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Sarwan ton lays India low

By Prem Panicker
Last updated on: May 24, 2006 10:04 IST
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The Windies won the third one-day international against India by 4 wickets, remarkably, with one ball to spare, marking the third time in three games that the result has gone right down to the wire.

The West Indies batsmen played the canny waiting game in the first half of the slog, opting to knock the singles around against the two spinners.

Harbhajan bowled the 41st and 43rd to end his spell (10-1-33-1), giving away 5 and four in those two overs. Powar bowled the 42nd and 44th, giving away 11 in the two overs and rehabilitating himself with a comeback spell of 7-1-28-0 after having had a nightmare three overs for 31 at the start). When the two spinners finished, the West Indies needed 46 off the last 36 – and had six wickets in hand to do it with.

Cue in Agarkar – and Chanderpaul, who greeted the right arm seamer with a slogged drive over long on. Looking to step down the track to make the shot, Chanderpaul failed to get to the pitch but went through with the shot one handed, connecting well enough to clear the long on fence for a six and bring the ask back down. With both Sarwan and Chanderpaul nudging singles around the park, the over produced 12, and the game swung back to the chasing side, with 212/4 on the board after 45 and an ask of 34 off the last 30 deliveries.

Sehwag was brought on for the first time in the 46th, and Chanderpaul played the most unusual of paddles, using the toe of the bat to get the brace down to fine leg that got him to a composed 50 off 58 after a characteristically slow start. Later in the over, Sarwan nailed it, staying back to the quicker, flatter delivery from Sehwag and late-cutting it from top of off to the third man boundary for four. An on drive to the next ball, and Sarwan reached a century that was a mixture of opposites.

Early on, with Gayle unable to find the range of his shots, Sarwan had taken on himself the onus of run-scoring, going along to his 50 off just 41 balls. Once Gayle and Lara left in quick succession, Sarwan showed tremendous maturity in the way he throttled back, and settled down to guide the team home.

The Sehwag over produced 11 (in passing, I am not too sure I agree with Dravid's use of a part-timer at the death, when the pressure is squarely on a bowler who hasn't turned his arm through the innings thus far, and is now expected to check scoring where the frontline bowlers have not been successful) and brought the ask to near parity.

Agarkar ended his spell with a 47th over that went for just three – fitting finale to a finely controlled bowling performance that yet again underlined his hunger to take back the lead role in the attack (10-1-32-2).

With the target well in sight, Sarwan began opening out moving across his stumps or down the track to disrupt Sreesanth's rhythm with a couple of braces. The bowler, feeling the pressure, switched to round the wicket and Chanderpaul waited on it, played the width and cut late and fine to find the fence at third man, ending an over that produced 10 runs and reduced the ask to 10 off the last 12 with six wickets still in hand.

Irfan Pathan came on in the 49th – and out of the blue, produced a wicket when a low full toss saw Chanderpaul shuffle across to try and work on the on; the angle and late swing beat the bat and hit pad with the batsman in front (237/5). Chanderpaul (58/68) had looked more than a touch uneasy initially; after his injury break, he played a free-flowing hand that took the pressure off Sarwan, kept his team in touch with the target, and all but took it home.

Pathan's 49th over was his sole bright spot of the day; it produced just four, and got a wicket as well, leaving the Windies needing six off six to take it home.

Sarwan danced down the wicket, carved Sreesanth's first ball through cover, sprinted the one, looked for two then sent Bravo back – a lifetime late to beat the throw (241/6). Not only did Windies lose a wicket it didn't need, it also left Sarwan at the wrong end of the track, as Baugh came out to the middle.

Sreesanth produced a dot ball to the new man; Baugh then carved a single to give Sarwan the strike and the centurion ensured against last minute hiccups, first driving inside out to cover for a brace on a Dravid misfield, before backing away from an attempted yorker and carving it through cover to seal the win.

It was a fine, controlled chase – and with successive wins defending a low total and chasing a challenging one, the momentum in the series appears clearly to have swung the home team's way. A friend pointed out in email just now that with two games left and India needing to win both to take the series, there lurks the threat of Lara reversing his bad form and producing the big one just when the visiting side can least afford it. Even without Lara, the likes of Sarwan, Samuels and Chanderpaul have begun hitting a good vein of form, the bowlers have shrugged off the indiscipline of the first game and produced far better performances in game two and three, and the Windies now seem poised to upset the Indian applecart.

For India, its late middle order – ironically, the most reliable facet of its batting till the start of this series – appears to have given way, and that is hurting both when setting up a target and on the chase. The defeat marked the 7th time in the last 11 games that India has failed to win batting first – a statistic that must be increasingly worrying for a side trying to line its ducks up ahead of the World Cup.

Windies 180/4 in 40

India's game during this phase was all about trying to rehabilitate its two truant bowlers.

Ramesh Powar replaced Harbhajan Singh (7-1-19-1), and if the breeze was in fact a factor in his earlier performance, didn't have the excuse any longer. In his comeback over, he still seemed a touch nervous about Sarwan's twinkle-toed footwork, dragging one down and getting pulled for four in front of midwicket.

The offie however tightened his control, going for just two in his next over and then producing a maiden in the 36th – to Sarwan himself, a fact that should have done his confidence considerable good.

At the other end, Chanderpaul did his hamstring a bit of no good; the resulting treatment took seven minutes of playing time. With Runako Morton coming out to run for him, Chanderpaul shook off his somnolence, creaming Sreesanth for two flowing boundaries through the mid off region and, when Irfan Pathan replaced the right arm quick, cracking him square off the front foot as the bowler again pitched short.

The trick for India was dot balls. The Powar maiden in the 36th helped, but at the other end Pathan kept going for runs, though he did manage by slowing down his pace to cut out the four balls and keep the run-scoring down to singles.

One factor in the slowing down of the chase was the pitch. With the ball getting older and softer, Sarwan in particular found the going harder. Hampered by the need to bat through following the quick dismissals of Gayle and Lara, Sarwan was further slowed by the fact that the ball wasn't coming on to him as it had earlier in the innings, and lost the early impetus that had seen him go along at well over a run a ball (his 50 took 41 deliveries; the next 25 runs took a further 46 deliveries).

In the 39th over, Dravid brought Harbhajan Singh back on for Pathan (with the senior offie now bowling from the end Powar had started from). Powar, giving just 12 in four overs in his comeback spell, had already helped force the ask above the six an over mark; Dravid brought the field right in and Harbhajan responded with restrictive lines that produced just one run off the first 5 deliveries, before drifting onto Sarwan's pads and providing room for the batsman to flick the four past short fine leg.

Five singles in the 40th over, off Powar, took the game into the business end of the chase, with the West Indies needing 66 off the last 60 – an ask that should be a breeze with six wickets in hand; against that, a wicket could set the cat among some very nervous pigeons.

Windies 134/4 in 30

Ramesh Powar is an off spinner in the classical mould, tossing the ball right up and as slowly as he possibly can, looking for flight, loop and turn to create pressure.

Unlike his partner Harbhajan Singh, he almost never opts for the flatter, more defensive angle – his response to being hit is to toss it up higher, in a fashion EAS Prasanna might appreciate.

On the day, it just didn't work – and judging entirely by the lines, you had to wonder how much the cross breeze from the sea had to do with the way he bowled. Having hit him for a six in his first over, Sarwan shimmied down the wicket again in his second, yet again picking out the stands behind long on as a landing zone.

For once, Powar felt the pressure and dragged one down; Sarwan promptly rocked back to pull through midwicket, bringing up an aggressive, fluent 50 off just 41 deliveries (six fours, two sixes). The value of the knock was underlined by the presence at the other end of Chris Gayle, becalmed at the time on 29 off just 52; had it not been for Sarwan's fluid strokeplay that kept the batting side in touch with its target, the pressure could have begun to tell.

When Gayle, taking inspiration from his partner, came down the track to hoist Powar in his third over back over his head and onto the roof of the stadium, the Windies appeared ready to crack the game wide open.

The contrast between the two spinners was glaring – at that point, Harbhajan Singh had gone for five in his first three overs, and Powar for 31 in his three. And that brings up the breeze: A computer screen is no place to make such judgments through, but from the way Powar's line drifted across the stumps, you had to wonder if the cross breeze was pushing the ball off course just enough to spoil the bowler's plans – and if yes, it will be interesting to see whether Powar when he comes back gets a change of ends, and gets to bowl into the breeze, which will have the effect of holding the ball up there a fraction more, and getting it to drop marginally ahead of where the batsman expects it to.

With one of his front line spinners taking a pounding, Dravid was forced to bring Agarkar on for a second spell ahead of schedule – and the right arm seamer struck immediately, in a fashion almost identical to his dismissal of Gayle in the previous ODI.

The ball was slanted across, landed on the full length and just around off before moving just enough to beat the tentative prod and find the edge through to the keeper. The powerful opener had never looked really at home throughout his tenure; a large part of his runs were the result of Pathan's largesse. But against that, he had managed to hang in there and while keeping Sarwan company, ensure that the bowlers didn't break through early from both ends (Gayle 40/65; Windies 116/3).

Brian Lara walked out and again, walked back without any evident sign of his genius on display. Through this series, he has never looked at ease against Harbhajan and here, the off spinner was really on song, hitting his straps straight off and using the cross wind beautifully to return 5-1-13-0 heading into the 28th over.

To the second ball, Lara played a very fine sweep as the off spinner attempted to bowl flat and quick on leg stump; two deliveries later, the offie tossed one up on leg and middle, turning it across the right hander. Lara shaped to push it back on the on side, the turn defeated him and found the thick outer edge to fly to Dravid, who juggled at slip and held on the second attempt (Lara 5/11; Windies 131/4).

Dravid, unsure whether he can trust Pathan and Powar with the ball just yet, stayed with his other two seamers, bringing on Sreesanth after a very effective two over burst by Agarkar (2-0-3-1).

With the two wickets dampening Sarwan's ebullience a touch, the game after 30 overs is nicely poised – a wicket here, a couple of good batting overs there, now separate the two teams. The softer ball by this point is coming on to the bat less, hitting through the line is not as much an option now as it was earlier in the innings.

The key really lies with two bowlers who have been under the hammer here – if Pathan and Powar in their next spells can reverse the early damage, India can look to turn the squeeze on. If they fail, the team – which in this game is also missing Yuvraj at the bowling crease – will find the defense extremely difficult here on, with Harbhajan having just four overs left in his quota and the impressive Agarkar just two.

 Windies 88/2 in 20

After 16 overs, the West Indies were 64/1. Chris Gayle, batting in a fashion antithetical to his usual aggression, had made 22 off 39 at that point - and 18 of those runs came off 19 deliveries bowled to him by Irfan Pathan, including four boundaries.

Ajit Agarkar, bowling the fuller length and using changes of pace superbly, had kept the batsmen quiet and turned in another impressive first spell of 6-1-14-1. Pathan then took over and Ramnaresh Sarwan, cutting against the slant, came within a toucher of playing on.

In the event, though, he got four to fine leg, and then rocked back later in the over to play the identical shot, this time moving closer to the line and hitting clean through cover. An over later, it was Gayle's turn to duplicate the shot, forcing the bowler square through the point region to the fence.

The one difference between the left arm seamer and his two right arm colleagues was a tendency to pitch too short for comfort - every one of the six boundaries hit off him by Gayle and Sarwan were square on the off side.

Sreesanth bowled a tight spell till his 5th over, when Sarwan - who has looked in fluid touch from the moment he came on to bat - pulled a slightly short delivery imperiously through midwicket, before Gayle again rocked back to crash one through the cover point region.

The bowler though was a touch unlucky - the previous delivery was a well concealed slower ball on full length that Gayle mistimed off his pads. Sehwag at square leg dived headlong to his left and got both hands to the ball, but could not complete what would have been a spectacular catch.

Dravid, who took his power plays in quick order, was forced to switch Pathan out and bring Harbhajan on in the 18th, quickly followed by Powar in the 19th. A slower even than usual delivery from Powar saw Sarwan get the leading edge in an attempt to play on the on, but the ball didn't stay up long enough, or carry far enough, for Powar to get to it. Off the next ball, the batsman came dancing down, getting to the pitch of a tossed up off spinner from Powar and powering him high over wide long on, and onto the roof of the stand, to signal game on.

Windies 35/2 in 10

The Indian seamers, bowling in the second half of the day for the first time this tour, found conditions considerably different from Sabina Park.

The movement in the air was not as pronounced under the blazing sun and relatively low humidity; what little there was, owed to a sea breeze blowing crosswise.

Ajit Agarkar, who has in recent games calibrated his control and learnt to bowl with impressive economy, and Pathan kept things tight in the opening overs. Marlon Samuels switched batting spots with Runako Morton, and judging by the way the opening pair played, the Windies seem to have reckoned that on a chase of 246 (the Indians lost a run during the break, for scoring error), they don't need to do much more than bat through the full 50 and keep wickets in hand.

Chris Gayle is the kind of player who is best taken out early, when the feet hardly move and the hands push the bat out in front of him much in the manner of a blind man with a stick. Once he gets a few onto the bat, though, the left hander with his explosive power is dynamite - and Irfan Pathan, as in the first game, helped the Windies cause with two bad deliveries in the 5th over that got punished.

The first was wide enough to permit the batsman to free his arms and drive on the rise through extra cover; the second ball overcompensated, and allowed Gayle to whip fluidly off his hips through midwicket. A short and wide ball in the 7th over, that Gayle blasted through point, helped the batsman settle in further while, at the other end, Samuels contented himself with knocking the ball around into the tight set field, seemingly in no particular hurry to get the board ticking over.

Deprived of the sort of movement he got in game two, Agarkar concentrated on interesting changes in length and change ups and change downs in pace to keep things quiet - the only shot hit off him in anger during this phase was an off drive by Samuels to length that just managed to beat the diving fielder and find the fence.

With Pathan fading away after a steady start, Dravid rotated Sreesanth into the attack in the 9th over - and it took a headlong dive by Kaif to make sure Gayle's flaying drive off the back foot to the first ball didn't find the fence.

The right arm seamer struck off the last ball of the over, when Samuels made an error of judgment, rocking back to what was a length delivery, and missing the attempted whip to on; the ball skidded onto his pads to invite the LBW (11/32; Windies 30/1).

Runako Morton's unimpressive run in this series continued; late swing on an incoming delivery from Agarkar nailing the batsman in front of off and middle to have the West Indies 31/2. Ramnaresh Sarwan opened with a four when Agarkar dropped one short, finding the cover fence off the back foot, and at the end of the 10-over mark, the batting side was 35/2 - and under a good bit of pressure thanks to those two quick strikes.


India 61/1 in 10 overs

Out of evil, as they say.

For some time now, the Indian ODI team has pretty much had things going its way. Which is not to say its recent winning streak is devalued; merely, that it had during this period rarely if ever been pushed right back against the wall. At some point, it needed to be - if only to take its own mental strength out for a road test.

Two tight matches, a failure chasing a sub-200 score, a realization that the West Indies has upped its game considerably and that Brian Lara is once again finding his captaincy nous and, on the morning of the third game, the further information that Yuvraj Singh, the team's talismanic batsman for a while now, is out with a back spasm - things could hardly get tougher.

Actually, it could. Rahul Dravid won the toss and opted, for once, to set the target. Ian Bradshaw, who bowled first change in the first ODI, and bowled the second over of the innings in the second game, got the new ball here and showcased his skills with an immaculate line and length right out of the box.

A late inswinger caught Dravid off balance as he looked to whip off his pads; the batsman was too far across, his head falling away and bat nowhere close to ball when he was nailed in front of middle (1/1 in the first over).

India this time opted to push Suresh Raina into the number three slot - and the youngster, reveling perhaps in the confidence shown, broke the shackles Bradshaw had exerted with two successive maidens, playing a flowing cover drive in the left arm quick's third over and following it up with a flick off his pads for consecutive fours.

From that point on, the teenager has been gaining visibly in assurance, working the ball around nicely and, when Edwards erred marginally in length in the 8th over, blasting another of his pet off drives with total control; he then duplicated the shot, playing it even better, in the 10th over.

At the other end, Virender Sehwag remains tentative. He did get off the mark in trademark style, flaying the first ball of the second over, from Edwards, over point to the fence. But his timing remains noticeably off, even on his pet shots such as the on-the-rise drives through the extra cover-mid off region - an attempt to play the shot saw the ball fly dangerously close to the mid off fielder, off the toe of the bat.

To his credit, though, this time round Sehwag didn't try to hit his way out of trouble; focusing on nudging the ball around, he gritted out the rough period, on one occasion being caught in an ugly tangle by an Edwards bouncer and gradually gained in confidence. In the 9th over, he first rode the slant of a Bradshaw delivery and, playing very late, smashed the four through cover and, when Edwards responded with an inswinging delivery on off on length, took a step into it and lofted straight and clean for a six that had touches of the vintage Sehwag.

The two brought up the 50 of their partnership off 48 deliveries - and, at this point, have gone some distance towards mitigating the early loss of Dravid. Against that, the under-strength line up going into this game requires these two to settle into a long partnership.

One word on team selection or, rather, an alternate view: Since Yuvraj, the in-form player, was sitting this one out, wouldn't a better ploy have been to bring in Uthappa at the top of the order so Dravid could slip down a notch, to number three or even four and anchor from there? Venugopal Rao, Yuvraj's replacement, is not exactly the sort of free-scoring player you want coming at five, where he could possibly eat into overs better utilized by the likes of Dhoni and Pathan at six and seven.

India 117/2 in 20

On-field life, for Virender Sehwag, is now pretty much a matter of putting the scattered pieces of his game back together, one stroke at a time.

And the one piece that has noticeably come back, for the beleaguered opener, is his hitting square of the wicket on the off. During his slump, he has consistently mishit what for him is a bread and butter stroke - either hitting it down into the ground, or picking out point or worse, edging behind, the last a clear indication that his famed bat speed was deserting him.

In this innings, that stroke noticeably came back; he consistently lined the ball up right, his bat speed came back into play, and the shots found the fence with a semblance of his former pomp.

Equally noticeably, he seemed prepared for once to respect his own limitations, and concede points where deserved to the bowling and the field. Where, earlier, he has looked to blindly hit his way out of trouble, he was content here to wait, and hit only when the ball was in his slot and he was feeling good.

The thing about Sehwag is that even when he plays a restrained knock, he is incapable of being out there for any length of time and not score quick. The opener upped the ante in the 14th over, first carving one backward of point, then top-edging a hook to the fine leg fence, and ending the over by going under a short ball outside off and hitting up and to the right of third man for the third four of the over - and in the process, bringing up his 52 off just 43 deliveries.

At the other end, Mohammad Kaif too opted to play the waiting game, content to nudge and to nurdle and, when the bowlers erred in line and strayed onto his leg stump, playing the whip off his hips to find the fence.

On a pitch where the bounce thus far has been even, Lara's problems began in this phase: Bradshaw, his most consistent bowler, went for 41/2 in an extended eight over spell after being 2-2-0-1 at the start. Jerome Taylor came, and went with figures of 3/25, and Lara was forced to turn to his 5th bowler, Marlon Samuels, far earlier than he would have liked.

Sehwag promptly clipped him off the front foot through extra cover, then stayed back to carve a brace behind point, and as India brought up the 100 in the 18th over, the pressure noticeably switched to the fielding side with Lara holding back one power play and being forced to spread his field.

Fidel Edwards tried Sehwag out with a good bouncer, and a bit more of chatter - but in the process, lost his control and ended up bowling wides to negate Sehwag's obvious intent to crack him square on the off. One such wide brought up the 50-partnership for the third wicket, off 542 balls, with Sehwag contributing 30 off 23 and Kaif 18 off 29.

The only set back during a phase where India pretty much controlled the game was the loss of Suresh Raina. The youngster looked in fluent touch, especially in his front foot driving through the off - but that shot proved his undoing as he went for the shot off the first ball of the 11th over. Bradshaw bowled it a bit fuller and got it to go in the air a little; the combination of length and swing defeated the shot and found the pad to ricochet onto the stumps (62/2 India; Raina 26/28).

A run rate of 5.85 after 20 provides a bit of a platform; yet, the game remains poised, with the West Indies needing just one wicket to claw back into the game at this point. Increasingly, Sehwag holds the key -- he seems intent on batting through and if he can translate that intent into performance, he could well guide the side to a winning score (India, for the record, has won only 4 times in the last ten games they have batted first -- the antithesis of its winning streak chasing).

India 179/3 in 30 overs

A single brought up India's 150 off the last ball of the 25th over -- and Lara's problems were thrown in sharp relief.

The 14th over of the innings had gone for 12, the 15th had gone for 7 -- and with Sehwag building up a head of steam, Lara opted not to take the final power play. The ploy works well if you can either check the scoring, or take out a troublesome batsman.

In the event, neither happened -- and India's scoring progression, through overs 16-25, went 3-3-8-7-5-8-4-6-5-10; nothing spectacular in itself, but just daunting enough to keep the power play at bay.

The changed dynamic of the game was reflected in the scoreboard. At start of play, Irfan Pathan was slated to bat at seven behind Dhoni. But with Sehwag moving up the gears and Kaif keeping him good company, the lineup was recalibrated; Pathan leapfrogged two places and was named to come in at the fall of the third wicket in a clear indication that the Indians believe the momentum is back with them, and do not want to run the risk of an out of touch Venugopal Rao perhaps slowing it down by taking too long to settle.

Kaif and Sehwag bat in contrasting styles - the former content to work the gaps, the latter increasingly raising his bat higher on the back lift, and swinging through harder. Dwayne Bravo, who had been under the pump till the penultimate ball of the previous game, felt the hammer again - off the first ball of the 25th over, a perfectly decent delivery on length around off saw Sehwag extend his front foot down the pitch, staying inside the line, and hitting the booming drive over mid on and onto the roof of the stadium.

An over later, similar technique, though not as perfect an execution, saw the batsman get identical results to Marlon Samuels - and with both upping the frequency and quality of their running between wickets, the 101 of the partnership came off 100 deliveries, with Sehwag contributing 55 off 46 and Kaif 34/54.

With the 28th over gone and one power play still to be taken, Lara finally bit the bullet and called for it in the 29th over, with India on 168/2. Stunningly, it worked - Bravo produced some reverse on a full length delivery that took Sehwag on the toe of the front boot, ending an innings of 96/83 that, after a long, lean spell, finally saw the opener back at an approximation of his best form.

The nine fours and three sixes he hit were vintage Viru, but the hard work that went into this innings is best underlined by the 34 singles (37 dot balls) and four twos he ran, besides responding well from the non-striker's end to Kaif's urgent calling.

The fact of the power play still in force for four overs after the dismissal caused yet another change in the lineup - Mahendra Singh Dhoni was sent out ahead of both Pathan and Rao. At the 30 over mark, with two of the five power play overs gone, the batsmen haven't yet gone hard at the ball; three overs remain.

India 216/5 in 40

Just when India looked to have it all worked out, the game turned on its axis.

Though he was sent out there to maximize the power play, Mahendra Singh Dhoni found the older, softer ball not quite coming on to facilitate the big hits; Chris Gayle in particular bowled with a lot of intelligence, swinging wide of the crease to angle tight onto the stumps and deny the batsman room for a free swing.

The batsman promptly throttled back, pushing the ball around for singles and seemingly focused on holding a flat out assault back till the very end. The power play, between overs 29-33, produced just 28 for the wicket of Sehwag - and Lara bailed himself out of jail.

It could have been even better - in the 33rd over, Kaif got the leading edge to a well disguised slower ball from Bravo that reversed late. Marlon Samuels hurt his wrist attempting to make a catch of it at cover, then missed again with the throw with Kaif, running on the misfiled, well out of his ground.

It all ended with Kaif getting to his 50 (71 deliveries); the second of the series and a far more assured effort than the hand he played in the first ODI of the series.

The 200 came up in the 35th over, and just when things seemed to be settling down, a bit of indifferent running produced the wicket. Dhoni punched Gayle back down the track, took off, paused when he thought the bowler had got a hand to it, then started again on the misfiled only for Gayle to run back, field, and throw the stumps down with the batsman an inch short of where he should be (15/26; India 211/4 in the 38th).

Venugopal Rao came out to join Kaif - and pressure sent Kaif back. Rao was getting stuck at the crease, seemingly not able to work the ball off the square; Kaif called him through for a run to ease the pressure but failed to beat Chanderpaul's direct throw, and walked back with India 216/5 (Kaif 63/89).

At the 40 over mark, India finds its hopes of a 300-plus target, that seemed well on the cards when Sehwag was in the middle, revised to far less ambitious proportions.

The problem for India is that this wicket is fair and even; bowling second, they are not likely to find the sort of early swing they did in the first two games. That translates into good conditions for batting (with the two off spinners becoming the trump cards, really, for the bowling side) - and to counter that, India needs a good 280, at the last, to feel in a comfortable frame of mind going out to defend. And they now have just Pathan, and a clearly uncomfortable Rao, to get them there.

India 246/9 in 50 overs

The wheels came off the wagon almost entirely in this phase.

In the 41st over, Marlon Samuels held a ball back and Pathan, caught in a complete tangle, could do no more than square up and bat the ball back to the bowler for the simplest of return catches (1/4 and 219/6).

Lara's rotation of bowlers has been close to exemplary in the series thus far; he appears to have an uncanny instinct for bowling changes that produce results. Chris Gayle, who had gone for 9 in his first over and 29 in his first six, had produced three overs on the trot that each yielded just one run (9-0-32-0).

Just when you looked to have him bowl through, Lara switched him out and brought Ramnaresh Sarwan on - and got the breakthrough when Sarwan, going around the wicket, fired one down the leg stump line. Ramesh Powar looked to sweep to a ball too full for the shot, played all over it, and was bowled around his legs for just 1 (224/7).

The 47th over saw the end of Rao's uncomfortable tenure at the wicket - in somewhat unhappy fashion, as Agarkar pushed a Fidel Edwards yorker hard down the track, for the bowler to get a finger onto before the ball crashed into the stumps with the non-striker, backing up too far, out of his ground and unable to get back (12/28; India 233/8).

Faced with the tail, the Windies bowlers took the pace off the ball, focused on the full length on the stumps, and kept Agarkar and Harbhajan from getting a clear swing at the ball. Runs trickled when they should have been cascading; the boundaries remained as unattainable as a mirage. Dhoni's strike in the 32nd over was the last time an Indian batsman found the fence; attempting to break the grip, Agarkar had a slog at Bravo in the final over of the innings, and only managed to put it up in the air for Lara to jog in from the line at long on and hold (243/9; Agarkar 8/21).

Sreesanth scored the first ODI run of his career; Harbhajan ended the innings with a single, and India limped to an in-between total of 246/9. The slog overs had produced a mere 40 runs, for the loss of four wickets and through it all, the confidence the Indian batsmen have shown in recent times went totally missing.

The wicket clearly is slowing down. The hardness of the ball early on, though, should mean the early batsmen can play their shots, before the spinners come on. India's best chance on the defense is the two-pronged spin attack, aided by Sehwag and even Rao (surely he is in the team to do more than score at under 50 per cent at the tail end of the innings?). But to set the game up for the spinners, the opening bowlers will need to come up with a special effort, and keep the likes of Gayle and Lara from breaking free and chipping big chunks out of the target early on.

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Prem Panicker

India Tour South Africa 2023-24

India Tour South Africa 2023-24