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December 2, 2000

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Badani guides India home in first ODI

Prem Panicker

A sparkling unbeaten half century by Hemang Badani pulled India away from the brink of defeat. That innings, combining with cameos from Dahiya and Agarkar, got the home side a win in the first one day international against Zimbabwe.

What with match-fixing and other acts of attrition taking a big toll on personnel, India went in to the first ODI of the home season, against Zimbabwe at the Barabati Stadium in Cuttack, with a side that had a new, and inexperienced, look to it.

As expected, Ritender Singh Sodhi won his ODI cap, Badani came in to the middle order, Venkatesh Prasad returned to active duty, and India on a nice batting track, went in with three seamers and one spinner -- the preferred lineup these days.

Zahir Khan and Venkatesh Prasad began well. Against batsmen looking for runs, the two bowled with good control, Prasad bowling slow and just back of good length, not letting the ball come on to the bat while Zahir, after an aggressive, Test-style beginning, settled down to ideal one day length and line.

Dougie Marillier was let off early when Dahiya, who of late has been doing very well with his keeping, inexplicably made a mess of a very simple take off the outer edge. The let off, though, didn't prove too costly as Zahir, in the seventh over, made one seam away, Marillier attempted to drive to the on side, the seam movement defeated the shot and the batsman managed only to hit flat in the air for Tendulkar to hold at mid on.

The two fronting bowlers did very well, pegging Zimbabwe down to 31/1 in the first ten overs -- this, despite the presence at the crease of the in-form Alistair Campbell. And then it all went haywire. Sunil Joshi and Ajit Agarkar took over, and suddenly, the batsmen ran out of areas to score runs in. Joshi went for 11 in an over, Agarkar went one better, going for 16 as Stuart Carlisle took advantage of a series of long hops outside off stump, and Zimbabwe jumped to a healthy 78/1 at the end of the 15-over period, the 50 of the partnership coming up at a very good rate, off just 53 balls.

The wayward bowling (3-0-32-0 Agarkar in his first spell) meant that Ganguly suddenly had to fall back on the defensive. Relief came in the form of Retinder Sodhi, making his debut. The youngster, who is more of a batsman who can chip in with a few overs of controlled medium pace, has a rather awkward placement of the back foot on the delivery stride, tends to fall away as he bowls, and doesn't have too much variety on his seamers. Against that, he has the knack of hitting the right length straightaway, and keeping it there, using angles to cramp the batsmen and bowling a very tight spell.

Sodhi's introduction put the brakes on the scoring, Zimbabwe going to 95/1 in 20 (17 runs coming off the five overs after the field restrictions were removed), 122/1 in 25 and 144/2 at the 30 over mark. The second wicket came about when Agarkar, brought back into the attack, bowled one fullish, holding the ball back a touch. Campbell, who had been timing the ball well all morning, wound up for a big hit looking to clear mid off, failed to spot the slight change of pace, and hit it straight to Badani, ending a solid innings of 68 off 92, having played the dominant role in a partnership of 115 for the second wicket.

The platform was in place and the prolific Andy Flower was out in the middle -- ideal conditions for Zimbabwe to make a push for the 275-plus score that seemed possible on this track. For once, however, Flower fell cheap, thanks to an intelligent piece of bowling. Tendulkar, just introduced into the attack, hit a tight line and length. Flower looked to take him on before he could settle and off the fourth ball, gave him the charge. The bowler spotted it and at the last moment, pushed it wide, turning it further away to beat the flailing bat. Dahiya did very well to go across a long way, gather and stump, taking out Flower for 11 off 20, Zimbabwe at the time 168/3 in the 36th over.

Zimbabwe would have been under even more pressure around this point, but for some of the shoddiest catching and ground fielding we've seen in recent times (and given the Indian fielding in the two-Test series, that is really saying something). There was something comical about a Venkatesh Prasad fielding the ball in the outfield, winding up for a throw and letting the ball slip out of his hand and go further behind his back. Or of Hemang Badani lazily bending to stop a drive, and letting it through to the fence. Or Badani again, making a complete mess of a Grant Flower mishit off Joshi's bowling at mid on. Or Prasad getting both hands to a Whittall drive in the air, and letting it through to the boundary. Or.... in all, six chances went down, innumerable misfields produced more runs for the Zimbabweans, and the Indians in the field presented a very shoddy picture.

Grant Flower seemed in a hurry to dismiss the bowling from his presence, the let off by Badani not cooling him down. Facing Agarkar, Flower went down the track and swung at the ball, an almighty hit that flared off the bat, went high in the air and Yuvraj, from point, raced to cover, flung himself headlong, and held while fully airborne -- a superb take, which made up for some of the pathetic fielding on view till then (in fact, besides Sodhi and Yuvraj, the rest of the fielding was nothing to boast about).

Guy Whittall, who took over from Grant Flower, played shots with some purpose, being particularly severe on Agarkar whom he hit for 14 runs in the 46th, and Zimbabwe yet again seemed to be pulling off the recovery.

Zahir Khan and Venkatesh Prasad bowled the final four overs, and the latter turned in a superb display yet again, after his initial spell of 12 off 6 overs. Bowling deliveries that went from slow to slower, Prasad frustrated the batsmen, forcing errors as Whittall, first, tried to chip over midwicket only to hole out to Agarkar and then, an over later, irritating the big-hitting Heath Streak with slow off spinners and then, out of the blue, producing a lovely leg cutter at enhanced pace, the change up the line beating the batsman and taking out off stump.

While the Zimbabwe middle order made a mess of the final twenty overs (despite repeated let offs), Stuart Carlisle kept one end going with a lovely display of controlled batting. Starting off with some crashing drives against Agarkar, Carlisle then settled down to milk the bowling with seeming ease, finishing up unbeaten on 91 off 125. It needs mentioning here that the Zimbabwe batsmen, towards the end, made the cardinal error of keeping the in-form, in-touch batsman away from the strike and trying to hit too many big shots themselves.

The Indians opened with Sachin Tendulkar and Saurav Ganguly -- and the two put up their 11th century partnership. That is the good bit. The flip side is that this wasn't one of their better essays of batting in tandem. Generally, the understanding between them is so good that if one of them hits his straps, the other immediately starts rotating things around and ensures that the aggressive one gets the bulk of the strike.

Here, it was Sachin who started off in the heck of a hurry -- and Ganguly who farmed the strike, leading to spells of impatience from his partner. Ganguly appeared to be having some problems with his timing, especially when the ball slowed down off the deck, and that in turn produced some uncertainity in the footwork. Tendulkar, for his part, quickly worked out that the ball was slowing off the track, and took to waiting on the ball and playing his shots later than normal.

As always, Olonga was picked for special attention -- and Tendulkar's patent desire to go after the bowler each time they face off, almost brought about his dismissal. A crashing cover drive and a pull produced successive boundaries, and off the next ball, Tendulkar tried to get under one and lift over mid on. The shot was miscued, but Viljoen misjudged badly and fluffed what should at that level have been a simple catch.

With Ganguly looking to play a controlled innings and Tendulkar ensuring that the run rate didn't fall foul of the ask rate, the 100 of the partnership came up off 124 deliveries. And immediately thereafter came the wicket, as Tendulkar went down the track to Viljoen. The bowler spotted the charge and bowled a touch wide, Tendulkar (44 off 49) adjusted, looked to chip and then, unaccountably, checked a shot he seemed well placed to play. The ball ballooned to midwicket, where Streak dived to snap it up just as it was dying on him.

Ganguly, meanwhile, had done all the hard work and got his eye in. Just when it seemed time for him to ease into top gear, though, indiscretion caused his downfall. Ganguly (44 off 79) went down the track to Viljoen, failed to get to the pitch, went through with the shot anyway and managed only to get the ball flaring off the outer edge to point, on a shot that was aimed over long on.

Yuvraj Singh, in at the fall of his captain, started with a couple of amazing drives --amazing for the precision and the effortless ease with which they were hit -- off the spinners. He was in fact looking unstoppable when umpire Jayaprakash sent him on his way, Yuvraj missing on the sweep, the ball hitting the front pad and looking to miss off as it angled away. The appeal was surprisingly upheld, however, and India, from a comfortable 98/0 in 20 overs, slumped to 122/3 in the 24th over.

Rahul Dravid had started with a waltz down the wicket off the second ball he faced, to blast Viljoen over long on for four. Just when he seemed in good touch, though, the Indian number three threw it away with some ridiculous cricket. An on drive was hit firmly to midwicket, Dravid however took off for the single. He was sent back, couldn't recover ground in time. And with India on 129/4, it really seemed like the game had been gifted away on a platter.

Retinder Sodhi, who had earlier turned in a good performance with the ball (the fact that he failed to complete his quota of overs came as a surprise) then impressed, during his brief knock, with the bat. He comes across as a very compact player, with a bustling style and easy footwork both forward and back. He is also pretty fleet footed between wickets -- but that last also caused his downfall. A ball richocheted off his pads, Sodhi saw the chance to sneak a leg bye, called and took off -- but Badani, made jittery perhaps by the previous run out, took off, then changed his mind, and Sodhi was caught hopelessly short of his ground. India 144/5 in the 31st over, and the game seemingly over at that point.

From then on, it was all Badani. For starters, he was spotted going up to Dahiya as the Indian keeper walked in. "I told him I think we have a chance if we can stay cool and bat out the overs," Badani said after the game. And the two initially settled down to chip away runs with some nice placements and superb running between wickets.

Once he had settled down, Dahiya then opened out in a flurry of shots -- and what was noticeable about them were that they were not tailend slogs, but clinically played drives on the up on either side of the wicket. The cameo, highlighted by an effortless driven six over long on, took the pressure off, brought the run rate back under the 6-an-over mark, and got India right back into the game.

"It was good to see Badani, Dahiya and Agarkar stay cool under pressure, we haven't seen that in the middle order for a while," Ganguly was to say after the game, and the encomium was richly deserved. The 6th wicket partnership realised 60, off 65 balls, Dahiya playing the major role with his 35/35 cameo while Badani rotated strike at his end.

Things were looking under control again, when Dahiya walked into a drive against Murphy, got cramped by the angle of the ball into his body, and hit a tame return catch. Two deliveries later, Heath Streak took out Sunil Joshi with a fine piece of bowling, the angle across the left hander and some late reverse swing combining to trap the batsman bang in front.

From then on, Agarkar and Badani combined to see India home. The former chanced his arm, hitting a couple of shots in the air but managing to steer clear of the fielders. On the plus side, he shrugged off the pressure and made Badani's job easier with a crisp cameo.

Badani, man of the match for his unbeaten 58 off 69, was the star for the day. Once the seniors had left centre-stage, the left-hander took over and turned in an icy cool display, batting fluently, playing shots on either side of the wicket, constantly cooling his partners down and guiding them through the crucial part of the chase with the aplomb of a veteran.

That display papered over the Indian collapse, and a flowing straight drive off his bat took India home in the 48th over.

A win is a win is a win -- but if India really wants to dominate this series, they will need to pay attention, and that right quick, to their erratic bowling and schoolboyish fielding. The fielding standards, in particular, seem to be slipping by the day -- here, India was lucky that Zimbabwe didn't take advantage of as many as six let offs, but against more professional sides, such largesse will prove very costly.

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