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November 25, 2000

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Das cracks ton, India 306/2 on day one

Prem Panicker

Shiv Sundar Das completed an impressive first Test century, Rahul Dravid's unbeaten saga continued into his third innings, and India at stumps had batted itself into an impregnable position on day one of the second Test against a lacklustre Zimbabwe bowling attack.

Morning Session

India started the second Test against Zimbabwe making all the right moves.

For starters, the safety first policy of packing the team with batsmen was jettisoned in favour of a three-pace, two-spin attack, Zahir Khan being brought in to replace VVS Laxman while Murali Karthik, who doesn't seem to be Saurav Ganguly's favourite bowler, was rested to give young Sarandeep Singh a chance to make his Test debut.

On a track that promises to play true initially, India then won the toss and opted to bat first, and started on a very positive note, both openers batting fluently to ensure that runs came freely in the morning session.

The morning session saw Sadagopan Ramesh in the spotlight. Two phrases that characterise the left-handed opener are 'extravagantly talented' and 'incredibly laidback'. Earlier this year my colleague, Faisal Shariff, in course of a casual conversation with him, asked him why he didn't focus more on making big scores at the domestic level. 'You know how it is in India, you might have a damn good record in international cricket but selectors can drop you for little or no reason. Look at Devang Gandhi, he has been scoring runs, making a push to come back,' Faisal pointed out.

Ramesh's response is worth quoting, if only because it tells you the kind of guy he is: 'What, da!,' he went, 'given the bowling we get at the domestic level, why Devang Gandhi, even Mahatma Gandhi will score runs!'

That is Ramesh -- casual to the point of being exasperating but, out there in the middle, talented to an extreme. Both qualities were in evidence this morning as the left-handed opener produced an array of effortless strokes, the drives square on the off and the flicks off the hips being the stand-out specimens, to get India off to a cracking start. The 50 came up in the 12th over and Ramesh's contribution was 34 off just 37 deliveries.

The way he was stroking the ball, Ramesh in fact seemed set for a very big score when, as so often happens, he got out -- this time thanks to a superb piece of fielding. Ramesh played one off his pads to mid on and Heath Streak, attacking the ball well, ran around to get it on his right side, picked up and with a very quick, accurate release, broke the stumps with Ramesh (48 off 65, seven fours, India 1/72).

What was noticeable about Shiv Sundar Das, at the other end, was that he seemed content to play his own game. Thus, Ramesh's extravagant strokeplay did not entice him into attempted emulation. Instead, he played the typical opener's role, circumspect outside off, quick to move into the drives, willing to work the balls into the gaps for singles, and ready to punish anything lose.

Rahul Dravid, whose exploits in the previous Test pushed his average to 51+, looked in ominous form from ball one, and India went in to lunch at 91/1 in just 27 overs, a rate of scoring that put Zimbabwe on the defensive right at the start of the Test.

Post-lunch Session

The second session saw a rather bizarre cat and mouse game being played out in the middle. Zimbabwe went fully on the defensive, using spin with a packed off field to bottle one end up, while rotating its pace bowlers at the other.

The pace rotation made sense in context of the stifling heat. What didn't make sense, though, was the line being bowled -- and the fact that all three bowlers held that line underlined that it was a tactic discussed and agreed upon. The seamers, thus, focussed on pitching as far outside off as they could possibly get away with, the aim apparently being to frustrate the batsmen. Not a bad ploy in itself, given that the pitch was not giving much help to seamers -- but if all six deliveries are bowled on that line, where is the wicket supposed to come from?

If anything was being tested out there, it was the patience of the batsmen -- and they showed plenty of it, watching deliveries go through outside off without being tempted into rashness, waiting for the least error in line or length to latch on to and score runs off.

Dravid settled back easily into the anchor role. In the previous Test, he had scored runs at a fair clip. The Zimbabwean bowlers thus bowled the negative line to him, and Dravid, who has even less use for temptation than the Pope, was content to stay there and play the waiting game.

The afternoon session, though, belonged to Shiv Sundar Das. The most noticeable feature of his batting is his decisive footwork -- there is no indecision, with the opener making up his mind early and going either fully forward or fully back. Thus puts him in the perfect position to play his shots -- and while on that, his best shots have to be the late cut and the square drive. While precision characterises his execution of the former shot, it is his square driving that makes you really take notice -- Das appears to have the ability to change the angle of the bat, which helps him place the shot in a wide arc anywhere from backward point to wide cover.

If there is one area that might cause some concern, it lies in the fact that a batsman otherwise gifted with a wide array of shots, seems unable to score in the V on the on. Check these two charts out:

SS Das, region summary of run-scoring, first innings, first Test

Das, region summary, first innings, second Test

What you immediately notice is the complete lack of runs in the mid-on region, even allowing for the line being bowled to him -- which makes you wonder whether more savvy opposition, such as the South Africans and Australians, might work on this one weakness in the young lad's armoury.

Against that, he has the willingness to play within his limitations, and that was on view here as he miled the bowling, a fluent pushed drive through wide mid-wicket off Murphy taking him to his first Test century, off 147 balls with 17 fours.

When viewed from the bowling point of view, what was noticeable in this session was that Dirk Viljoen began getting the ball to turn appreciably when he made the attempt to give the ball a tweak, and pitch it right up. Unfortunately, such attempts were rare, as he like the other Zimbabwe bowlers focussed on a negative line of attack. The other point that merits mention is the waywardness of all the bowlers -- an alarming number of half volleys, full tosses and long hops were on offer and the Indians made the most of it, the session producing 131 runs off 34 overs.

Das, batting 110/171 and Dravid, batting 59/130, shared a partnership of 150 off exactly 40 overs, taking India to tea at 222/1 off 61 overs. With 29 overs more to go in the day, Zimbabwe at this point look in danger of being batted right out of the game, as early as day one.

Post tea Session

The fourth 50 of the Indian innings had come off just 59 balls, and seen Zimbabwe's bowlers at their shoddiest. Someone must have given them a bit of a talking to during the tea beak, for they came out for the final session showing far more discipline than during the post lunch period. Streak, who opened the bowling in this session, set an example with a tight line on the three-quarter length around off, while the spinners too bowled closer to the stumps, and fuller in length. This was backed by good field setting and a high standard of ground fielding, and the Indians began to find shot-making more difficult.

For two sessions, SS Das had played flawless cricket. It seemed a pity, therefore, that his dismissal was so flawed -- on the part of umpire A V Jayaprakash, that is. Murphy pushed one through quicker outside off, Das shaped to cut and missed, the ball hit the top of the pad, richocheted off the arm of the keeper, and Campbell held at first slip. The catcher did not appeal, the keeper seemed unsure whether to go up or no, the bowler alone seemed to find some matter for celebration. Thus, it came as a complete shocker when Jayaprakash gave Das out, caught at slip. (110 runs off 175, at a very good strike rate of 62.86, India 227/2, the wicket falling in the 64th over, ending a 155-run partnership off 42.4 overs at 3.63 that really ground the bowling into the dust).

For the rest of the session, Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar bemused the spectators with some sedate batting. Given that the Zimbabwe bowlers had pretty much run out of ideas and were merely concentrating on line and length, given too that the pitch offered up nothing for either seam or spin bowlers, the Indian batsmen's insistence on tapping the ball around the park, and walking singles was a bit inexplicable.

The only explanation one can think of is that the team management must have decided that with one batsman less in the lineup, they wanted these two around till close. Judging by the evidence, the Indian gameplan could revolve around batting till around tea-time tomorrow and looking to go to 500 or so, before putting the opposition in.

Fair enough, but still no reason to let the bowling side off the hook in the fashion the Indians did during the post-tea session -- remember that in the second session, with neither batsman taking any kind of risk. That kind of batting in fact produces errors, and Dravid almost succumed when, with the second new ball (taken in the 86th over), Streak angled one past the leg stump, Dravid flicked at it without really getting into position, there was a deflection of some sort (it was hard to tell on the replay whether it was off the bat, or pad -- I suspect the former) and the umpire turned down the appeal for a catch behind -- an appeal that could well have gone the other way.

India went in at stumps on 306/2 off 90 overs, at a rate of 3.37 -- good, but far below what seemed possible at the start of the third session. Tendulkar was unbeaten on 49 off 97 and Dravid on 93 off 204 (which makes 363 runs without being dismissed for the Indian number three), and the two had stitched together a partnership for the third wicket of 79 runs, at just over three an over. In marked contrast to the first two sessions, post-tea play produced a mere 84 runs in 29 overs.

For Zimbabwe, day two promises a major leatherhunt, unless the bowlers can bring to their task a discipline largely missing on day one. There were too many gift balls on offer today, which the Indians capitalised on to the tune of 45 fours, and that kind of thing takes the pressure away from the batsmen.

On balance, India seem placed to push for a 500+ score here -- and with the track already showing signs of turn, that will put the visiting team behind the eight ball from here on in.

Full scoreboard and graphic analysis

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