May 10, 2002

India make slow progress at Antigua

So Antigua is the perfect wicket for a draw? Not if the opening batsman falls for three, and the stalwart of the team, arguably the world's best batsman, is dismissed for a golden duck. India managed to reach 226 for three despite the aforementioned setbacks. There are still no clear favourites, and yes, a draw is still very much on the cards - a high-scoring one at that.

There was a touch of the familiar to the proceedings at Antigua in the first session. Carl Hooper won the toss, set his four seamers on the batsmen and scalped the early wicket of Shiv Sunder Das.

Although not nearly as quick and bouncy as the wicket at Barbados, the Antigua strip did give batsmen a thing or two to think about. At least three deliveries hit a spot, reared and sailed through. One of those, delivered by Pedro Collins, was too good for Das.

With the left-arm seamer slanting the ball away from the diminutive right-handed opener, extra bounce forced the mistake. Playing back and tentatively across, Das could only inside-edge the ball back onto his stumps. Not new for Das; this has happened more than once this season.

Then came the partnership that ensured India did not suffer a similar fate as the first day of the Barbados Test. Rahul Dravid began by punching a perfect on-drive back past the bowler to the fence, and went on to repeat the stroke many, many times. He plays the on-drive as well as anyone else in the game; today was a particularly good exhibition of playing straight, with the full face of the bat.

Wasim Jaffer, joining Das as opener late in the series, showed impeccable touch and timing. After an initial flash at Cameron Cuffy that just eluded point, Jaffer unveiled some handsome strokes. Standing tall and getting right behind the line of the ball, the opener peppered the regions between point, extra-cover and third man with boundaries.

After batting well enough to make a ton, Jaffer fell. As is often the case, the batsman gave his wicket away after doing all the hard work. Nicking Collins through to Ridley Jacobs, Jaffer (86 runs, 180 balls, 14 fours) failed to seal a superb innings with three figures against his name.

Then came the big fall. Coming to the wicket with just eight runs in three innings, Tendulkar failed yet again, making for his longest slump in Test cricket. Playing awkwardly at a ball just outside the off-stump, the little master was tentative enough to play slightly inside the line of the ball and edge the ball through to the keeper.

For the fourth time in his Test career Tendulkar had fallen for a first-ball duck.

After the twin wickets of Jaffer and Tendulkar, however, there was little cause for concern for the visitors. The ball got soft, Hooper used as many as seven bowlers, and India prospered. Sourav Ganguly, playing some handsome strokes, reached 41, while the ever-cautious Dravid neared yet another tidy ton with 86 to his name.

There still is not sufficient reason for India to panic. Dravid is batting as well as he ever has. Judging by his demeanour and calm approach, it might well have been an outing for Commerce College in Bangalore against Mysore University. That was how fluent Dravid seemed against the part-time spin, dancing down the track and dismissing the ball. The pacemen proved no trickier, Dravid's trademark roll-of-the-wrist on-top-of-the-ball pulls signalling a total dominance.

Ganguly too seemed less than bothered by the fall of Tendulkar. Enjoying a rare patch of good form, the Indian skipper curbed his natural strokeplay and buckled down. While this is not the best sight for fans of the Bengal southpaw, it certainly serves India's cause well - either to draw the game or to reach a position from which they could attempt to go for outright victory.