April 21, 2002

India reach position of relative strength

When Marlon Ian Black, MIB, dubbed, "Man In Black" after that famous movie, was called into the team to play in place of the injured Mahendra Nagamootoo there was talk about him being the man to trouble the Indians. He had the pace, he had the 4-fer on debut in Australia. But, sadly and strangely enough, it was the men in white coats, the two umpires, who inspired more discussion than the action out in the middle. Nevertheless, India ended on 165/4, a lead of 259 after West Indies were dismissed for 235.

The game however, is not about umpiring decisions alone. There's no point harping about it more than necessary. And that is refreshing. There's always room for criticism, and both Asoka de Silva and Daryl Harper, on watching replays, will agree that they did not do themselves any favours in this match. Part of an elite panel, their mistakes will not cost them too dear. Ask Shiv Chanderpaul, or Merv Dillon or Sachin Tendulkar. The story might be a bit different.

The day began with the hosts adding 48 runs to their overnight score. West Indies were all out for 245 in response to India's 339 on the third day. Carl Hooper with an even 50 helped whittle down the Indian lead to 94.

Merv Dillon, keeping Hooper company, saw off all of 35 balls before he was trapped plumb in front by Ashish Nehra. Moving the ball in to the right hander quite significantly, Nehra proved to be a potent force. After the fall of Dillon, the seventh West Indian wicket, with 201 on the board, the West Indian skipper helped the tail along.

Not taking any chances, Hooper shielded Black (9) and saw to it that the last four wickets added 65 runs. In the last 10 innings, the last four have managed just 14 per outing. Hooper finally fell after 111 balls at the wicket for his half-century, hitting Zaheer Khan straight to the Indian captain at covers. The West Indian innings ended when Sachin Tendulkar took a well-judged running catch in the deep to pouch a skier from Adam Sanford (12).

A short period of just six overs had to be negotiated before lunch and the Indian openers Shiv Sunder Das and Sanjay Bangar were found wanting. In the 5th over of the day Dillon trapped Das in front of the stumps for a duck. The intensity in Dillon's face was there for all to see and Asoka de Silva responded positively to a long appeal.

Then came the famous Indian top-order collapse.

Yet another careless swish from makeshift opener Sanjay Bangar cost him his wicket. In an action replay of his first innings dismissal, Bangar edged Adam Sanford to the slip cordon, after doing all the hard work in getting to 16 off 62 balls. Rahul Dravid (36 runs, 62 balls, 6 fours), who looked in prime form, hitting the ball fluently, perished when things were going India's way, caught behind down the leg side off Cameron Cuffy. And then, Sachin Tendulkar was trapped lbw by Sanford for a duck. India in trouble at 77/4 at tea.

The Tendulkar dismissal was one that will be talked about for a long time. Perhaps not at the Queen's Park Oval in Trinidad where the fans went crazy when the little master from India was given out. There's been enough criticism about the umpiring this series. Adjudging Tendulkar leg before wicket to a delivery that would have sailed well above the stumps, de Silva gave critics chance to have a go at him.

They say cricket is a great leveler. One hopes that is the truth. No one wants a series to be marred by too many rain breaks or umpiring decisions. After all, what could be more exciting than a close finish to this Test match?

Sourav Ganguly, much maligned for his batting in the first Test, and his irresponsible stroke in the first innings, played tentatively yet carefully to remain unbeaten on 48 (142 balls, 3 fours). There was nothing special about Ganguly's innings and yet the fact that he kept it simple, and managed to stay at the wicket for a length of time. True, it was not an innings of pure defiance and yet, the willingness with which he took on the short pitched stuff showed off a belligerence people are not used to seeing.

VVS Laxman, fluent as ever, remained at the wicket with 60 (125 balls, 7 fours) to his name as India reached 165/4 at the end of the third day. Laxman too, like his skipper, was under fire for the fact that he had not made any big score since his epic knock against the Australians at Kolkata. Responding with an innings that smacked of those words, `application' and `character' Laxman helped India quietly reach a position of strength.

With a lead of 259, this game is very interestingly poised. There's a little man called Lara, waiting to score his first hundred at his home ground, who can take on anyone on his day. There's Harbhajan Singh and a wicket that is steadily deteriorating. If you're a betting man, perhaps you should just quietly walk away. This one isn't anywhere near over yet.