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October 10, 2001

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 South Africa

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India have South Africa in a spin

Prem Panicker

India finally realised that spin, and not so-called pace bowling, was its strength, teamed up Harbhajan Singh with Anil Kumble, and won.

Sourav Ganguly won the toss and on a Supersport Park, Centurion, track that in the opinion of experts would tend to turn as the game progressed, opted for first strike.

The Indians made a change -- an obvious one given the events of the first encounter between the two sides on October 5 -- when they brought Harbhajan Singh in place of Venkatesh Prasad. I guess, to put it mildly, the team management made the choice between two spinners and picked the better one.

South Africa brought in Nicky Boje to replace Justin Kemp, with skipper Shaun Pollock explaining that "we change the squad every second game, to give the guys a chance to get a game in".

From the start it was apparent that the South Africans had rethought their bowling strategy. Unlike in Game 1, opening bowlers Pollock and Andre Nel kept the ball just that bit back of a length and just that much closer to the stumps to ensure that neither Ganguly nor Sachin Tendulkar got a chance to really free their arms.

14/0 in five overs wasn't the kind of start the Indians needed, and Ganguly decided to do something about it. He took a sighter by stepping away to leg, to make room, and slashing Pollock to the point boundary. And seemingly liked the shot so much that he reprised it in the seventh over, this time hitting up and over the boundary line to bring up his 100th ODI six.

While on that, the leader in the six-hitting stakes is Sanath Jayasuriya with 144 in 242 games, followed by Tendulkar with 124 in 176 and Viv Richards with 121 in 187. At the rate Ganguly is going, though, he looks set to overhaul the last two in the near future.

Ganguly's dismissal was, to put it mildly, unfortunate. Pollock did the right thing by going round the wicket to cut down the angle. The ball was pitched close to off, drawing the Indian captain to push at it and leaving him just enough to find the thick edge. Kallis dived reflexively, got both hands to it, and found it popping out as he hit the ground. The ball clearly came to rest on the ground before he got it back into his palms, but the umpire ruled it out without reference to the third umpire and that was that. A promising 24 off 27 by Ganguly was abruptly terminated, and India were 48/1 in the ninth over (51/1 in 10).

Shiv Sunder Das this time came out at one drop -- but perished to his Test strength. In the longer version, patience around off is his hallmark. But here, he cut at a Pollock delivery that lifted a touch and found first slip waiting.

Rahul Dravid came in at two down and a frustrating period of play followed. The Proteas seemed to have figured that their best bet was to keep Tendulkar away from the strike and Dravid at the business end -- and the ploy worked. An increasingly impatient Tendulkar, who in this innings was finding the range on his shots that was missing in the first match, uppercut a ball from outside off straight down deep backward point's throat, going for 38 off 55. There's a story in those figures -- at one point, Tendulkar was going along at a strike rate of about 90 per cent, but by the time Dravid had managed 7 off 26 balls faced, the momentum was well and truly lost.

India after 20 overs were 76/3 -- a far cry from the 51/1 at the end of 10. And then came a most un-Protean spell of fielding. In the 22nd over, with India 85/3, Dravid, batting 13, tried to flat-bat a short one from Makhaya Ntini, fetching it from outside off to midwicket. Herschelle Gibbs, of all people, got both hands to it ... and grassed it.

The first ball of the next over was bowled by Jacques Kallis -- and this time, a loose Dravid drive around off found the edge for Lance Klusener to get a hand to it and drop, making it his third miss in as many games in the slips.

At the halfway mark, India were 97/3 -- and Dravid got to his 5,000th ODI run. Pause for thought: that makes three batsmen in this side with 5,000 or more against their names, arguing a wealth of accomplishment and experience. Surely it is time this got reflected in the results?

Dravid and Yuvraj Singh then settled down to the job of batting India out of jail -- and the opposition helped the good work along. At a time when the batsmen were under pressure against the seamers and inclined to try chancy shots, Nicky Boje was brought on -- and both batsmen smiled for the first time. Dravid drove, Yuvraj rocked back and slammed a pull for six, 19 came off the first two overs from Boje, and the pressure was eased (India 137/3 in 30).

With Yuvraj opening out and Dravid too beginning to find range on his shots, India looked to be batting themselves back into a position of strength when another unfortunate dismissal ended an increasingly promising partnership (90 off 104 balls). Pollock came up with a short ball, Dravid pulled, well this time, Klusener at midwicket got it on the bounce, the catch was claimed, and the verdict given, to send Dravid back with 54 off 78 and India 165/4.

Yuvraj Singh meanwhile batted in his trademark cavalier fashion, hitting with conviction and, more to the point, picking the right ball to go after. But just when he looked really threatening, a lapse in concentration put paid to his innings of 42 off 55 balls (India 167/5). Ntini, bowling the last ball of the 38th over, angled one in across the lefthander, straightening on to off stump. With no foot movement whatsover, Yuvraj played casually all round the ball, to find his middle and off stumps disturbed.

Virendra Sehwag, like Yuvraj, looked good after a brief period of nerves. And Pollock again helped the good work along, bringing Boje back to the bowling crease when he had more than enough frontline overs to play with. Sehwag underlined the folly by stepping on to the front foot to whack the supposed spinner for a six over long on, then rocking back to cut him for four next ball to bring up India's 200 in the 42nd over.

Deep Dasgupta for his part looked quite tidy against the seaming ball. A real take on his batting will, however, have to wait for a longer stint at the crease. With overs running out, Dasgupta's inexperience showed. Sehwag was doing enough hitting for two, but rather than take the single and give up the strike, the rookie keeper-batsman went for a slogged drive of his own, off Klusener, in the 43rd over, and managed only a thick edge to Mark Boucher. Dasgupta had made 8 off 11 balls -- in a partnership that realised 34 off just 28 deliveries.

In the 44th over, Sehwag misread the slower one from Nel. Looking to chip over the infield, he played too early, got more elevation -- and less distance -- than he would have liked, and holed out to Ntini at mid-off (31 off 25 balls). You could criticise the batsman for not sticking around till the end, but temperamentally he is a stroke-player, and his crisp cameo had gone a long way towards pulling India back into the game and giving the innings momentum.

From then on, it was collective madness. Off the first ball of the 45th, Agarkar put Klusener in line for a hat-trick when he slashed one outside off to edge through to Boucher. The innings would have ended even faster than it did if Klusener, in the very next over, hadn't flubbed a simple catch at slip off Kumble. Harbhajan, in usual slapdash fashion, managed a cameo 15, before trying to paddle a Pollock yorker and taking it on the pad bang in line. Srinath then gave Pollock his fifth wicket -- and his 200th ODI wicket, what's more -- when he dug out a full length ball from the seamer into the hands of midwicket to bring the Indian innings to a close, 233 off 48.5 overs.

Given the fact that South Africa had chased down 280 the other night against the same opposition, the score didn't look particularly daunting. The difference, though, was the fact that this wicket was developing a tendency to keep a trifle low on occasion -- and holding out some promise for spinners.

The key, though, was to keep the Protean opening pair from getting off to yet another blinder -- and Ajit Agarkar did the job in the second over of the innings when he got one to bend back a fair bit. Gibbs looked to whip away on the on, played too early, got the leading edge, and was taken smartly in the slips.

Agarkar then lost the plot a bit, going for 14 in the 6th over -- but Srinath ensured that the Proteas didn't really get away when, three overs later, he opted to go round the wicket. If Gary Kirsten ever tries to insure himself against dragging the ball on to his stumps, the premium he will have to pay will be astronomical. For the second time in two matches, he aimed a cut at a ball too close for the shot (does that remind you of Jayasuriya, the other world leader in played-on dismissals?) and dragged it back on to off stump.

Srinath, however, has this tendency to tire -- and as he tires, to bowl with ever-decreasing venom -- earlier than most quicks. Here, into his sixth over (the 11th of the innings) he lost it completely, getting slammed for successive fours by McKenzie, then getting clubbed for six by Kallis on the pull.

By then Kumble had come into the attack and though his trademark control is still way short of his prime, he was making the ball turn, producing the occasional googly, just to make it interesting for a lineup of batsmen who read the ball off the track, and proving to be quite a handful. McKenzie's dismissal was a classic. Time and again, Kumble kept it right up, just outside off, forcing the batsman to play to the close-in fielder. And then he sent down a quicker googly just that fraction shorter, tempting McKenzie -- who read the length without reading the nature of the delivery -- into a slog-sweep aiming to fetch the ball away on the leg side, but managing only to get a faint edge on to his stumps (South Africa 66/3 in the 14th over).

Jonty Rhodes is a hustler, moving all over his crease in a bid to distract the bowler. At one level, it's a wonder how, with all that movement, he doesn't distract himself at the same time. Or doesn't he? Anil Kumble bowled one to him shortish and widish of off, and Rhodes, who by then was standing on his leg stump, reached a long way into a drive, got the outer edge, and was smartly taken by Dravid at slip (76/4, 15.2 overs).

Harbhajan Singh came on and Jacques Kallis, reputedly the best Protean player of spin along with Herschelle Gibbs, came dancing down to try and take the offspinner off his line before he had settled. Problem was that was Harbhajan's own doosra [the other one], the one that drifts away from off after hitting the deck. The ball glided past Kallis's bat face, and Dasgupta completed a smart stumping to reduce South Africa to 85/5.

It could have been 87/6 had Dravid, who had earlier taken a high-quality catch, held on to a far easier one offered by Boje. Kumble angled one across the lefthander and turned it away at the same time. Boje pushed, Dravid at slip got his hands to it, and down she went. Harbhajan, however, ensured that the lapse didn't prove too costly when, in the 23rd over, he went round the wicket and after a couple of offspinners turning away from Boje, produced the quicker, straighter one. Boje knelt into the sweep, was beaten mostly for the extra pace on the ball, and took it on the back foot in front of off and middle to have South Africa 101/6.

Harbhajan then produced a piece of intelligent bowling. A fuller-length delivery had been driven by Pollock square for four. The next was marginally shorter, the South African skipper (this in fact is a common problem with South Africans facing spin, and one you would look at Harbhajan increasingly exploiting as the tour wears on) played the length without reading the ball, went right back on to his stumps looking to play to leg, found the ball turning considerably and catching him bang in front of off and middle (106/7 in the 25th over) and Harbhajan 5-0-12-3.

The hype may be about Gibbs and Kallis, but for my money the most effective player of spin in the South African side has to be Mark Boucher, a very bottom-handed batsman with a penchant for the onside. Like the rest, he plays the length. Where the difference comes in is that he is decisive -- if the length is up, he will go right forward, shut the bat face on the ball and look to punch straight, and as far as possible through the mid-on region. To anything short, he'll go back, keep the bat poised for aggression, watch to see what the ball is doing and then give it a thump.

These tactics -- and Klusener's uncharacteristically circumspect batting -- gradually hauled the Proteas back out of jail. Harbhajan threatened with every ball, so both batsmen buckled down to the job of playing him with enormous respect, content to wait out his 10 overs and knock the ball around at the other end. At the other end, Ganguly tried Tendulkar, without the part-time all-sorts bowler finding any kind of rhythm on the day, and then Sehwag, whose forte is accuracy more than turn. Yuvraj Singh -- the one who turns the ball away and as such, complements Harbajan's turn in to the batsmen -- remained in the point-cover region, unused.

Harbhajan, bowling with two attacking close-in fielders throughout, bowled his final over (the 35th of the innings) and when he was done, leaving the crease with figures of 10-0-27-3 and with South Africa 152/7, you got the feeling that the game had gone out of India's hands, if only because no one else looked likely to strike with almost every ball he bowled. At this point, Boucher had 25 off 35 and Klusener 20 off 33 in an eighth wicket partnership of 45/65.

From that point on, Boucher and Klusener batted with an apparent awareness that all they had to do was bat out the overs -- and that the Indians had no one who seemed likely to keep them from doing it. It was an impressive display of dogged application, of an ability to just put their heads down and grind their way to the target.

Something dramatic was needed -- and it came in the 44th over. Sehwag's first ball was no big deal, really -- quick and short and around off. Boucher saw his chance and swung for the rope, hitting it high and looking to clear deep square leg. Agarkar, under pressure, ran around from the backward position, stretched, got his hands to the ball and clung on for dear life, to have South Africa 183/8, ending a reviving partnership of 77 and sending Boucher back for a 38-run essay that came within a touch of taking the game away from India.

The 45th over of the innings was Kumble's last, and with that, both frontline spinners had been taken out of the game. South Africa at that point were 188/8, needing 46 off the last 30 deliveries with Klusener to do the job aided and abetted by Ntini and Nel. Kumble's two early wickets were crucial, and there were just enough signs that the rhythm was returning to put a few smiles on Indian faces.

The first ball of the 46th over, from Sehwag, was a full-length regulation off-break. Ntini opted to play hero, had a huge swing looking to clear midwicket, and lost middle stump.

In the next over, Klusener clubbed Agarkar for four first ball, tried another slog off the second, top-edged, and the skirling skier was held very well at point by Yuvraj Singh.

South Africa was losing its first ODI at Centurion after 1997, and India had failed by just six runs to win the bonus point as well, having needed to bowl them out for 186 to claim it.

It was a good win -- one that makes it easy to ignore the blemishes with bat and ball. For the fans, that is. The think tank, though, has a heap of worries on its plate. It will be interesting to see what they come up with.

Meanwhile, a thought: at the end of the over in which he took Ntini's wicket -- a maiden, as it turned out, raising the ask to 46 off 24 balls -- Sehwag had figures of 8-0-24-2, which explains why we were wondering why he wasn't bowled at all in the first game.

Which makes you think back to a bowler who, in India's previous one-day series, had spells of 10-0-43-1, 10-1-40-2, 10-0-24-2, 6-1-20-1, 9-0-37-2 and 10-0-57-0. Sure, that last analysis is nothing you want to write home about, unless you also mention that in that same game (the final), Nehra went for 58 in 8, and Zaheer Khan for 65 in 9.

So the question is, why has the man -- Yuvraj Singh, to give him a name -- who was thought good enough to bowl 55 overs in six games just a month ago not been bowled for a single over in two outings now, despite India obviously lacking bowlers?

Instant amnesia?

Okay. So what do you call a collection of amnesiacs? An Indian cricket think tank!

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