April 22, 2002

Match poised on razor's edge with one day to play

The day began with India on top and looking to convert a strong position into a winning one. With all the dexterity of a neophyte gymnast working the parallel bars, however, India leapt, somersaulted and landed firmly on their backsides. From an overnight score of 165 for four India fell away to 218 all out, setting the West Indies a target of 313 for victory. Going well, the West Indies were 131 for two when bad light stopped play.

The day began with a session that gave punters no indications either way. India could not push the advantage as much as pundits would have liked, but at the same time, the West Indies could not wrap up the Indian innings soon enough for their comfort.

Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman started off by putting together a meaningful partnership. With flicks off the toes and pulls that rang true, Laxman made a mighty 74 (157 balls, nine fours) before chopping one from Mervyn Dillon back onto his stumps. That was what the new ball did for West Indies.

Ajay Ratra, who made a duck in his first innings, managed to score a couple of runs before being trapped in front by Cameron Cuffy. Off the very next ball, Harbhajan Singh tickled an outswinger to the safe hands of Chris Gayle at first slip.

On a hat-trick and on song, Cuffy saw Javagal Srinath negotiate four balls before popping a Dillon delivery towards the slip cordon. Stuart Williams took a good diving catch, and the stands came alive.

Zaheer Khan, known to strike a few telling blows, was involved in a horrible mix-up with the skipper and departed with four runs to his name.

After a brief hope of a big score, India went in to tea at 218 for nine. No runs were added when they came back, Ashish Nehra being cleaned up by Merv Dillon (21.1-7-42-4)

Ganguly remained unbeaten on 75 (227 balls, six fours) when the Indian innings ended. While the Indian captain had played a meaningful knock when the chips were down, it must be said that he should have looked to boost the scoring at least after the fall of the sixth wicket.

Then came the West Indian response. Stuart Williams (13) stumbled, fending a ball from Srinath to Rahul Dravid at slip and completing a dismal comeback to the West Indian team.

The fall of Willams, however, did not deter cavalier southpaw Chris Gayle. The tall youngster pelted the ball through the off-side more than once before he was forced to retire to the comfort of the pavilion. Gayle's heart condition is well-known, and perhaps a fall-out of that caused the circulation in his arm to give him problems. Looking good on 21, Gayle had to retire hurt.

Ramnaresh Srawan then played enough strokes around the park for people to wonder why the lad had not gone on to make a better score than his career-best 91 against South Africa in March 2001. Judging the length early, Sarwan forced the ball through the off-side with aplomb.

That was until Brian Lara walked out to the middle. Then things moved up more than one gear. The felicity with which Lara found the gaps made it hard for the Indians to keep the pressure up. The target may be a massive one, but Lara seemed to understand clearly what the first step was in accomplishing the task at hand. The fact that the best left-handed batsman in the world was looking for a ton at his home ground made the task harder for the Indians.

The West Indies, however, needed more than pretty shots from Sarwan to chase down the target; they needed him to stay at the crease. But after batting sensibly to get to 41 (109 balls, five fours), the young Guyanese middle-order bat completely failed to read a drifter from Harbhajan Singh. A tentative tickle landed in Dravid's lap at first slip, and the home team captain was out in the middle with Lara.

When bad light stopped play, with more than 15 overs to be bowled, Lara was unbeaten on 40 (67 balls, four fours) as the hosts reached 131 for two. There is still everything to play for, and that is not just your average end-of-fourth-day cliché. With 182 runs still needed and a full day's play remaining, this match is up for grabs. Whether India can stop Lara remains to be seen.

For the locals who will throng the ground, however, the fairytale can have only one ending. Their Prince - Brian Charles Lara - must make a ton and inspire a famous West Indian triumph. How then will this tale end? Check in again tomorrow, for it really is too close to call at this point.