Saturday, March 24, 2007

Trinidad, 23rd march

Time: Interval of the India-v-Sri Lanka Pool B match

When Zaheer bowls a leg-side wide to flag off the match I feel a surge of anger rushing up but I refuse to shout. It is difficult for a date-happy fan like me to forget that Zaheer Khan had yielded 15 runs in his first over on this very day four years back and started the proceedings of an Indian flop show in the final of the last World Cup. I manage to control myself nevertheless and gently utter, “You can do it Zach.”

To my boundless joy he hears it, as does his team! Admittedly he does not do it that over; he continues bowling leg side and yielding extras. But then Agarkar does something first up that millions in India will thank him for if India scrape through the ordeal and end up as the winners of this unfolding epic. He starts off as a man possessed and has Sri Lankan openers in all sorts of problems in five of his first six balls. Becalmed, Zaheer gets back his groove and with later support from Munaf they send down eighteen overs of seam bowling that I would like getting replayed back to any team with an all-seam-no-seering –pace attack as the model way to do it on a slightly helpful track.

The first Sri Lankan wicket falls in the seventh over, An all-time classic, it could have been straight out of a Test match. Six overs had gone by and Sri Lanka, after being kept quiet, had taken 9 or 10 off the last one thru Chamara Silva. An iffy Jayasuriya has survived a few close shaves. Now he faces Zaheer and is promptly struck on the pads by Zaheer. Everybody in the ground and around the world thinks Sanath is out except umpire Aleem Dar.

Now, Jayasuriya has already benefitted from an even-harder-to-believe lbw let off from Daryll Harper off Ajit Agarkar’s very first ball. This second one threatens to be the last straw for a team not renowned for its resilience in adversity. Today is a little different though. Zaheer blasts one past Sanath’s ears the very next ball. Today’s Sanath can only swing at it as an afterthought.

Zaheer makes the ball move both ways in the next two deliveries. Somehow in the space of four balls he manages to distract Sanath from his original game plan of seeing out the first spells of Indian opening bowlers. Convinced that he is only waiting for the ball to gobble him up Sanath swings at the next one outside off stump without getting to it and Ajit Agarkar gets to pouch it at 3rd man quite like the Sri Lankan dasher’s Eden 1996 dismissal. All’s well again.

Agarkar by now has seen some of his gems prove to be too good for the batsmen but then funnily enough he picks up the team’s 2nd wicket off an ‘Agarkar’ – that familiar full ball he bowls every now and then just outside the batsman’s pads. Those generally disappear into the boundary to the exasperation of Indian cricket lovers. Today is a little different here again, in that the ball disappeared into the glove of a magnificently diving Dhoni off Mahela’s faint tickle.

Agarkar and Zach only pick up two wickets in the excellent spell and Munaf remains wicketless in a relentlessly incisive spell to remind you-and-me of
His Unluckiness J Srinath. I can easily recall at least six or seven other deliveries by the medium pace trio which could have got a defending batsman out for no fault of his. The bounce helped them but so did a discernable steadfastness to remain unfazed in the face of ill luck and umpiring horrors.

This period of play is almost as good Srinath’s unforgettable opening challenge in
Ashish Nehra’s match from South Africa 2003 when India were defending a modest total against England. Srinath put up an unplayable spell and set the batsmen’s mind up for Ashish’s taking. [BTW that ‘no seering pace’ fails to apply to that match as Ashish was easily clocking 148 kph in it – nursing an ankle injury.]

No one takes six wickets today but things do not get too bad either. Hereafter skipper Dravid takes over and is made to look even smarter because his other three bowlers do not disappoint him. The only one to go wicketless is – once again – Harbhajan but he does not get much help from the seaming surface (contrary to the claims of commentators) and is distinctly unlucky to miss an lbw by way of another umpiring horror.

Ganguly had picked up a wicket in the last India Sri Lanka match back home and the book-ish (or studied, as you look at it) decision to make him bowl pays off rich dividends as he picks up the best Sri Lankan bat in my book, Kumar Sangakkara, in only his 2nd over. Dada bowls four on the trot and the remaining 5th bowling quota is taken over by one dunno-what-he-is bowler called Sachin Tendulkar.

Sachin has been having a ball with the ball since that Pakistan trip last year when his confidence skyrocketed after picking up Inzamam repeatedly on featherbed surfaces. On that occasion he bowled seam up. He did so not because the conditions were assisting seamers but because spinners were generally getting murdered. But then we saw the same guy turn up as the familiar leggie against West Indies two months back to play a critical role with the ball in the low scoring
second one dayer on an underprepared Cuttack surface.

Today, Sachin Tendulkar puts on his preaching specs and offers a free masterclass on both varieties of conventional swing. And he does that with a 30-over old ball. He swings the cherry both ways at will like Zaheer and keeps the batsmen guessing right till his eight over by which time it is too deep into the slog overs for the batsmen to play Sachin with respect. [Besides, ICC’s Anti Corruption Unit are reportedly keeping vigil on the match; who wants to face questions for the crime of not hitting Sachin for boundaries in the 45th over….]

Rahul Dravid rotates his bowlers frequently for good results. Interestingly he is seen readily making field changes to suit the bowlers’ liking. The last three overs of the innings yields 31 runs but that is understandable as Vaas and Arnold stay put till the end. If anything the relative ease of scoring for Sri Lankan lower order bats during end overs should actually be some cause for joy to Indian players as the pitch betrays signs of easing up there.

Must say something though - Sri Lanka are certain title contenders this time. They are way too poised in all situations not to reach the semis.

The match has resumed and I must sign off.

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