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November 20, 2000

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India cruise on day three

Prem Panicker

At the end of three days of the first Test between India and Zimbabwe, the person I miss most is Choudhary.

Remember him? The gent who, according to the CBI, produces 'result-oriented' pitches on demand? His successor at the Firozeshah Kotla appears to have come up with a batting beauty, and effectively ensured that after five days of toil, the two teams will stay deadlocked.

In the second and third sessions of day three, there was the odd instance when the spinner's delivery, on a good length spot, kicked up a puff of dust. Equally, the odd ball stayed a trifle low. Which is generally seen as an alarming symptom -- but the turn being produced here was too slow to really worry batsmen, and there is at this point in time no indication that the pitch will deteriortate alarmingly in the time that remains.

Barring a miraculous bowling performance by the Indians -- and nothing we saw on the first two days gives us reason to believe that the four bowlers in the side can walk on water -- this game will end in a draw. And India's think tank, yet again, will have cause to rue the fact that it packed its lineup with batsmen, at the expense of the fifth bowler.

Same old story, in other words. What interests me is the lineup the team picks for the second Test -- if, yet again, we go in with four bowlers, then we can be sure that the team is still focussed on safety first.

On the day, India progressed, albeit relatively slowly, from its overnight score of 9/0 in response to Zimbabwe's 422/9. Sadagopan Ramesh's forte is the fluency and speed with which he scores, especially against the new ball -- but that fluency was not in evidence here, as he laboured to an unconvincing 13 off 53 deliveries. More than the deliveries taken, it was the lack of confidence shown by the batsman that was noteworthy -- more so, given that Ramesh is one of the most laid-back batsmen in business today, showing a casual confidence even against bowling far more threatening than Zimbabwe's.

Ramesh fell with the score on 27, Heath Streak producing a ball that angled to off and middle and straightened, for the batsman to miss an attempted flick across the line and be trapped bang in front.

At this point, Shiv Sundar Das was playing well within himself, focussing single-mindedly on survival. Rahul Dravid, coming in at one drop, seemed intent on compensating for his partner's strokelessness, getting off to an uncharacteristically blazing start. His first 34 runs came off just 31 deliveries, the strokes on display including his patented on drive, a couple of flowing cover drives, and some nicely timed and executed cuts. Thanks largely to his efforts, the 50 of the partnership came off just 54 balls.

India went in to lunch at 100/1, 91 runs having been added in the morning session off 31 overs.

The post lunch session saw Das at his best. The short-statured opener has, in this limited time, shown that he has benefited, at least to some extent, from his stint at the Australian academy a month and a half ago. Practise on the quicker academy wickets in Adelaide has honed his backfoot play, most notably his impeccable technique on the cut. He is quicker to go back than to come forward, but on the faster pitches he will encounter abroad, that might in fact prove a bit of a blessing.

Das looked at home to both pace and spin and was in fact beginning to open his shoulders when Olonga brought about his dismissal against the run of play. The quick bowler pitched one on off on a slightly fuller length, and saw Das easing forward to off drive impeccably for four. The next ball was on a similar line, but there was just enough reverse swing there to have Das play the wrong line and be trapped bang in front, ending a steady innings of 58 off 146 deliveries, with India's score at the time reading 134/2.

For someone with a Test average of 55+, Sachin Tendulkar has been under-performing of late, and the tension showed in the way he played his first couple of overs, alternating between throwing his bat at deliveries better left alone, and defending to deliveries he would have contemptuously dismissed when on song. To Olonga's unpredictability goes the credit for getting Tendulkar settled in -- in one over, he overpitched one on middle for Sachin to flick through midwicket, then pitched one shortish outside off and got cover driven, then overpitched again and got flicked behind square leg for successive fours -- and with that, the Indian number four appeared to get his second wind.

From then on, Tendulkar played a compact, controlled innings, pushing for shots only when the length and line afforded liberties, and seeming content to defend when the bowling called for circumspection. Dravid, meanwhile, slipped completely into his anchoring role. Thus, where his first 34 runs had come off 31 deliveries, he went into tea at 68, taking 143 balls to get there.

The trigger for that circumspection appeared to be his let-off by Campbell off the bowling of his captain. Streak bowled a nothing ball outside off, Dravid went back and sought to glide it to third man -- a one day shot, totally uncalled for here, more so given the presence of two slips -- and Campbell grassed a relatively simple chance at second slip. That let off apparently was all the warning Dravid needed to put his head down and concentrate on the long innings. Tea was taken with Dravid on 68 and Sachin on 32 (57 balls), the second session having yielded 78 runs off 28 overs.

The post tea play followed the pattern established by the two batsmen before the break -- Dravid content to hold his end up and wait for the really bad ball to score off, while Sachin settled into a steady, no-nonsense style of play. The pressure he must have been feeling after repeated failures was evident in the way he greeted his 26th Test half century -- an upraised bat, and a fervent heavenward look greeted the landmark, achieved off 107 balls with seven fours (India at the time, 220/2).

The two brought up their 100 partnership off 235 deliveries (India 235/2). Interestingly, Streak opted to take the new ball bang on schedule -- a strange choice, given that at that point, the old ball was providing quite a bit of reverse swing. You would have thought Streak would bowl out the session with the old ball, and claim the new one first thing tomorrow morning, when the hazy conditions make things even better for the bowlers.

Instead, the new ball in the hands of tiring bowlers produced some quick runs, as Olonga, Bryan Strang and Heath Streak all strayed in length and allowed Dravid and Tendulkar to hit a few quick boundaries in the final half hour of play.

Dravid duly completed his seventh Test century, and his second on Indian soil (100 off 213 deliveries, 13 fours, India 250/2) off the first ball of the 91st over. As always, the value of a Dravid innings lies more in what did not happen -- once he took root, there was no possibility of the kind of collapse we saw even against Bangladesh. And this solidity ensures that his partner is not under real pressure.

Check out his batting chart, and you will see that the majority of his runs came off the cut square on the off, the cover drive off the front foot, and the pull and flick through the midwicket-wide mid on region. (Later in the innings, he also became the 13th Indian to get to 3000 Test runs, at a current average of 49.02).

India closed on 275/2 in 99 overs, Dravid batting 118 off 239 deliveries while Tendulkar went in on 70 off 162. The final session produced 97 runs off 33 overs. Rather curiously, though both were quick to punish bad bowling, neither batsman in this session really looked to attack the bowling though traditionally, post tea play is when the batting side has it easiest. The slow rate of run-scoring, thus, made you wonder what the team's gameplan is. If a win is to become even a remote possibility, India needs to overhaul Zimbabwe's score, and get a good lead, while still leaving enough time for a none too penetrating attack to bowl out Zimbabwe in the second innings. And to set up that possibility, quick runs are essential. The question is, when does India plan to make the push?

For the bowling side, the day brought little joy. Six bowlers on view, but none seemed to have the kind of arsenal needed to break through. This, coupled with a pitch that had nothing in it for bowlers, meant a long, dull day for the Zimbabweans -- in fact, the Indian score would have been even healthier but for fielding that, barring the Campbell lapse, maintained very high standards.

Full scoreboard and graphic analysis

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