket, where de Leede, fielding in the shorter position, dived and held.

Yuvraj Singh and Dinesh Mongia had to mount a rescue act, with a partnership of 57 -- and how unthinkable is that, a 6th wicket rescue for the "world's best batting side" against the WC minnows? Both batsmen kept their heads when the ones before had lost theirs, adapted to the track and concentrated on working the ball around the park for singles to keep the board ticking over.

The revelation really was Mongia -- coming in to the game on the back of a horrific run of form, he showed no sign of pressure or nerves, producing an innings of assurance and some poise.

Their association, and the cameo (at least by his standards) by Sachin at the top of the order, was the only plus points in an innings that was an exercise in abdication. It also ensured that India was bailed out at a time when the team seemed set to play a starring role in an upset bigger than the defeat of the West Indies by Kenya in 1996.

Though embarrassingly bowled out before the 50 over mark, the Indians did manage 204 --- sufficient to win against the opposition of the day on a track of uncertain bounce.

Javagal Srinath gave India the best possible start when he made one kick off length, just outside Kloppenburg's off stump, to find the outside edge. Virender Sehwag at second slip dived and held well, to have Holland 0/1.

Zaheer Khan did not play the practice games ahead of this tournament, with the management preferring to rest him rather than risk an injury to their potential bowling star. Rest, on this occasion, spelt rust -- Zaheer was unrecognizable, on the day, as he sprayed the ball around, produced four wides in an over (on both sides of the wicket what is more) and looked completely off color.

This was the cue for India to produce a sloppy performance in the field, with chances going down (one each missed by the captain and his deputy, standing next to each other behind the batsman), misfields, and a general air of being out to lunch.

Srinath ended that spell -- and a stubborn second wicket partnership -- when he bowled one on length around off that took off (surprisingly, on a track that looked dead as a dodo, Srinath not only worked up a good head of steam, bowling at top speeds of around the 139k mark, but also got the ball to kick awkwardly off length) from the good length spot and found the edge of Jan Mol's bat. The catch was going to first slip -- who was standing further back than mandatory on such tracks -- when Dravid dived a long way to his left to pull off a great catch.

In the next over, Zaheer Khan induced Bas Zuiderent -- by repute Holland's best batsman -- to flash at a delivery angling across him, for Sehwag to pouch his second take at slip.

The key point of interest was how the spinners would go on this deck. Harbhajan Singh came on in the 13th over, and immediately struck with a 'doosra' that drifted away from outside off. De Leede played inside the line, allowing for the off break -- having been primed to do so by a couple of regulation off breaks earlier in the over -- and managed to touch it through to Dravid, a mode of dismissal much favored by the off-spinner.

Anil Kumble did what he does best, at the other end -- bowling flat through the air at speeds around the 108k mark, he sent down a series of flippers on full length that behaved like inswinging Yorkers. Van Troost pushed at one such, just outside off, and was caught by Dravid, Scholte and skipper Lefebvre were LBW pushing tentatively to flippers on off and middle, and in the 22nd over, Holland were suddenly 53/7 -- a total that comprised 23 extras.

Inexplicably, India then took its foot off the pedal. At a time when logic dictated the team go for the kill, the field spread out in single-saving fashion, the bowling became pointless, and opener Van Bunge and opening bowler Schiferli put on a partnership of sorts, pushing the score through to 82 before Kumble struck again.

Ah, you thought, that was the cue for the bowlers to take out the tail. You thought wrong -- India continued to amble around and at one point, it seemed that Holland would do what it had set out to do. Before the game, captain Lefebvre told my colleague, Ashish Magotra, that he would be happy to have his side bat out the 50 overs -- they almost did, that too after bowling India out inside the distance.

Wicketkeeper Smits kept one end going with pushes and nudges into space, and taking the singles fielders pushed back to the edge of the 30-yard circle allowed. At the other end, van Bunge played a marathon of patience, aptitude, and some skill. His footwork was decisive front or back, his judgment of line and length close to impeccable, and when he did play shots, he hit them clean, with a full flourish.

It was a performance that saw him become the highest scorer in a low-scoring game -- one that to my mind deserved MoM ahead of his team-mate de Leede, even. As overs ran out, Ganguly finally brought Srinath back to try and wrap things up. The fast bowler first produced a back of the hand slow off break on yorker length that came out of his statemate Venkatesh Prasad's book -- Van Bunge, spotting what he thought was a gimme ball, stepped to leg, looked to blast over cover, played all over it and was yorked.

He then demonstrated his ability to make the ball -- even a 48 over ball -- climb awkwardly, inexplicably even, off length, and had Smits fending it to Sehwag at short midwicket to end the Holland innings on 136, off the first ball of the 49.

India sealed a 68-run win after looking likely to taste shock defeat -- and pocketed four points. The question is whether that silver lining is sufficient to mask a cloud that seems to hang over the team -- a cloud of uncertainty and confusion that needs dispelling, quick, before Saturday's crucial game against Australia.

On balance, you would say India is in hopeless touch -- but then again (objectivity yields space, here, for some good old-fashioned parochialism) when has India ever been predictable? As a friend pointed out shortly before this game began, "India is perfectly capable of losing to the Dutch, and then smashing Australia out of the park."

The Indians almost managed the first part. In just about 72 hours from now, we will know how well they go towards part two.

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