At the end of day four, Zimbabwe -- thanks to a declaration of stunning proportions by Saurav Ganguly on the back of a Tendulkar century and a Dravid double century, plus a fiery spell by Javagal Srinath -- found itself 83 runs ahead in the second innings, for the loss of 5 crucial wickets. Here is how it happened...
At the start of the first session, the advantage lay with Zimbabwe. Newish ball, hazy conditions (while on that, I fail to understand the logic of umpires who, in the evening, are quick to whip out their light meters, but who seem to have no problems permitting play under much worse conditions in the morning), and two batsmen who would need to get set all over again.
It took two overs for the Indians to negate those advantages. In the first over of the morning, bowled by Bryan Strang, the bowler with two slips and a gully in place opted for the wicket-taking line, slanting across the right hander, pitching on good length and seaming away. Three classic Tendulkar drives, off the second, fourth and fifth deliveries, were the response.
In the next over, an attempted bounce was pulled fiercely by Dravid to the fence and from then on, the pressure was squarely on the bowlers. With Tendulkar driving at everything in sight, the fullish line was denied to them, and thus they found themselves forced to defend at a time when they needed to be looking for wickets.
It was a nice ploy by the Indians, to attack from the outset, and once the bowling side fell back on the defensive, Dravid and Tendulkar were quick to take advantage. With Tendulkar seemingly in murderous mood, Dravid fell back on the anchoring role, working the singles, and letting Tendulkar dominate the strike.
The ninth over of the morning produced another Tendulkar assault on Bryan Strang, in course of which Tendulkar brought up his 23rd Test century (the first against Zimbabwe) off 203 deliveries with 16 fours. At that point, India had added 38 runs to the overnight total, and Sachin had scored 30 of those. (In passing, a little statistic brought to our notice by the television commentators at the time -- with a century in every 3.39 Tests, Tendulkar at this point is second only to a certain Donald George Bradman in terms of sheer prolificity.)
India's gameplan was obviously to go for quick runs, and the implementation was perfect during the first hour. The second hour promised more of the same, till Tendulkar fell to an indiscretion. Murphy, who was easily the pick of the Zimbabwean bowlers thanks to a willingness to bowl to the 6-3 field set for him and eschew experimentation, bowled one outside off, just wide enough to tempt Sachin into the slashing cut shot. The turn away from the right hander caught the toe of the bat, for a simple catch to point, and India, 347/3 at that point and still trailing by 75, had lost the batsman who was providing the big push (Sachin 122/233, third wicket partnership 213).
The region summary of the Tendulkar innings is all you need, really, to understand the mechanics of this knock -- the cut, the cover drive, the flick, the pulls and flicked drives through midwicket were the productive shots. And rather noticeably, Tendulkar scored very little in the V -- an indication, in passing, that this is the kind of track where batsmen prefer to wait for the ball and play square.
Saurav Ganguly began with a cover driven four off Murphy, but the pace of run-scoring dropped noticeably during this session, as both batsmen preferred to drop anchor and play out time till the lunch break. 102 runs came off 27 overs in this session, at 3.78 per over, for the loss of Tendulkar as India went in to lunch at 377/3 (126 overs), with Dravid batting 160 (296 balls) and Ganguly 8 (34 balls).
The first hour after lunch saw the Indians overhaul the Zimbabwe total, playing a rather strange mixture of occasional aggression sandwiched between spells of inexplicable defense. Ganguly came dancing down the wicket to pick Andy Flower up from line of off and deposit him way over the long on boundary, but otherwise played with a circumspection that led you to believe that India had its sights set on batting till maybe an hour after tea. But then came a lapse in concentration -- Olonga went round the wicket and bowled one wide of off going wider still, Ganguly chased after it, and got the edge through to the keeper. (Ganguly 27/58, 430/4 India).
VVS Laxman, at the outset, batted like a man caught between two stools and unsure which one to clamber on to. On the one hand, he was playing his first international game after quite a long while (while on that, strange that a guy whose last international innings was a blistering 167 against Australia has been sitting on the sidelines for so long) and he needed to build an innings here as part of his quest for a permanent place. On the other hand, the team needed him to go for the bowling.
To his credit, Laxman opted for shot-making, dancing down to the spinners especially after the drinks break. Meanwhile Dravid, dropped by Campbell at a personal score of 40, really rubbed it in as a flicked single took him to his first international double century (200 in 349 balls, 28 fours). Barring the one lapse, his 541 minute vigil was a model of concentration and the kind of application it takes to build the sort of big Test innings that is a rarity in Indian cricket these days.
Dravid's region summary, like that of Tendulkar, presents the picture of a batsman prepared to wait for the ball and take the bulk of his runs square on either side of the wicket. His drives and cuts were fluent as always, but the standout feature of this innings was the felicity with which he pulled and hooked anything even slightly short on line of middle and leg. The other noteworthy feature of his batting is that he knows his role and sticks to it, despite the constant carping of his critics. For the side, he is the anchor, the facilitator who shuts one end up and lets the strokeplayers flow at the other -- and that was the frame of reference for this innings here.
Saurav Ganguly, who came out on the balcony to applaud Dravid's double hundred, then stayed on to shock the heck out of everyone watching by waving his batsmen back in, signalling closure with India on 458/4, just 36 ahead of Zimbabwe on the first innings.
In theory, you would have to say the Indian captain got it wrong. With 46.2 overs left to play and the Zimbabwe bowlers on the defensive, the textbook option would have been to ask his batsmen to go for broke (the hard-hitting Sunil Joshi was already padded up to come in next, ahead of Dahiya), the aim being to try and go 150 or so ahead in about 34 overs, leaving 10 overs (less two for the changeover). That would have put Zimbabwe on the defensive, forcing them to play for time -- a mindset that could produce costly errors on the part of the batsmen.
So why the declaration? Coach John Wright's explanation: "We discussed things, the boys figured that there was nothing much in the pitch, so if they were to bowl Zimbabwe out, they would need time and the sooner they started, the better."
Asked what he himself felt about the declaration and about his interaction with the team thus far, Wright added: "I'm the kind of coach who prefers to crack the whip off the field of play, but while play is in progress my role is merely advisory, it is the the captain who has to take the decisions."
So, it was Ganguly's decision. And it worked.
The Indian captain backed his aggressive declaration with an aggressive field setting, and the much-maligned Srinath delivered. In Bangladesh, he had showed signs of accumulated rust. In the first innings here, he looked sharp in spells, but still below his best. In this particular session, though, Srinath was back and close to his best.
Grant Flower had a rather patchy game thus far -- a duck in the first innings, a rather wordy duel with Rahul Dravid this morning (when Flower needlessly flung a throw aimed not at the stumps but at the batsman, and had the mortification of seeing it go through for four). The trend continued, with Srinath taking him out off the second ball of the innings.
In the first innings, Flower had left alone a ball pitching just outside off angling in, only to see it clip his off bail. This time, he got a similar delivery, pushed defensively at it with hard hands, got the edge and Dahiya, who has impressed with the gloves in this Test, held a fine catch to round off a pair for the opener.
Gavin Rennie, dropped in the first innings by Ramesh before he had scored, was the next to go. Srinath this time angled the ball across the left-hander, pitching line of off and getting the ball to lift and hold its line. Rennie fended at it, got the thick outer edge, and Ganguly held a sharp chance at first slip to reduce Zimbabwe to 15/2.
At the other end, Agarkar bowled just two overs before being replaced by Joshi -- who, right from ball one, got the ball to bite and turn. Zimbabwe went in to tea at 19/2. And in the first over after resumption, Srinath compounded the tourists' misery by taking out the in-form Alistair Campbell. A ball just around the three quarter length had the batsman in two minds -- Campbell ended up playing defensively from the crease, the extra lift Srinath generated taking the bat high, onto pad, for short square leg to hold with ease.
Srinath, by then fully charged up and bowling with three slips, gully, short square leg and leg slip, then made one kick up at Andy Flower, the lift and late seam movement finding the outside edge. Had the catch been held at gully, it would have been a blinder -- Joshi gave it his best shot, and Srinath quite loudly let his fielder know what he thought of his effort (a bit unfair on Joshi really, but indicative of the mood Srinath was in by that stage).
Stuart Carlisle was lucky to survive a sharp run out chance, but his luck didn't last too long as Joshi took him out soon after Zimbabwe wiped off the deficit. The number three batsman was obviously feeling the pressure of the situation, compounded by the fact that he was facing spin far sooner than he would have budgetted for. Joshi probed away around his off stump, with a ring of close fielders around the bat, then changed the angle on Carlisle, pitched leg and middle and got the ball to turn and take the edge -- cue Ganguly to take his second sharp slip chance of the innings, reducing the batting side to 47/4.
In the first innings, Andy Flower was on song. Here, he looked a shadow of that batsman, as Srinath, going round the wicket, repeatedly squared him up, finding the edge time and again only to see it drop short, or fly clear, of the thicky-peopled close field. After a first spell of 10-2-30-3, he then gave place to Ajit Agarkar.
Agarkar bowled consistently faster than Srinath, and even beat the bat on occasion. As against that, there was the usual quota of gimme balls, and with both batsmen content to play the waiting game, the pressure slowly eased as Zimbabwe built up a partnership.
With runs coming freely, Sachin Tendulkar was introduced into the attack. And off the last ball of his very first over, Tendulkar got a leg break to bounce and turn on perfect length around off, forcing vice captain Guy Whittall to push defensively at it. The edge flew to slip and Ganguly, getting perhaps the easiest of the three chances that had come his way that day, floored it, with Zimbabwe at the time on 108/4.
The let off, though, appeared to have played hell with Carlicle's concentration -- Murali Karthik, bowling his first over immediately after Tendulkar, bowled one short and outside off, turning away and bouncing, Whittall lashed out at what looked like a gimme ball, got it on the toe of the bat, and Ramesh at cover held the looping chance with ease, reducing Zimbabwe to 109/5.
That particular ball might not have deserved a wicket, but Karthik's bowling from then on was a dream. Perfect line, perfect length, lots of loop, and bounce and turn to die for, repeatedly beating the bat and providing a good indication of what to expect on day five. And incidentally, raising a tangential question of why he never seems to get a spell of decent length.
Play ended with seven overs still to go, Zimbabwe having made 100 runs after tea off 31 overs for the loss of three wickets. Andy Flower, unbeaten on 183 in the first innings, then having kept wickets throughout the Indian innings, continued his display of endurance with an unbeaten 41 (85 balls), walking back in company of night-watchman Bryan Murphy (0/16) in a team score of 119/5 in 37 overs.
Ironically, because of the early closure, play will resume half an hour earlier tomorrow -- in conditions so hazy, that the light this evening looks positively blinding by contrast. I suppose there is some method to this madness, but damned if I know what it is.
Postscript: Given the prevailing climate of investigation, I wonder if anyone is thinking of the person(s) responsible for railroading through the agreement that awarded telecast rights for all international matches being played in India to Doordarshan and its sports channel?
Memory being notoriously short, it might help to recall that incident -- though the Prasar Bharti bid was considerably lower than the one by the ESPN-Star combine, the BCCI awarded the former the rights, arguing vociferously that DD enjoyed much the bigger reach, and therefore a DD telecast would make cricket accessible to many millions more across the country.
And? Today, we have a situation where BCCI president Dr A C Muthiah can't see the telecast of the ongoing game. Because, see, DD Sports had decided (infamously, on the day the Olympics kicked off) to convert itself into a pay channel. Which in turn meant that the famous 'reach' was curtailed, and telecasts were only accessible to those with cable -- thus putting DD on par with ESPN-Star, incidentally, in terms of reach.
To compound the farce, cable operators in Chennai are still on strike, and the DD Sports channel is not being beamed in large parts of the state (including the Kotturpuram area where Muthiah lives).
Yet another telecast fiasco -- but, as reader Ashwin Kumar points out in an email, no point in us wondering who is responsible. Accountability, after all, is a word that does not find place in the lexicon of our cricket administrators.
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