July 21, 2002

Mind games to the fore in the Rose Bowl

If you've watched the award winning movie, "A Beautiful Mind", you would know what it's like to be enthralled for half an event, only to be left feeling empty by the latter half. There were more than a few at the Rose Bowl at Southampton who walked away from the second day's play thinking they should get half their ticket money back.

While the first day was beautiful - weather and cricketwise - the second was ruled by the mind. Shaun Udal's five-wicket bag apart, the first day was dominated by talk of the wicket. From talk, it graduated to demonstrations as the Hampshire batsmen formed a neat procession back to the pavilion. With the Kohima Regiment of the Royal Band drumming up what could have easily been a dirge, the local side were reduced from 59/1 to 101/8 before a bit of a slog at the end by Messrs. Mascarenhas and Hamblin saw Hampshire limp to 123 all out.

A direct testament to the quality of the wicket was the fact that the Hampshire side lasted a mere 37.3 overs in their first innings. India's bowlers managed to chalk up figures that flatter them beyond belief. Sanjay Bangar would never have seen figures of four for 40 at his home ground - the Karnail Singh Stadium. After a few overs of Tinu Yohannan were completed, it was obvious that Sourav Ganguly would be on in no time.

He was. And Hampshire were off in equal time. The Indian skipper, sending down his medium pace deliveries got several balls to duck low even as a couple whizzed by the ears of increasingly frustrated batsmen. Ganguly returned three for ten from his four overs.

To be quite honest, it was the kind of day where you had to drop all feelings of patriotism and parochialism and just support whichever team was batting. It would be easy to begin a tirade against the home association for the kind of wicket served up. However, if you do look back at the history of games at the Rose Bowl, you will find that the wicket boasts no more terrors than its cousins all over the country. It tends to favour the seamers early on before easing out nicely to let the batsmen get on with their job. "It's not unusual to see sides being about 80 for four and ending up with over 350," said Victor Isaacs, Hampshire scorer, who has probably watched more games at this venue than anyone else.

The Indians, however, were in no mood for history lessons on the nature of the Hampshire wicket. With more than one player rapped painfully on the fingers and knuckles by deliveries that took off from a length, in their first essay, the Indians did not want to take any chances in their second knock. At about lunch time, with Hampshire eight down for 101, the chinese whispers made their way from the dressing rooms to the members' pavilion to the Atrium Bar and yes, to the press box, that the Indians were reluctant to bat again on this wicket.

It bears repeating, however, that these were mere rumours. And of course, to get a clarification on matters of this kind from cricket officials is like trying to play Beethoven on a plate with a fork and knife. You can beat away all you like, but you'll never get more than a lot of noise. When openers Virender Sehwag and Wasim Jaffer walked out to bat, the audience heaved a collective sigh of relief. There were going to be no embarrassing scenes after all.

And then wicketkeeper Adrian Aymes stood up to Dimitri Mascarenhas bowling with a shiny new cherry and a few gents and ladies looked up from their Pimms-lemonade, and raised an enquiring eyebrow. Then came Shaun Udal to bowl his offies in just the fifth over of the innings. His success in the first innings apart, one finds it hard to believe that Robin Smith intended to do a Martin Crowe by bringing his off-spinner on to bowl early. Perhaps captains of both sides, realising the nature of the wicket, had taken the only possible route.

Ganguly too seemed to change his tactics, sending Bangar in at the fall of the first wicket - Sehwag 22 - and Ajay Ratra in when Wasim Jaffer was dismissed for 32.

There was more chaos to follow. While Bangar helped himself to probably the easiest fifty of his life, Ratra scratched around, never looking comfortable, and before you knew it he was caught in the slips for 26. VVS Laxman, coming in to bat next was hit once in the midriff before patting a ball from James Hamblin straight back to him. He did not trouble the scorers. Ganguly came in next, stayed briefly, scoring 1, before he declared the innings close on 139 for four. This left Hampshire with a target of 253 with an hour and a day to play.

Neil Johnson could not emulate his first innings form and chipped Bangar to Sehwag at square leg. Soon after, Will Kendall tickled one to slip and became Bangar's second victim of the innings. Robin Smith (19 not out) and Hamblin (10 not out) took Hampshire through to stumps on 43 for two.

To say the cricket to a back seat to the aforementioned events would be pushing things, but you would have to admit that a bit of friendly bowling to support batsmen is hardly the way to celebrate the great game. Oh yes, but it's not just a great game, it's also a funny old one.