The Flower brothers, Andy and Grant, spearheaded a Zimbabwe fightback that saw the side keep the Indian bowlers at bay and move steadily towards the immediate goal of averting the follow on.
While watching the proceedings on the third morning of the second Test, I was conscious of a sense of mystification. In the run-up to the Test, Indian captain Saurav Ganguly had been vociferously demanding a spinning track. And judging by the turn and bounce Bryan Murphy got on the first morning, that is precisely what the Indians got.
Why, then, did we go in with two spinners and three pace bowlers? Could it be that some bowlers cannot be dropped?
While Srinath, Zahir and Agarkar bowled a decent line, there really was very little in it for them. Joshi, on the other hand, made the ball turn and bounce, sometimes alarmingly -- making you wonder why the other spinner, Sarandeep Singh, was kept on ice through most of the morning.
Whittall and Carlisle both looked at home against seam bowling, playing with tremendous application, getting right behind the line and being content to wait for the errors in line to score off. Whittall took on himself the onus of doing most of the scoring, while Carlisle focussed on dropping anchor at the other end, ensuring that the bowlers were not allowed to break through. Once he got set, however, Carlisle produced some lovely drives against the seam diet that he was fed, and grew in stature as the partnership progressed. It was very good Test batting from the two Zimbabweans, gritty, focussed and relentless, and against such obdurate stuff, the Indians seemed clueless.
Worse, the catching continued its slump -- the first hour saw any number of edges going to grass simply because the slips were standing too far back, a sure sign that the fielders manning the cordon were not confident of their catching skills. The best chance of the morning came when Guy Whittall slashed at any awayswinger with his score on 66 and Zimbabwe on 135/1 -- the edge was true but Sachin Tendulkar, at first slip, failed to get down in time to get his hands under the ball.
Carlisle's wicket in fact came against ther un of play. Agarkar, with a ball 42 overs old by that stage, was beginning to produce some reverse swing. One such delivery on a very full length saw Carlisle get in a tangle trying to dig it out, the inner edge taking the ball onto the boot, and back down the track for the bowler to hold on the follow through. Carlisle had held his own for the better part of the morning, taking the score to 144/2 with a personal contribution of 51 off 103 balls, in a partnership of 101 off 189 balls. Agarkar in his next over again induced Whittall to edge -- only to see the ball flashing past where, with 600 on the board, you would have expected to see a third slip.
Sarandeep Singh, who must have been wondering what his role in this side was, finally got to bowl after 43 overs -- presumably, the presence of a left hander prompted the change as Joshi was rested after a spell of 11-4-18-0.
The morning session saw 94 runs being scored, for the loss of Carlisle, off 28 overs. Whittall, in his makeshift role of opener, remained unbeaten on 80 (133 balls) while Alistair Campbell, who faced two overs of Sarandeep, was yet to open his account. Zimbabwe at lunch had made 153/2.
Batting, which looked very easy in the first session, became a nightmare for Zimbabwe in the second session as rookie off-spinner Sarandeep Singh hit his straps.
The young offie bowls with a very easy, high arm action, producing loop and flight. His other advantages are that he uses the width of the crease very well, varying the angles on his delivery and simultaneously, varying the amount of turn he imparts, to pose problems for the batsman. The loop and trajectory off a very high, straight bowling arm also ensures that there is disconcerting bounce. If there is a lack in his bowling armoury, it has to be the arm ball, which was conspicous by its absence.
Sarandeep posed all kinds of problems for Campbell, forcing the batsman to try and swing the offie across the line in an attempt to disrupt the bowler. Sarandeep however held his nerve, producing two more very good overs before finally taking out the batsman. The bowler produced the perfect off-spinner's line to the left-hander, making one jump and turn from a perfect length around off, drawing Campbell forward and finding the outer edge. This time, Ramesh at silly point reacted quicker to snap up the chance, giving Sarandeep his maiden Test wicket, and analysis at that point of 6-5-4-1. The wicket fell at 165/3, Campbell managing just four in a partnership of 21 runs off 67 balls.
In the first Test, Whittall had looked very uneasy against spin. The promoted opener had handled seam with ease all morning, but the first time Sarandeep bowled to the Zimbabwean vice-captain, the uncertainity surfaced again as he pushed tentatively at line of off turning in and bouncing, the bounce and turn finding the thick inner edge onto pad for a catch to Dravid at leg gully. The wicket fell in the 56th over and Whittall walked back after a fighting 84 off 164 balls, with the score reading 166/4.
Andy Flower, reputed to be Zimbabwe's best player of spin, was the next to feel the heat, a thick outer edge flying just wide of gully. With Sarandeep by then looking dangerous, Grant Flower decided to chance his arm, repeatedly hitting over the infield in a bid to disrupt the bowler's rhythm. Sarandeep seemed to hold his nerve very well under the assault which included a six apiece for both Flowers, but Ganguly decided to give his young offie a break and took him off with figures in his first spell reading 13-7-33-2.
Zahir Khan was equally unlucky to see a very well directed bouncer take the glove of Andy Flower and fly over the head of first slip. Later in his spell, a lovely late-swinging yorker almost got through Grant Flower's defenses, the batsman saved by a faint edge onto the toe of his boot. Batting increasingly became a struggle and the pace of run-scoring dropped during this session.
The only other noticeable feature of this session was the Indian captain's reluctance to bowl his two spinners in tandem, preferring instead to have seam as a constant at one end. Zimbabwe went in to tea with the score on 231/4, 78 runs having come in the session for the loss of two wickets off 29 overs -- a vastly improved performance over the morning. Andy Flower went in on 28 off 66, while Grant Flower was more aggressive, scoring 34 off 57.
Post tea session
During this session of play, Ian Chappell said something, in his TV commentary, that would have been amusing were it not so sad. "Gee," Chappelli goes, "your Indian captains don't have much faith in their spinners, do they?"
That comment came when Rahul Dravid, leading the side in the absence of Saurav Ganguly, finally brought the two spinners together (rather strangely, everyone seemed to have lost track of their ends -- Sarandeep was bowling superbly from one end all morning but when he got the ball again, it was at the opposite end). The pressure was on the batsmen, and in a bid to relieve it, Andy Flower went after Joshi, reverse sweeping, then driving, then lofting a six in one over.
Immediately, Joshi was taken off. It made me wonder what the great spinners of the past would have done, had they been playing today -- given their captain an earful? Appropos, Bishen Singh Bedi was once talking of the man he considers one of the best captains of all time -- Nawab of Pataudi. And Bedi said, "The thing with Tiger was, he would toss you the ball, and when you marked out your run and looked up, you would find that he had already set the field you wanted. He would then check with you and give you any changes, if at all you thought you needed any. And then he would let you work on the batsman, without making adjustments every other ball. I remember once, I was driven through mid on four times in succession. The fourth time, Pat caught my eye and all he did was make a gesture, like, is everything okay? I simply nodded -- and one ball later, got the batsman stumped as he tried to come down the track and repeat the shot."
It goes towards reading the game, sensing what the bowler is up to, and letting him do his stuff. Sure, if the bowler is bowling a leg line with a field set on the off, you tell him off -- but if captains begin panicking each time a batsman goes after a spinner, then it does make a mockery of their calls for turning tracks. In the post-lunch session, pretty much the same thing happened to Sarandeep -- the offie was in full flow, Grant Flower tried to hit him out of line in one over, and presto, got his wish granted when Ganguly took him off.
The effects of this kind of captaincy was immediately evident in the bowling of Sarandeep. In the post-lunch session, he was prepared to flight the ball well, despite repeated attempts to sweep him off line. But once he realised that it was not good politics to give away runs (the sight of Joshi languishing in the outfield must have been all the warning he required), Sarandeep switched to pushing the ball through flat and fast, in the run-saving, Nikhil Chopra, mould. And at once, he looked a far less impressive bowler, with Grant Flower and, later, Dirk Viljoen, sweeping him with impunity where, in the morning, Campbell had spent a frustrating half-hour trying to land that very shot.
In the third session, Andy Flower took over from his brother as the aggressor, racing to his fifty in course of that assault on Joshi. India, meanwhile, seemed unsure of which bowler, and which combination, it wanted -- Zahir bowled one over, then the two spinners got together, then Joshi got taken off, and Agarkar got the ball....
The happenings on the field didn't leave you with much hope of a breakthrough -- but then, Andy Flower decided to be generous towards his hosts. Agarkar bowled a delivery so wide of off that the umpires would have had to call it wide even in a Test. But Flower went chasing, an ugly slash finding the edge for Dahiya to dive and hold a very good one. The wicket fell in the 83rd over, Flower having made 55 off 92 balls with four fours and two sixes, sharing a partnership of 96 runs with his brother Grant off 160 deliveries.
Elsewhere on the field, Joshi provided more scope for laughs -- if, that is, you could get over your shock. A Grant Flower drive went past the infield and rolled towards the boundary ropes. Joshi gave chase. Overtook the ball. Stepped over the boundary. Then turned and pushed the ball back before it could touch the rope -- brilliant, except that both his feet were firmly planted outside the boundary. You would think, wouldn't you, that international cricketers would at the least be aware of the basics?
Play seemed to be drifting, when Vijay Dahiya took a stunning catch to produce a breakthrough in the last half hour of play. Zahir Khan, who had bowled with great pace and variety and been unlucky, through the day, to see edges fly past fielders, produced one that bounced and seamed away outside off. Viljoen was drawn into the cut, the bounce found the edge and the ball was flying high and between keeper and first slip when Dahiya took off, and held a blinder. Viljoen, who only flew in as replacement for the injured Paul Strang 24 hours before the start of the Test, had more than done his bit in an innings of 19 off 42 balls, holding up his end in a partnership of 62 runs (96 balls) that got Zimbabwe closer to the goal of avoiding the follow-on. The wicket fell with the score on 324/6, in the 99th over.
As happens to so many batsmen when playing against India, Grant Flower -- whose recent form has seen more than one demotion in the lineup -- found things conducive to bat himself back into form. Time and again, the pressure imposed by spin was relieved by the removal of the spinner and the reintroduction of pace. At no time did either of the two spinners get to really work on the batsman -- and Flower, for his part, gritted it out, occasionally lashing out at spin and handling pace, even with the second new ball, with greater elan.
Meanwhile -- and it is only the importance of the subject that prompts the reiteration -- Sarandeep Singh got to bowl with five overs left in the day. And after bowling one over, got taken off again, because Grant Flower took two fours off him. Buying wickets is the stock in trade of the off spinner -- but at this rate, it won't surprise me to see the youngster leave his flight and loop at home, and stick to bowling the flat, fast, run-denying length and line here on in. And when that happens, we can all go back to our bars and living rooms and bemoan the decline of spin bowling in this country.
Zimbabwe closed on 359/6, having scored 128 runs in the final session off 33 overs, for the loss of Andy Flower and Dirk Viljoen, the runs coming at a cracking 3.88 per over. Grant Flower, who in his previous Test had two ducks against his name and, on both occasions, failed to bat out one entire over, went in unbeaten on 91 off 160, with skipper Heath Streak keeping him company on 16/28. Zimbabwe need 51 more to avoid the follow-on and, at this point, odds are they will get it.
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