April 13, 2002

India stumble after Tendulkar dazzles

The first two days' play of this Guyana Test match - and it can be called thus for more reasons than just the venue - threw up tremendous excitement from stylish batsmen. The third day saw a predictable end to the West Indian innings at a psychologically important 501 and an Indian reply that followed a script that the team seems to pick up from the Immigration and Customs officer every time it leaves the country. At the end of the third day's play, India had stuttered to 237/4.

The day began with a delay - yet another one of those things about the day that was oh-so-predictable. It was just one of those days, one could hear the old man in the stands at the Bourda Oval mutter. The name of that wise veteran Windies supporter (Gus, was it? Or possibly Les?) does not really matter. What does is the fact that there was little to the day's play that would have worried the bookmakers. No surprises at all.

To start off, the West Indies added precious little to their overnight score of 494 for seven. Sanjay Bangar, bowling his medium-pace with a markedly more reasonable field setting, picked up his first Test wicket. It may not have been that of the greatest batsman in the world, but Bangar would still have been pleased as punch when he trapped Mervyn Dillon in front of the stumps for a duck.

Anil Kumble, who has toiled hard without much direction or result this match, removed debutant Adam Sanford. A low full-toss that appeared to be slipping down leg in rapping the pads was enough to satisfy umpire Asoka de Silva. A comedy of errors then saw last man Cameron Cuffy run out while Mahendra Nagamootoo remained unbeaten on 15. With 501 on the board, the West Indies licked their chops, took the new ball, and started to have a bowl at the Indians.

And that licking of chops was not without good reason. Deep Dasgupta, cruelly dubbed Deep 'Drop'gupta by some especially severe Indian fans, failed at the one task that is keeping him in supply of India Test caps. Opening the batting, the Indian stumper troubled the scorers merely in the sense that they had to mark out five dot-balls before neatly pencilling in (or typing, in the case of the more technology-savvy scorers) D Dasgupta lbw b Cuffy 0. Plumb in front too, for those who may be wondering if Dasgupta was somehow dealt a cruel hand by fate.

Not five overs later, Dasgupta had his Bengal teammate at his side back in the cool confines of the dressing room. Sourav Ganguly, showing some bravado in climbing up the order to number three, failed to come good on a wicket that looks easier to bat on than many others the world of overseas Test cricket can offer.

Tentative at best and confused at worst, the Indian skipper scratched around for five runs before committing what television commentator Geoffrey Boycott incorrectly refers to as 'Hari-Kiri.' Playing a pull with all the confidence and poise of a flat-footed, pimpled teenager picked to dance with the prom queen, Ganguly mis-hit Dillon to Nagamootoo at backward square leg.

Then came that short man from Mumbai. Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar put his fan following back home of a billion (incorrectly and conveniently assuming, of course, that every Indian citizen from infant to geriatric is a cricket nut) through a rigorous cardiac test. Playing half-cocked to the first ball he faced, Tendulkar missed edging the ball to the keeper by the finest of whiskers.

After that, though, it was all mastery. Showing why he has more centuries, a better average, and basically truck-loads more of every conceivable batting record than any other Indian batsman playing today, Tendulkar dominated the bowling. Striking the ball through the covers as though it were his birthright and whipping the ball through midwicket with the felicity of a confectioner whipping cream, the star of the Indian firmament rose higher and higher.

All the while, Nagamootoo and Co. had more than one trick hidden up their sleeves. What Anil Kumble can do with a packed Chinnaswamy Stadium at Bangalore behind him, Nagamootoo can also do with his Guyanese fans sipping the finest Merlin Rum and belting out reggae from the stands. And let us not forget the air-horns that blared loud enough to make one ardent fan plead desperately, "Can't we shoot that man operating the horn?" It was one of those air-horn special skidders that Nagamootoo trapped Tendulkar plumb in front of the stumps with, just minutes before tea.

A crucial ball it was too. Whether it was the deft skill of Nagamootoo's flipper or a mere deceptive whim of an otherwise placid wicket, Tendulkar's shot deserved nothing less than the loss of his wicket. A cross-batted pull just minutes before tea on a wicket that kept low every now and then cost India the man who had scored 79 of India's 144 runs. But one cannot be too hard on Tendulkar. Thirteen sensational boundaries had already dotted his 136-ball innings.

As is often the case when India is abroad, Rahul Dravid is the backbone of stability when several others around him fail the test. Indian fans accustomed to run gluts on flat wickets at home often grow impatient with the Indian vice-captain, but his contribution can hardly be underestimated. A patient, painstaking 57 (182 balls, nine fours) in the company of a belligerent and intermittently sublime VVS Laxman (46, 91 balls, seven fours) saw India reach 237 for four when bad light stopped play on the third day.

Laxman is a mercurial sort. Sparkling 30s and 40s flow off his blade like there is no tomorrow, but just when he looks classy enough for a big score that will push the opposition on the back foot, a careless heave or slash sends him on his way. Today, though, was a little different. Cutting out several strokes that are usually his strengths, an under-pressure Laxman spent quality time out in the middle. The wristy artistry was there for all to see, and the timing and placement were good enough to beat the field repeatedly.

Indian fans will have on their lips that immortal line - "Keep that song playing" - when it comes to strokes at the wicket. And the Hyderabadi stylist will have to keep it playing, in the company of a reliable partner, if India are to somehow try and wrest back the initiative.