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India easily overcome Zimbabwe
Prem Panicker |
February 19, 2003 23:10 IST
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'Opening partnership was crucial' - Sourav Ganguly
'The Indians bowled superbly' - Heath Streak
'India are a good side. They will click' - Meyrick Pringle
Somewhere between last Saturday, when after a huge defeat at the hands of defending champions Australia captain Sourav Ganguly said he was "clueless" to explain what was going wrong with the side and how to turn it around, and today, Ganguly appears to have found more clues than Sherlock Holmes on the top of his game.
The basic clue Ganguly found was that strengthening the middle order had to wait -- the real problem was at the top of the order, with India failing to get any kind of start and thus putting that middle order under pressure.
That one was solved by teaming up Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag at the top of the batting card -- with immediate results. 93/0 at the end of 15 overs (and a first wicket stand of 99 at a-run-a ball) qualifies as one of the most emphatic opening stands on view thus far. Immediately, it eased the pressure, put the onus back on the bowling side, and ensured that India, finally, ended up batting out its 50 overs.
With runs on the board, the Indians then produced a convincing performance with the ball and in the field to seal a fluent 83-run win.
Before looking at the implications of the game and the result, a quick look at how it all came about.
India went in with one change, Anil Kumble sitting out and Ashish Nehra coming into the side -- a change dictated by the conditions at the Harare Sports Club ground, where the track had a bit of green on it, a cloud cover overhead adding to the perception that seam was the way to go.
The more significant changes were in the line-up -- Tendulkar and Sehwag teamed up at the top of the order, with Dinesh Mongia's confidence and show of form being rewarded with a promotion while Rahul Dravid and Ganguly came in at four and five to add heft to the middle order.
Heath Streak won the toss and invited India to take first strike -- a decision that could get second guessed in light of the match result. At the time, though, it is difficult to see what else Streak could have done -- the Indian batting has been under pressure, and Streak had to back his bowlers to exploit it.
What let him down was his own bowling -- first Andy Blignaut (22 in his first two overs), then Douglas Hondo bowled both sides of the wicket and, worse, failed to work up appreciable pace and movement off the deck in reasonably helpful conditions.
Tendulkar and Sehwag got off the blocks straightaway. Initially, it was Sehwag doing the bulk of the work, blasting Blignaut through the covers and square to put pressure on the bowling while Tendulkar looked to work the ball around. Then Tendulkar stepped up the tempo and suddenly Streak, who in his second over beat Tendulkar's bat with a peach of an in-cutter, came under the hammer as well.
It was clinical batting, with both batsmen playing the percentages. Most noteworthy was the fact that Sehwag, often accused of impetuosity, played within himself, defending to deserving deliveries while, in characteristic fashion, being unsparing of the frequent gimme balls the Zimbabwean seamers came up with.
The first wicket fell against the run of play when Sehwag looked to get cute with a delivery by Whittall outside his off stump, looking to run it down to third man but only managing to touch it through to the keeper. (While on this, it beats me why batsmen with every stroke in the book and then some insist on playing this dab to third man).
Mongia was sent in at number three -- but judging by the way he played, it was as if he was not too sure of what his role was supposed to be. He looked good when he tried to play his natural game, which is getting behind the line and stroking out in front of him (Mongia is a very good straight bat player when in form), but it was as if he thought his job was to do a Sehwag and slam the ball around.
He ended up falling between those two stools and, finally, falling for real when he looked to come down and lift Grant Flower down the straight field, but failed to get the distance and range he needed on that shot.
Tendulkar played an innings that was interesting not only for the fact that he unleashed his full range of strokes, but also for the way he seemed to stay up there in terms of run rate without ever looking to step up the gears. It was a controlled performance and a century looked his for the taking when Grant Flower produced the dream spinner's delivery. Bowled from around the wicket, Flower angled it across Tendulkar on line of leg and middle, drew the batsman forward, then spun it enough to go past the edge and clip the off bail.
Ganguly walked in at four -- perfect positioning, given that two left arm bowlers, Flower and Brian Murphy, were in operation. He looked good against the spinners, working them around the park fluently and, once he felt settled, dancing down the track in a fashion he has almost patented, and lofting Murphy with effortless ease over long on for a huge six.
Streak had, at one end, brought back Blignaut and the tall fast bowler, who apparently had got his second wind, bowled with some fire, causing problems with several short lifting deliveries. Ganguly, in the over after dismissing Murphy down the straight, looked to waltz down to Blignaut, mishit, and picked out Heath Streak at mid on off the leading edge. It was an innings that was beginning to show promise when the rush of blood occurred.
Yuvraj Singh didn't last too long -- like Sehwag, the left-ander attempted the "cute" shot, the late dab down to third man, but managed only to touch through to the keeper.
Mohammad Kaif then joined Rahul Dravid. The Indian vice-captain, who in the previous match had set an unsavory record scoring 1 in 23 deliveries, appeared to have taken the lesson to heart. From the time he came out, he began stroking fluently, looking to work the ball around and constantly seeking -- and mostly, finding -- the singles.
Kaif, too, put his bad form behind him and played with more fluency than in recent times. Initially content with singles, he began opening out as the overs ran out and the quest for quick runs began. Facing Hondo, Kaif walked across his stumps and angled one behind backward square with superb improvisation for four, followed up with a six but attempting to repeat his first shot later in the over, took an in-swinging full toss on the pad. This time, no discredit attaches to the dismissal -- at that point, India very obviously needed quick runs and weren't too particular how they got them.
Harbhajan Singh did not last too long, but Zaheer Khan hit the ball about with venom and some skill and Dravid opened his shoulders to blast a couple of hits down the V, the late charge taking India to a respectable 255/7 in the allotted overs.
Overall, it was a far more competent batting performance than has been on view at any time this year -- a glance at the Manhattan will show that the innings stuttered a bit in the middle phase against the combined spin of Grant Flower and Brian Murphy, and left the charge almost too late; but in the end, the batsmen did hold their nerve, and Dravid in particular redeemed himself after an eminently forgettable outing against Australia.
The key to defending such a total was always going to be the initial 15 overs -- and India played this phase superbly. The field was attackingly placed, well inside the 30 yard circle to cut off singles.
Srinath and Zaheer were, in a word, superb. The former got his length and line bang on, bowled at close to his top pace (around the 138k mark), got the ball to climb off length and seam around both ways, and was primarly instrumental in ensuring that Andy Flower, Zimbabwe's premier batsman, never got a chance to settle down.
In fact, so rattled was Andy Flower by the bowling that time and again he tried to get away through some atrociously judged singles -- on three occasions, he could have been run out by yards had direct throws hit the stumps.
At the other end Craig Wishart, the scorer of a huge century in Zimbabwe's lung opener against Canada, was equally under pressure to Zaheer Khan, whose angle across the right hander and seam movement proved more than Wishart could cope with.
Srinath got things off to the perfect start when in his first over, he had Mark Vermeulan pushing at a ball in the 'corridor' to touch it through to Dravid. Zaheer's pressure on Wishart was rounded off by Srinath, who produced a delivery just outside off lifting off length -- Wishart, unable to get the bowling away till then, looked to force square and, like Dravid against Gillespie, only managed to chop off the bottom edge onto his stumps.
The Flower brothers got together -- but the way Andy was batting, it was always a question of when. And how. Harbhajan Singh had the answer. Ever since he came to the bowling crease, 'Bajji' looked to bowl a line of just around leg stump. The way he bowled made you wonder if the Indian think tank had spent a sleepless night figuring out what to do to the game's premier exponent of the reverse sweep -- Harbhajan bowled very full, ensuring that the reverse could prove fatal if Andy was tempted to try it.
The batsman did, once, and nearly chipped it to short fine leg. Unable to get the range on his pet stroke, he changed tack and looked for the orthodox sweep -- and Harbhajan struck, the full length defeating the shot and bowling Andy Flower around his legs.
At 48/3 in the 17th over, India was in control. Its three seamers had bowled well, Harbhajan was attacking, and it seemed a good time to go for the fifth bowler. Ganguly backed himself and took the ball -- and struck three hard blows that effectively ended the match as a contest.
Grant Flower and Dion Ebrahim off successive deliveries, and Andy Blignaut a while later, fell to a combination of the tight wicket-to-wicket line Ganguly bowled, and the Zimbabweans' desperation to do something about a deteriorating run rate.
All three looked to lift Ganguly over the in-field, all three holed out, and Ganguly celebrated in the fist-pumping fashion made famous by Brett Lee. There was, in his demeanor at the time, more than a touch of relief – after coming under intense pressure for his batting failures, Ganguly had finally backed himself to do something, and done just that.
Those three strikes effectively ended the contest. India has been known, and not just in recent times, to get the opposition on the mat and let it get up again -- but not this time. The slip stayed in place more often than not, the bowling rotation was spot on, the fielders were aggressive, the out-cricket exemplary and the catching -- barring a running outfield catch spilt by Zaheer Khan off Guy Whittall -- spot on.
Ganguly took the opportunity to give his part-time bowlers, Mongia and Sehwag, a bit of an outing. He will have been encouraged by the results -- both Sehwag and Mongia were tight and controlled.
Zaheer Khan's catch off Guy Whittall really summed up India's performance. Fielding at the unaccustomed position of point, Khan flung himself way across to his right side -- his wrong side, really -- to clutch the ball an inch off the deck as Whittall rocked back to cut Harbhajan against the turn.
It is the way to win matches with the ball -- apply pressure early, keep the squeeze on, stay 'up' in the field and never let up. For India to produce that kind of performance under intense pressure was heartening -- and most notable was the fact that India never went off the boil in the field and with the ball.
It is tempting to sing hosannas. Equally, it is tempting to dismiss the win as "only against Zimbabwe". To do the former is to run the risk of indulging in the sort of collective euphoria that has in the past raised undue expectation. To do the latter would be unfair -- India needed to raise itself above the kind of pressure it has of late been subjected to, both on and off the field. And Zimbabwe may be minnows -- but given their history of pulling off upsets, a journalist hit the mot juste when he called them "sabre-toothed minnows". To shut them out of a game as thoroughly as India did here will do wonders for the side.
In terms of the future, India still have it all to do -- firstly, the game against Namibia beckons as an opportunity to boost the net run rate. But in practical terms, India is pretty much in the position Australia was in the preliminary stages of the 1999 World Cup -- its best bet, in a tournament that has already produced more than its share of topsy-turvy results, is to tell itself that it needs to win everything it plays, from here on