Not all thrillers scripted by Fleming and featuring Bond are box office thrillers -- in fact, the one today at the Supersport Park in Centurion was over, as a contest, inside the space of three deliveries.
The first two were the second and third balls of the New Zealand innings, that saw Craig McMillan and Nathan Astle walk back, leaving the scoreboard reading a dismal 0/2.
The third delivery was in the 6th over of India's response. India, at the time, was 22/3, having lost Sehwag, Ganguly and Tendulkar. Rahul Dravid had an uncharacteristically expansive drive at Shane Bond, the ball got the thick outside edge and flew to wicketkeeper Brendan McCullum at a comfortable waist height. The two slips, Stephen Fleming and Scott Styris, had already begun celebrating when McCullum grabbed at the ball, got it on the heel of his palm, and saw it pop out.
Not only did it give Dravid -- and the team -- a reprieve, it also knocked the heart out of Bond. At the end of the over, McCullum ran down the pitch and patted Bond on the back in apology. Bond walked on, without even a backward glance to acknowledge his colleague.
From then on, Bond went through the motions -- and the New Zealand attack without their premier pace bowler firing on all cylinders doesn't have the teeth to defend anything other than a humongous total.
An early indication of the relative mindsets of the two teams came at the toss. India announced an unchanged line-up.
New Zealand made two changes: Andre Adams, who had the mortification of his chairman of selectors, Sir Richard Hadlee, suspect his mental readiness, was dropped. In came Darryl Tuffey, the seam and swing bowler who couldn't stop taking wickets against India, and who played just the one game in this Cup before being axed.
Craig McMillan was axed in the previous game, for form, and Lou Vincent brought in. For this game, Vincent was dropped, again for form, and McMillan came back in -- a clear indication of a team not confident of the form of its top order batsmen.
Sourav Ganguly won the toss, and opted to field first on a track with no sign of grass and no hint of sub-surface moisture. There was some debate early on, in the television commentary box, about the move with prevailing opinion being that it was a defensive ploy to get out of playing Bond early on. Ganguly, however, said at the toss that he thought that if the wicket had anything for bowlers, it would be in the first hour, and he wanted to give his seam attack the advantage.
The results bore him out -- at the end of the first hour, New Zealand were 47/4 after 14 overs and the game was pretty much over as a contest right there.
The drama began in the first over. The first ball, from Zaheer Khan, angled across McMillan and straightened on the seam, trapping the batsman in front; the appeal was turned down on the 'benefit of doubt' principle. Zaheer straightened his line a fraction, the next delivery was off straightening on middle, and McMillan obligingly flicked it off his pads straight to Harbhajan at square leg.
In came Nathan Astle and out he went, playing all round another Zaheer special -- a quick delivery angling across, hitting line of off and middle and straightening to pin the batsman in front.
Those two ducks made it 89 in the Cup -- 19 of them to Indian bowlers. (For trivia buffs, the 1975 Cup had 20 ducks; 25 in 1979; 39 in 1983, 35 in 1987; 39 in 1992; 39 in 1996 and 76 in 1999.)
Apparently afflicted with adrenalin overdose after those two early wickets, Zaheer began spraying it all over the place as he pushed for pace and forgot line and length. Stephen Fleming cashed in and the Kiwis at the end of 5 overs were 32/2 with Zaheer contributing 28 of those runs in three overs.
That was the signal for Ganguly to kick-off perhaps the most inspired series of bowling changes I've seen from an Indian skipper in a long while. Nehra for the profligate Zaheer was the obvious change, and the bowler obliged, starting with a controlled maiden over, and in the next, taking out Styris in clinical fashion.
The batsman had begun looking comfortable and was getting nicely behind the line to deliveries by both Zaheer and Srinath that came in to him -- Nehra bent his first delivery the other way, on length, and Styris was drawn into pushing at it, the edge flying true to Dravid.
The Kiwis, unwilling to risk Chris Cairns so early, sent out Brendan McCullum. Srinath and Nehra bowled a controlled spell -- and around when you would have expected Harbhajan to come on, Ganguly brought back Zaheer Khan. Again, the move paid immediate dividends -- in his second over, Zaheer produced a classic delivery, angling across the right-hander, landing on the line of off and straightening. McCullum, playing defensively, found the ball going through the gate to knock back off stump.
Zaheer Khan claimed his 100th ODI wicket, the fastest to that mark among Indian bowlers in 65 matches. (Ajit Agarkar 67, Srinath 68, Kapil Dev 78, Prabhakar 83, Prasad 85).
Zaheer bowled three overs in that spell. That brought Chris Cairns to the wicket. Fleming throttled back, and the two batsmen buckled down to a rescue operation. At which point, Ganguly switched bowlers again -- Zaheer, who had done little wrong in his second spell of 3-0-10-1, was taken off and Srinath brought back on to attack Fleming. (Trivia alert: Of bowlers with over 150 ODI wickets, Srinath ranks next only to Darren Gough in terms of success against southpaws).
Again, the move paid off in a way Gary Kasparov would have loved. The run progression tells you why -- the Kiwis had made 32/2 in 5, 40/3 in 10, 51/4 in 15, 59/4 after 17. The innings was becalmed. Fleming had little recourse but to watch deliveries from Zaheer and Nehra through in that corridor outside off, with both bowlers bowling that three quarter line and not giving him either the length to drive or the width to cut. Srinath began angling deliveries across him, then gave him the short one. Fleming, a batsman who loves to pull, launched into the shot and found the ball climbing higher and jagging back into him, cramping him for room. The batsman could only spoon it to mid off standing well in -- and Srinath, who had taken Fleming out thrice in the recent tour of New Zealand, had got his man again.
Chris Cairns and Chris Harris had famously pulled the Kiwis out of just such a hole in the Champions Trophy final in Nairobi -- but the Cairns of this Cup has shown neither the fire, nor the heart. Here, needing to play a controlled knock, he opted instead to try and hit Harbhajan Singh off his line, and became frustrated as his attempts failed. The off spinner finally served up the worst ball he bowled today -- a short delivery wide of off. An over-eager Cairns aimed a hit at it that would have knocked it into orbit somewhere over wide long off -- but over-hit the ball and saw it flare off the bat edge to point.
At 88/6, it was pretty much all over bar the shouting. Ganguly, who had been rotating his bowlers rapidly all day (Bajji on in the 22nd, Ganguly himself on in the 23rd, then off in the 27th and replaced by Zaheer Khan, Khan off in the 30th and replaced by Nehra), then began using his fifth bowling combinations with a vengeance.
The speed of rotation (best understood by checking out the Manhattan on the Graphical Analysis package), which ensured that no batsman settled against any bowler, was not without a touch of irony. In 1992 Martin Crowe, easily the most innovative skipper seen so far in World Cup competition, earned a name for bowling off spinner Deepak Patel first up -- what is not as often spoken of was his penchant for rotating bowlers rapidly with the same intention, and same impact, that Ganguly used today (in a game against Australia for instance, Crowe bowled Chris Harris in four spells, totaling just seven overs!).
Stephen Fleming, analyzing the Indian team before this match, had said that while the three seamers were doing good work, he felt that the spinner and fifth bowling combination were weak links his team would look to exploit.
Not. Harbhajan produced a tight spell of 2/28 in his ten; the fifth bowling combination comprising Ganguly, Tendulkar, Sehwag and Mongia bowled 9.1-1-27-2 with Sehwag and Mongia taking out the tail.
The New Zealand batting display was as woeful as India's had been, early in this tournament on this same ground, against Australia; the shots played by the likes of Fleming and Cairns in particular were inexcusable.
Against that, it needs mentioning that much of the looseness in the Kiwi play was triggered by the Indian performance with the ball and in the field. The field placing remained aggressive throughout there was no point in the match when there wasn't at least one slip in place; Harbhajan often bowled with a slip, silly point and short square, and even Sehwag and Mongia had two close fielders.
Also against the earlier trend, Ganguly kept his fielders well inside the circle, using them like a noose to throttle the Kiwis, build the pressure as the overs wound down without any runs on the board, and force the mistakes.
The bowlers responded. Barring Zaheer Khan's second and third overs, there was never a time when the eight bowlers used strayed from the length and line, or bowled contrary to the field it was a disciplined, controlled display, and the demoralized Kiwis had no answers.
The Indian reply lasted 40.3 overs, but was in fact over by the 12th over (51/3).
This tournament has seen bowlers talking tough and ending up with egg; today, Virender Sehwag found himself in that position. The opener had talked of vengeance before the game, but in the middle, ended up slashing hard at the sixth delivery he received, wide of off, to present a catch to Styris at slip.
Again, there was debate about whether Ganguly would want to drop down the order. He did not, and a good thing too -- the team has settled into this lineup and the last thing you want to do is unsettle it again. More to the point, it would send a message to the Aussies, and to his own mates, that the captain did not want to face the music against sheer pace.
A sign of how such a move can have the direst of results was evident in the Kiwi batting lineup: when Vettori opened in an earlier game, Fleming openly announced that he was protecting Astle, himself an opener, from the new ball. Not only does such a move tell the opposition the batsman is vulnerable, it doesn't do wonders for his own confidence either.
Ganguly at three, thus, was the right move with an unfortunate result. Bond, who was bowling flat out, produced a sizzling yorker to take out the Indian captain at top pace, it angled across the left hander, landed in the blockhole, and was clipping the base of off before the batsman had fully got his bat down.
Tendulkar, who had watched two batsmen walk back, then got into overdrive in the 5th over. Tuffey was off driven twice in succession, the second shot a thing of beauty; he was then savagely pulled through midwicket for the third successive four. A ball later, he rocked back, looking to blast a shorter delivery through point, failed to control it and found Jacob Oram taking a superb catch at a slightly backward point.
Then came the turning point of the innings the drop by McCullum off Bond. With that, the sting went out of the attack. Dravid continued to live dangerously for a while it was almost catch me if you can stuff, as he hit a cover drive in the air over the fielder, then a square drive in the air just wide of point, a top edge to third man, and another slashing square drive that Harris, jumping higher than you would have thought he could at point, managed to brush with a fingertip before it flew past him.
Thus far, there is no clue to why Dravid and, for a while, Kaif, played in that neck or nothing fashion but one explanation could be the dark clouds that had begun gathering over the ground. India, having lost 3 wickets, needed to get to 82 at the end of 25 overs to seal the win by Duckworth Lewis calculations, had the rain come down; thus, the neck or nothing batting could well have been an attempt to reach that mark (India in fact reached 92/3 at that point).
But as the sun came back out, the two batsmen settled down to percentage cricket, working the ball around, running their singles and twos superbly, and moving almost languidly towards their mark. Once fully set, Dravid produced a few superb pulls, and Kaif uncorked flowing cover and extra cover drives to punish errant lines and lengths.
Tuffey labored through his ten overs without reward, Bond came back for a spell of two overs but found both batsmen getting behind the line of his deliveries, Vettori gave it a go but again, found both batsmen at ease against his spin.
Fleming's last throw of the dice was McMillan, a maverick bowler with a penchant for banging the ball down and making things happen. He got into a bit of a bumper battle with Kaif, his mouth working faster than his deliveries till Kaif responded sharply. Umpire Peter Willey stepped in to ask both players to cool it and with that interlude ended the last bit of drama in a game that wound its way to an inevitable conclusion.
Kaif and Dravid, both of whom completed their 50s, in fact seemed intent on doing the job with singles; a sharp downpour changed their minds for them and both batsmen opened out their shoulders, Kaif knocking off two fours on the on side off Styris to seal the seven-wicket win.
For India, the match was inconsequential; the team did make it clear however that they wanted to lay the ghosts of the New Zealand tour. For the Kiwis, a win was crucial to seal a semi-final place -- having failed in that attempt, they now have to wait a further 24 hours to see if Zimbabwe will do their job for them by defeating Sri Lanka at East London tomorrow.