February 24, 2002

Zimbabwe face massive task on final day

A statistics student with an interest in demography could have taken it on as a case study. What percentage of Nagpur-ites, with India in a strong position and Sachin Tendulkar undoubtedly looking for quick runs on a Sunday morning, cancelled plans of going boating or amateur orange picking and instead packed picnic lunches before making a beeline for the Vidarbha Cricket Association stadium?

A less exhaustive prospect for research would be to ask what percentage of the stadium crowd was disappointed that Sanjay Bangar acted as understudy for Tendulkar on the fourth morning. After three days of batsmen grinding out runs reluctantly, Bangar's stroke-play could not have been more welcomed than five-star A-grade manna to a famished Moses.

Tendulkar scored only 39 runs on the day, and it is not often that he contributes as many out of a stand of 110. More credit, then, to a man whose selection ahead of Virender Sehwag expended much newsprint across the country. Fresh from a double century on the domestic circuit, Bangar made his maiden Test hundred in only his second match, batting with a quietude that many hardened veterans would find tough to match.

The century almost did not come, however, as India lost both Tendulkar (176, 316b, 23x4) and Zaheer Khan (0, 2b) with the score on 547, Ray Price scalping the little master to get his second five-wicket haul in Tests. Anil Kumble, however, hung around for 15 balls and added 13 runs, enabling Bangar to get to three figures. Sourav Ganguly declared on 570/7 as soon as Bangar hit his 100th run off his 155th ball; his knock featured 12 boundaries, many of them just chipped cleverly over the infield, and two sixes.

Zimbabwe faced a deficit of 283 runs, a situation that shut out any thoughts of victory from their minds. Their openers, then, played accordingly; Stuart Carlisle, in fact, looked positively dashing in comparison to Trevor Gripper, who seemed to have decided that it was time for all stolid men to come to the aid of the party. Carlisle's innings, however, ended just after lunch when a Zaheer Khan delivery pitched outside leg and rapped him on the pads. Umpire Venkataraghavan upheld the loud appeal, and India had gotten rid of their first-innings thorn in the side.

Gripper and Alistair Campbell almost saw their side through to tea safely, Campbell in particular looking comfortable against spin and rapidly outpacing his companion. In the last over before tea, however, he failed to get to the pitch of a Kumble delivery; the ball struck the shoulder of his bat and VVS Laxman completed an easy catch at first slip.

Andy Flower's tenure at the crease in the second innings was less momentary that the first, but he always looked shaky and vulnerable, his confidence dented by his recent lean patch. His dismissal loomed not too far on the horizon, and when he was caught by Rahul Dravid at short leg off Kumble, he had made 8 off 41.

With Gripper still propping up one end, Gavin Rennie played with some elan, pulling out the sweep shot to good effect against Kumble and Tendulkar. He struck three fours, all swept to square leg or mid-wicket, and rotated the strike nicely otherwise. But just when it looked like the pair would walk out the next morning unscathed, Kumble struck again, having Rennie caught by substitute Virender Sehwag at short leg.

India could not get rid of night-watchman Price before the close of play, even though Ganguly stationed, at one point, seven men around the bat. Or perhaps he reasoned that close-in fielders had a chance of taking any catches that Deep Dasgupta grassed; three chances went down today behind the stumps.

Zimbabwe start the final day precariously perched on 152/4. They can still pull off a draw in this match, and that will be a creditable achievement indeed. Gripper looks in the mood to bat implacably for another day, and Price, Grant Flower, Heath Streak and Travis Friend can hardly be called mugs with the bat. But India hold two aces Kumble and the unlucky Harbhajan on a pitch that is increasingly lending itself to turn.