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December 14, 2000

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Agarkar blitz helps India make it 4-1

Prem Panicker

This column has in the past found occasion to criticise Ajit Agarkar's performance with both bat and ball. It is unalloyed pleasure, frankly, to find in the game under review an opportunity to praise the same player.

Ajit Agarkar Agarkar, on a day when India went in with a less than full strength team, easily made the difference between success and failure. A dodgy start had reduced India to 100 for four at the 25 over mark. A recovery took the home team to 233/6 at the 45 over mark. But had Zimbabwe managed to restrict India to say the 270 mark in the allotted overs, the tourists would have been handily placed on the chase.

India in fact added an incredible 68 runs off the last five overs to reach an unassailable 301 in the 50 overs -- and for that, the credit belongs entirely to Agarkar, who played an innings of audacity and electric strokeplay to come up with the fastest ODI 50 ever made by an Indian. That India went on to win handily was, in fact, something of an anticlimax.

The Municipal Stadium at Rajkot proved to be something of a surprise -- there was some grass on the track, it was moist, there was good bounce and carry and plenty of help for seam.

India immediately seemed under a handicap. Firstly, there was the absence of Saurav Ganguly, sitting out a one-match suspension. Sridharan Sriram came in for the Indian captain, in the opener's berth. Then there was Zahir Khan, resting a sore back and, in the process, depriving India of a good bowling option in seam-friendly conditions.

Heath Streak won the toss and not surprisingly, opted to bowl first. Departing from his norm in recent times, the Zimbabwe captain opted to bowl himself with the new ball -- and was rewarded when he made one kick and seam away off a length to find Sriram's edge as the opener attempted to cut, Andy Flower taking with ease to reduce India to 10/1.

Rahul Dravid, leading in place of Saurav Ganguly, came in at one drop. Initially, he seemed to be playing in his normal, correct, fashion. Thus, an exquisite on drive was the only sign of aggression as he settled down to play on merit. It appeared, however, as though he suddenly decided that as captain, it was up to him to set an example. Only, he chose the wrong example, taking a step down the track to Bryan Strang, looking to free his arms and loft over extra cover (a shot he never plays). In the event, he misread the slower ball, hit too early, and ended up mishitting off the outer edge to mid off, reducing India to 23/2 in the 8th over.

With one of the big three not playing and the other out cheap, the onus was on Sachin Tendulkar to see the side through to a big score. Right from the outset, the Indian opener appeared in the mood to go for his shots, and did in fact produce four trademark boundaries plus a streaky one. In the 13th over, Nkala was introduced into the attack. His second ball was way wide of off, Sachin stuck a foot forward and went after it, looking to blast through extra cover. The width, and a hint of inward seam movement, defeated the shot, the ball crashing onto the stumps off the thick bottom edge. Tendulkar 27 off 38 and India 42/3 in the 13th over.

Next in was Yuvraj Singh, whose iffy form in recent outings got him dropped for the fourth ODI, and who found himself back in the side thanks to the Ganguly suspension. Given that, it was surprising -- pleasantly so -- to see him kick off with two fours off the first two balls he faced, both superbly executed square drives off the back foot. Yuvraj in fact looked in supreme touch against pace -- but if he is to really realise his potential, he would need to spend some time learning to play spin in the nets. Yet again, it was spin that proved his undoing here. Bryan Murphy was introduced in the 21st over, Yuvraj to the first ball he faced looked to sweep but picked the wrong ball for the shot, the ball was too full in length, the shot missed, and Yuvraj was trapped plumb.

29 off 23 balls for the youngster, India 84/4 and the fourth wicket falling after a partnership of 42 runs at a healthy 5.36 per over. The run rate looked good, but consolidation was in fact the need of the moment, making you wish that someone would sit Yuvraj down, remind him of how he played against Australia in Kenya, and point out to him that such batting, as opposed to an over-ambitious attempt to hit everything out of sight, is what the team needs from him.

Virendar Sehwag came out at that point for his first hit in ODIs. Based on what we saw, he is a compact player with the ability to put power into his shots at will, and a tendency to use his feet to spin. The latter, though, proved his undoing. In the 27th over, Sehwag went down the track beautifully to the line from Murphy on middle stump, and powered him for a six back over the bowler's head. Murphy, who seems to be picking up the art of bowling on Indian tracks, promptly changed his line to just outside off. Sehwag was down the track again to the next ball, swinging, beaten, and within a toucher of being stumped. The next ball was even wider of off, Sehwag came down swinging again, got the faint edge, and Flower held after an initial fumble. 114/5 India in the 27th over, Sehwag gone for 19/24.

From then on, the spotlight was squarely on Hemang Badani. And yet again, the young left-hander impressed with his temperament. What was most interesting was the way he took charge, guiding his partners along, cooling them off at the first signs of exuberance, obviously exhorting them to put a price on their wickets. His style of play meanwhile is classic, non-fussy, equally sure off both front and back foot, and marked by an ability to work deliveries away for singles when he finds that he cannot hit them hard off the square and into the deep. Another impeccable display brought him his second ODI 50, and ensured that India recovered from the hole the innings was in, to reach 155/5 by the 35th over.

Gradually, Badani and Sodhi accelerated, lovely running between wickets characterising their association as they took India along to 192/5 in 40 overs. Badani in fact was looking good for a really big one when, in an attempt to accelerate even further, he went down on one knee to sweep Bryan Murphy over midwicket. The shot selection was fine, given that sweeper midwicket was standing very fine. Gavin Rennie, however, got off the blocks quick, raced around, dived, and held a beauty to send Badani back for a fine 77 off 99 balls, India at that stage 216/6 in the 44th over.

Sodhi, meanwhile, had shaken off his initial fidgets and, under constant prodding from Badani, settled down to play a fluent knock, showing a fine touch in his placements and an ability to judge his singles and twos to a nicety. The youngster kept his head, and held his own, in the 6th wicket stand of 102 runs at a very healthy 6.12 per over.

If Sodhi had shared the spotlight in tandem with Badani, the fall of the sixth wicket saw him step aside into the shadows as Agarkar took over. At the start of this year, Agarkar was earning opporbrium for his sequence of ducks in Australia. Here, he started off by taking a slightly short delivery from Streak on line just outside off and swinging it powerfully over midwicket for a six, square driving the next through point for four, the slamming one back past the bowler for a straight four -- and then went on to more heroics. Pace and spin came alike to the all-rounder as he opened out in a dazzling sequence of shots all round the wicket. His 50 came off 21 balls, beating the 22-ball fifty scored by Kapil Dev against the West Indies in 1983 at Berbise. And he finished off in style, swinging Alistair Campbell's last two deliveries of the 50th over midwicket for successive sixes. The first of those came in somewhat surprising fashion as Madondo held, a couple of feet inside the line, and then backpedalled over the boundary much to everyone's surprise, and his captain's obvious disgust. While on that, the wisdom of bowling Campbell for the final over might come in for some questioning -- the bowler went for 21 runs in that over.

Agarkar finished up with 67 off just 25 deliveries and walked back to a standing ovation from his team-mates. Sodhi, who during their association was content to take a single and let his partner blaze away, ended up with a fine unbeaten 53/67. India ended up with 301/6, and went in at the halfway stage odds-on to make it 4-1.

On the Zimbabwe chase, Dravid opted to open with Prasad and Sodhi, holding Agarkar back. Why? The only reason I can think of is that on some of the harder Indian pitches, the ball has been getting scuffed earlier, and reverse-swinging as early as the 10th over. Agarkar, thus, could possibly have been held back to take advantage of that.

Campbell went after Sodhi in his first over. The youngster came back with a fine maiden in his second, then got his man when he held one back, on line of leg with a bit of inward seam movement. Campbell played the line and looked to hit over midwicket, was beaten by the inward movement and ended up putting it high in the air for Dahiya to run around to leg gully and hold. In the same over, Sodhi then produced a beauty, angling nicely across the left-handed Gavin Rennie, lifting and seaming away to find the edge, only to see Dahiya muff a sitter.

While on that miss, it is a bit surprising -- and from a tea point of view, worrying -- to see Dahiya pull off some superb takes, then muff the simplest of stuff.

The let off, though, didn't prove too costly. Sodhi, who seems for all his lack of pace to have the ability to think while bowling, went round the wicket, Dravid bringing in a very short and fine midwicket, and swung wide of the stumps to spear one in on the batsman's pads. Rennie went for the on-drive, again the seam movement meant the shot didn't find the meat of the bat, and Badani at that short midwicket position held a lovely low catch. Zimbabwe 68/2 in the 10th over, going along nicely at 7.62 at that stage, Rennie 10 off 8 balls.

Ajit Agarkar then took over. And picked up where he left off with the bat. Switching to around the wicket against Andy Flower -- something Agarkar rarely tries, in fact -- he produced a shortish delivery that tempted the prolific Andy Flower into attempting a heave over midwicket. There was some late swing there, though, causing Flower to misfire on the shot, square leg getting an easy take to reduce Zimbabwe to 103/3 in the 15th over, Flower gone for 19 off 25. Zimbabwe at that point was humming along at 6.36, and well ahead of India at that point -- but the loss of wickets was where the tourists were hurting.

Madondo Madondo, who had looked completely out of sorts in his first appearance in this series, was a changed man here. Middling the ball from the get-go, playing shots off either foot and hitting them with rare authority, the Zimbabwe opener shrugged off the loss of his colleagues at one end, and single-handedly ensured that the chasing side was well in touch with the ask.

It took a beauty from Sridharan Sriram to end his knock. Just before the Indians went out onto the field, coach John Wright was seen chatting earnestly with Sriram -- I'd love to know what that particular conversation was all about. The only change one could spot in his bowling today was that Sriram consistently flighted the ball, and kept it further up to the batsman, at the same time giving it a healthy tweak. Time and again, Sriram flighted, inviting Madondo down the track. Then he changed his line, switching from off to leg and middle. Madondo came down again, the altered line foxed him, the ball curled further in to go past the flailing bat and through the gate onto the stumps. A nice example of intelligent left arm spin, reducing Zimbabwe to 152/4 in the 27th over, Madondo going for 71 off 70 balls.

That was pretty much the end of the Zimbabwe chase. The pressure was mounting as the ask rate went up and the Indians kept chipping away at the wickets, leading successive batsmen into error.

Virendra Sehwag, who on the evidence appears to be a very useful part time off spinner (Rahul Dravid, incidentally, thinks very highly of him and has been recommending him to all who will listen), came on at this stage and promptly took out Grant Flower with a ball of fuller length, the batsman missing the attempted forcing shot and being trapped in front. He then continued the good work, drawing Whittall down the track with some nice flight and loop. The Zimbabwe vice captain looked to loft him over midwicket, the loop and flight deceived him, and Whittal ended up hitting the ball down the throat of Agarkar sweeping on the midwicket boundary. Zimbabwe 180/6 in the 34th over, and at that point, down and almost out.

A late reverse-swinging yorker from Agarkar took Dougie Marillier bang on the back foot in front of the stumps, accounting for the last of the recognised batsmen. At the 35 over mark, Zimbabwe's 186 for six was well ahead, in terms of run rate, of India's 162/5. What defeated the tourists was the loss of wickets, and the fact that they still had to compensate for that superb late overs blitz by Agarkar.

Whoever scripted the story came up with the right punchline -- Agarkar produced yet another classy example of late reverse-swing, something he has been consistently getting in this series, to take the last wicket, Zimbabwe folding for 262 in the 48th over, losing by 35 runs.

"Agarkar was fantastic," said Dravid after the match. And then went on to comment on the youngsters. "It is a great feeling for a captain to be able to look around the field at any point and see a lot of people you can throw the ball to."

Agarkar, man of the match for a superb all round performance and winner of the Most Valuable Player award as well, shrugged off comments about his batting ("I just went there and did what I had to"), and focussed on his bowling instead. "I always enjoy bowling in Indian conditions, here you can get it to reverse swing much earlier and that helps my style of bowling."

Saurav Ganguly made it a clean sweep, picking up the Man of the Series trophy. And went out of his way to give credit for the win to the youngsters in the side. "They have all done well, we need to keep the faith, stick with them and build our team for the future."

And with that, international action comes to a halt for India, which now finds itself with breathing space of over two months, before their next assignment -- taking on the record-breaking Australians at home.

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