March 16, 2002

India level series with convincing win at Hyderabad

India always seem to do spectacularly well in must-win situations - round-robin games needed to be won for qualification, matches needed to keep a series alive, targets to be obtained to maintain a qualifying run-rate. On all of these occasions, they manage to find one man to carry the team. On Saturday at Hyderabad, that man was Yuvraj Singh.

Freshly drafted, along with Murali Kartik, into the squad for the final two one-dayers, Yuvraj was coming off a booming double century in the Duleep Trophy, an innings resounding with trademark strokes at trademark strike-rates. With that kind of streak, he must have been disappointed that he could not slip into gloves and pads straight away, having to first field for 50 overs as Stuart Carlisle won the toss and opted to bat.

India's opening bowlers responded with aggression to a two-paced, unpredictable pitch, with both Zaheer Khan and Ajit Agarkar maintaining tight line and length. Agarkar struck first, removing the in-form Alistair Campbell caught off a nippy delivery in the slips. Three balls later, Agarkar again delivered surprising pace, this time Travis Friend gloving a bouncer to Ajay Ratra.

Dion Ebrahim and a freshly returned Andy Flower settled down after the early blows to sedately milk the bowling, but controlled medium-pace from Sourav Ganguly proved the downfall of the former. Attempting to hit the Indian skipper over mid-wicket, Ebrahim (38, 74b, 5x4) only presented Dravid with his second catch of the day.

Andy and Grant Flower did some consolidation of their own, running well between the wickets and resorting to the boundary only when needed. Grant made 45 (58b, 4x4) before he hit Harbhajan Singh down Dinesh Mongia's throat. Andy, on his part, proceeded calmly to reverse-sweep as to the manner born, punishing Kartik in particular. Zaheer Khan finally removed the southpaw caught behind for 89 (107b, 6x4), but Carlisle hurried to 40 (33b, 3x4) in helping Zimbabwe reach 240 for eight. For India, Agarkar's analysis of 12-2-32-4 was the defining factor in restricting their opponents.

But even that target seemed distant when Douglas Hondo had Ganguly caught by Grant Flower for just seven. Dinesh Mongia, who has been in good form during this series, has not been able to convert starts into big scores. Here again, presented with an opportunity to do his reputation and record reams of good, he fell after an attractive 30, hitting five fours in his 32-ball innings.

VVS Laxman, playing an international match in his home ground for the very first time, looked to serve up a sizzling display of batting for his loyal supporters, but, two fine boundaries later, he was tamely caught behind off Friend for 13 (21b). Suddenly, at 56 for three, Zimbabwe looked menacing under the lights of the Lal Bahadur Shastri stadium.

Dravid and Mohammad Kaif put on 76 runs for the fourth wicket, with the former blocking resolutely when needed and turning the ball off the square for singles otherwise. Kaif, however, was the real revelation; after his fighting knock at Kochi, he gave further evidence of his level-headedness. Even when Dravid was bowled by Grant Flower for 32 (56b, 3x4), Kaif fought on. The stage, however, was not his any more from that point onwards.

Hailed by many as the future of Indian cricket after his blitzes at Kenya against Australia, Yuvraj slipped thereafter in form and consequently national reckoning. But on his return to the one-day team, he played with an aura that was at once nostalgic of Nairobi and futuristic in execution.

Boundaries flowed at will as Yuvraj cut, pulled and drove both slower and faster bowlers; Grant Flower could only watch as one delivery was dispatched with contempt for six. The Punjab youngster raced along to catch up with Kaif, who, every time he was on strike, sensibly ran a hard single so that he could watch the histrionics at the other end.

One misjudged run ended Kaif's innings on 68 (101b, 3x4), but with less than 20 runs to get at that stage, India were clear favourites. It may have been Agarkar who hit the winning boundary in the first ball of the 49th over, but Hyderabad applauded Yuvraj Singh (80, 60b, 8x4, 1x6) all the way to the pavilion.