May 11, 2002

Laxman, Ratra take India to strong position

It has been another good day for VVS Laxman. After the 167 at Sydney and the 281 at Kolkata, Laxman brought up his third Test century - 124 not out at Antigua. And in the course of his innings, Laxman also crossed 2000 Test runs, a small personal landmark. In the company of the steady Laxman, Ajay Ratra (93) discovered skills of batsmanship most people thought never existed. India prospered, reaching 462/6.

The pair added a mammoth 205 for the seventh wicket, rescuing India from 257/6 to a very healthy 462/6. Why, towards the end of the day, there were even rumblings of India declaring and sticking West Indies in for a few overs. No such thing happened. And no real loss. There's three days left in this game and India have made the most of their first innings.

There is bound to be criticism of India's slow scoring rate. There is bound to be talk of how India should have forced the pace more. To be honest, and to a degree fair, the wicket at Antigua hardly looks the kind that encourages a result. After getting set, there's nothing in the wicket that would surprise the batsmen. To that extent, the players of both sides might have come into this match with a draw in mind.

This is not to say, of course, that the teams were not looking for a win. Like the long distance runner however, it might be a case of saving up the energy for the last sprint - in Jamaica.

The day began with trouble for India. Resuming on 223/3, India lost two quick wickets - those of Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid.

There was always the chance that India would lose a few quick wickets and the overnight score would look worse than it was. This was in the minds of the West Indian skipper as he attacked with his seamers.

After adding just 10 runs to the total and four to his own score, Ganguly played a cut straight to point, ending his innings five runs short of a half-century. Cameron cuffy's tight line and length increased the pressure, cut out the run flow and invited the error from Ganguly. Unable to keep the cut down, Ganguly found Wavell Hinds at point.

Dravid, temporarily back in his shell after starting fluently, found the going less than easy on the morning of the second day. The fall of Ganguly might have played a part in unsettling Dravid. It was ultimately the nagging accuracy of the West Indian medium-pacers that did the Karnataka middle-order batsman in.

Reaching out a bit to play deliveries outside the off, Dravid looked a touch more nervous than usual. When Merv Dillon let one go just short of a length and outside the off, Dravid's prod away from the body only resulted in an inside edge that dragged the ball back onto the stumps. Dravid made 91 (291 balls, 12 fours) and would be disappointed that he could not get to three figures.

VVS Laxman, one of the prettiest batsmen when in flow, was in good nick. Stroking the ball away wristily and effortlessly, Laxman prospered in the company of Anil Kumble. The latter however, after being unsettled by a Dillon bouncer, fended a short one from the same bowler to leg gully. Kumble (7) was the sixth Indian wicket to fall.

The fall of Kumble's wicket caused a bit of concern in Indian supporters. After all, Ratra has hardly made a run you can remember all series.

But, it is in unlikely situations that certain kinds of heroes are born. Not the ones that last, but ones that make moments their own, defying the odds and startling experts. After being unable to get the ball off the square in the series so far, Ajay Ratra showed a bit of fight.

Laxman 124 (237 balls, 13 fours) was about as comfortable as we have seen in him in recent times. The pitch eased up considerably, the bowlers tired and the Hyderabadi stylist took full toll. In no hurry to go after the bowling, Laxman waited for the right deliveries to hit. When he did get them, there was no need to run. His bat came slicing through the air, the wrists worked their magic and the ball scurried across the turf to the fence. More than once, one boundary was quickly followed by another. And in time, came the hundred, fairly chanceless, refreshingly pretty in phases and yes, statistically pleasing as well, Laxman's third century saw him cross 2000 Test runs.

With Laxman in full cry, Ratra too opened up. After playing and missing at a few initially, Ratra unveiled some characteristic shots. Walking across the stumps and nudging the ball to the on side, slash-cutting past slip and pulling with shortarm-jabs, Ratra made his way to the half-century mark. And that was only the beginning. There seemed to be a shifting of gears from cheeky-keeper-batsman to hard-working late-order contributor. Drives that beat the field came from nowhere and with it Ratra's highest ever first-class score - 93 not out (233 balls, 10 fours) beating a previous best of 77.

While all this happened out in the middle, Deep Dasgupta was at the steps outside the pavilion reading a paperback. If Ratra keeps going this way, Dasgupta might have to reconcile himself to a long period of reading.