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December 11, 2000

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Ganguly strikes, India clinch series

Prem Panicker

As a game, the fourth in the India-Zimbabwe series was about as flat as day before yesterday's beer. And for that, the blame falls, in that order, on a pitches committee that seems to exist only on paper, and a groundsman who, judging by the pitch he prepared, has a sadistic streak in him.

Sporting pitches, yes. Flat batting tracks, perhaps, if one goes by the argument that ODIs are all about watching batsmen belt the cover off the ball. But a track where, in the third over, a ball pitched short fails to rise above the knee? And from then on, got lower and lower?

The Indian team went in for wholesale changes: in the lineup for starters, when Sridharan Sriram was slotted in at number three, with Rahul Dravid being dropped one rung lower. But even more interestingly, Yuvraj Singh was dropped, presumably to give him some time to think about his recent sins of omission and commission. So was Ritender Singh Sodhi, after doing well with the ball on the two occasions when he got a chance to bowl his full quota, and failing with the bat in his last outing.

In their place came Virender Sehwag, picked because he can bowl some spin to supplement his batting, and Ashish Kapoor, picked because... well, because.

A rather surprising selection, that -- if India were all that keen on trying out young blood, then a Sarandeep Singh who bowled well in the only Test he got made sense. So too does a Harbajan Singh, who is back to form as a bowler and has improved enormously as a batsman. But Kapoor? Barring the MRF connection, which increasingly seems to count for something when our selectors sit down to do their stuff, it was hard to find any logic to the pick.

The selection did give India yet another entry in the books, though -- Ashish Kapoor makes his comeback 157 matches after he played his last game, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is a world record. For which the selectors, presumably, deserve applause.

The other change was Joshi who, despite his recent success with the bat, has been less than effective with the ball.

Zimbabwe made only one change, axing Gavin Rennie and bringing Trevor Madondo into the opener's slot. And initially, with Zimbabwe batting first on winning the toss, it seemed as though the change had worked. One problem for Zimbabwe in recent outings has been an inability to get off to a good start. Here, Campbell and Madondo settled down early, and looked to be getting the team off to the kind of start it needs to allow its strokemakers the luxury of a platform.

Once two deliveries sat down on their haunches and refused to get up, the character of the game changed dramatically. And the only explanation one can think of is that the tourists had set their minds on a huge total to try and put pressure on India, in the hope of taking the series into the decider. Once the batsmen found that strokemaking was not the piece of cake you generally expect on Indian tracks, they seemed to panic, and lose the plot entirely.

The batsmen needed to be either fully forward, or fully back, on this track. Instead, the foot movement was tentative, and that meant that the batsmen were always struggling to get the ball off the square. With Zahir (5-0-14-0) and Prasad (6-0-25-0) using the conditions well, Zimbabwe got off to a quiet, if unspectacular, start of 57/0 in the first 15 overs.

And then the pressure of needing runs on the board took over. While Ashish Kapoor gave up all pretensions to spin and focussed on bowling flat and quick, Ajit Agarkar had one of those days when you are almost ready to forgive him everything. There was reverse swing to be had, and the bowler made things even tougher by bowling the perfect length, just that side short of good length and keeping it tight on the stumps.

Alistair Campbell was the first to go, Agarkar landing one on off with a bit of cut in to the batsman, to which Campbell went back looking to cut. A bad shot on any day when the ball is on line of off and thus, cramping you for room -- but on a track keeping low, it was sheer suicide. The ball went under the bat and onto the stumps, and Zimbabwe lost its first wicket with the score on 60, Campbell making 32 of those off 44 balls.

Agarkar by then was reverse-swinging to beat the band. Madondo, whose initial confidence was soon replaced by hesitant pushes and prods, kept getting it on the pads and, on a couple of times, was very lucky to see the umpires turn perfectly valid appeals down. His luck ran out, though, in the 19th over when yet another reverse-swinging delivery on a fullish length thudded into his pads, and the umpire's finger went up. The purist might quibble at an LBW decision to a ball going down leg side, but hey, the umpires had their own logic going on that one. 71/2 Zimbabwe, and Madondo LBW Agarkar for 32 off 61 balls (if you take into account the fact that 20 of those runs came off five scoring strokes to the fence, Madondo's innings fell a touch short of par when it comes to rotating strike and sharing pressure).

It's been a while since Saurav Ganguly bowled, thanks mainly to a back problem that has seen him wear braces throughout the home series against Zimbabwe. With the ball swinging around and staying low, the Indian captain decided to bring himself on, and struck immediately, and often. Andy Flower, upped to number three and seemingly fretting at the fact that the runs weren't forthcoming, swept at a wide ball outside off, swinging further away. The width caused Andy Flower's pet shot to misfire, the ball flaring high to deep midwicket for a comfortable catch to Agarkar. 91/3 and Zimbabwe's main man back in the hut for 19 off 25.

The 27th over produced high drama. Agarkar produced very late reverse swing to take the inside edge of Grant Flower's bat, Vijay Dahiya stayed low to take a very good catch, and umpire Sathe turned it down. Dahiya put himself in line for a possible reprimand with some vehement, and repeated umpiring -- then went back behind the stumps and muffed a catch off the very next ball, Agarkar again finding the inner edge with good, late reverse swing on driving length.

Ganguly ensured that the let off was not costly when, off the first ball of the 29th over, he pitched one on the length to drive but cut it back in sharply. Grant Flower drove without allowing for seam movement, and was bowled through the gate, Zimbabwe 106/4 and Flower gone for 6 off 13.

Stuart Carlisle added to Zimbabwe's problems with a strokeless display that saw him labour to just put bat to ball. 22 runs off 54 balls wasn't helping the Zimbabwe cause any, and Ganguly ended his misery with a ball almost identical to the one that took out Grant Flower. Good length, late inswing, some cut, and Carlisle failed to get fully forward as he looked to swing over the on side, missing completely and getting bowled through the gate.

An over later, Ganguly was at it again. This time, the ball of fullish length invited the drive, Streak looked to go back and force on the off where the length called for him to come forward, the ball swung back in, took the inner edge and Dahiya took a very good low catch. 141/6 Zimbabwe and Streak gone for 3 off 4.

Ganguly should have got Nkala a couple of deliveries later, trapping him bang in front with a ball of very full length, swinging in very late. As it turned out, umpire Sathe was going walkabout when the ball hit pad, and thus was in no position to uphold Ganguly's frenzied appeals.

The appealing in turn sparked trouble when Guy Whittall walked over to the stumps at the non-striker's end, bent very low to make sure his words were clearly picked up by the stump mike, and went: "How many times must people be warned for excessive appealing, may I ask?"

Who was Whittall speaking to? Not the umpire, given how low forward he was bent -- so one can only presume the Zimbabwe vice captain was using technology to chat up the third umpire.

All that stuff, though, does tend to impact on concentration -- in this case, Whittall's. Off the very next ball, Nkala played one down at his feet, Whittall called for the run, Dahiya took off from the blocks quickly, got to the ball and, on the dive, flung down the stumps to catch Whittall short of his ground, Zimbabwe 142/7 in the 38th over and Whittall gone for 13 off 19.

From there on, there was nothing in it really -- the tail didn't have the nous to cope with prodigious reverse swing and a track where more than the odd ball kept low, and Ganguly and Agarkar teamed up to take them out, Ganguly finishing with 5/36 in a tremendous display of controlled, thoughtful bowling and Agarkar, for once refusing to get carried away by favourable conditions, bowling the perfect length and line to return figures of 4/27, Zimbabwe crashing to 165 all out in the 46th over.

The only hope for Zimbabwe was to try and use the conditions as well as the Indians had. Frustration, not determination, was the mood however and Travis Friend best exemplified it. On a track where a hand grenade wouldn't explode, Friend kept pitching short and, in one memorable over, was pulled for three fours by Ganguly, with an exquisite off drive to round it off.

The Indians knew how to bat on this one -- both batsmen were very quick and decisively onto the front foot, they were prepared to then wait for the ball to get to them, and to wait till the last split second before deciding on forcing shots. This meant that when the ball stayed down, the two openers were rarely troubled.

Tendulkar and Ganguly both racked up quickfire fifties, batting aggressively right from the outset, and the only incident worth mentioning was Bryan Strang's display of petulance. The left arm seamer indulged in quite a bit of chatter aimed at both Ganguly and Tendulkar and, on one occasion, reprised the famous Miandad-More showdown when he rapped Tendulkar on the pad, then jumped up and down in a parody of Ganguly's earlier appeal.

Which of course was fun for the houseful crowd -- but didn't do the visitors too much good as both batsmen responded to every bit of natter with a couple of furious shots. In a bit of anti-climax, Friend, in the 25th over of the innings, finally hit the right length, just short, Sachin (62 off 86) swung into the pull, the ball kept low and the LBW was on -- but the score then was 157/1, Sachin had completed his 50th ODI 50, and the target just a couple of boundary hits away, Ganguly duly completing the formalities to finish unbeaten on 71 off 68 balls.

India duly completed the 9 wicket win and took the series 3-1, with 25 overs to spare.

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