October 11, 2002

Zaheer, Kumble bowl India into a commanding position

The third day of a Test match is probably the most important. Provided that is you do the job properly on the first two days. India certainly set things up properly and finished the West Indian first innings in style on the third day to force the follow on and indeed the pace in this game. After skittling out West Indies for 157 and securing a lead of 300, India picked up the second innings wicket of Wavell Hinds. West Indies on 91/1 trail by 209 with two days to play. The fat lady is humming a few bars already. Tomorrow, barring a Caribbean miracle, she will sing for India.

The end of the day when it came was a period of unreal cricket. Like in the cricket books of yore, two West Indian bastman flayed the opposition bowling. Wavell Hinds and Chris Gayle batted with power and fluency, striking a high percentage of boundaries in their opening stand of 60. Gayle used his height to great advantage, lashing the ball through the off side. Hinds was his mirror image, peppering the on-side boundary, especially around the midwicket region, with powerful hits off the back foot.

It wasn't until the 13th over that a wicket fell, that too against the grain of play. Moving across his stumps too much, Hinds missed a Harbhajan Singh off-break and was bowled around his legs. Hinds made 40 off just 34 balls with as many as nine boundaries. Gayle continued in his energetic vein and reached 34 while Ramnaresh Sarwan batted neatly for 9.

But that was just a session of joy designed by the great game to give West Indian supporters some respite from a day of Indian domination.

It all began with Carl Hooper being out-witted by his opposite number. In the 48th over of the day with the partnership between Hooper and Shivnarine Chanderpaul reaching irritation levels at 44, Zaheer Khan dropped the ball short, a touch down the leg side and the West Indian skipper's arching pull shot sent the ball sailing down Sanjay Bangar's throat at deep fine leg. Happy Birthday, Hooper seemed to say to Bangar, who turned thirty on the day, as he presented the Railways all-rounder with the simplest of catches.

The captain's mistake virtually sunk the ship.

Ryan Hinds (9) and Ridley Jacobs both became Zaheer Khan's victims in a spell that made the captain proud. Not because of the pace and bounce, which was there at its finest, but because, for the first time in his career the left-arm speedster looked to be using brain and brawn equally.

Anil Kumble showed that his best is not behind him. Under constant pressure to prove himself despite scalping over 600 wickets in international cricket, the Karnataka leggie put in a sterling performance. Keeping it straight and quick to the tail-enders and using subtle variations against frontline batsmen, Kumble finished the task that Zaheer started.

The final nail in the coffin was the one that would have satisfied Kumble the most. He values each and every wicket he picks; almost as much as Chanderpaul values his. And that is saying a lot. Chanderpaul was content waiting on the ball and knocking it into the gaps for ones and twos in his innings. It was only when he ran out of frontline partners that Chanderpaul began to play a few expansive shots. Five such strokes came off and found the fence, while one mistake ­- a prod to the off side - bobbed up to be caught and bowled by Kumble.

Figures of 4/51 will satisfy Kumble, but Zaheer with 4/41 would have dearly liked another wicket. This is his best effort in 21 Tests and on the day, unlike any before in his career, you had to say he deserved a five-for.

Personal records aside, India have little to complain about. Even that poker-faced Kiwi John Wright, who rarely allows himself a careless smile, will admit that a lead of 209 with two days to play is like having a cheque that can be banked. Whether India will rush ­ as a cheery kid would on his bicycle to cash his first cheque or cruise as a seasoned professional businessman would, at the right time, remains to be seen. Either way, it seems certain that Hooper's men will reach Chennai with a deficit to erase.