September 14, 2002

Kaif continues Sri Lankan love affair

It was here at Colombo, at the Sinhalese Sports Club ground just down the road, that a youngster shyly accepted the Under-19 World Cup winners' trophy two years ago.

He's still young, not as shy, but once again he claimed the limelight after a brilliant match-winning 111 that led India to a 14-run win against Zimbabwe in the ICC Champions' Trophy today. For Mohammad Kaif, Sri Lanka really is paradise.

Zimbabwe on the other hand, have little to thank this country for. The last time they were here, the marauding Sri Lankans used them as whipping boys. Today there was frustration too, despite a heroic hundred from Andy Flower that carried the Africans to the brink of a famous victory.

Zimbabwe had grabbed the initiative in the morning, as Douglas Hondo, a loping medium-pacer who knocked the stuffing out of India's top-order not long ago in a clash in Kochi, blew a hole in the Indian innings, removing four Indian batsmen in his first spell.

After electing to bat, Sourav Ganguly (13) guided Hondo into the waiting hands of Alistair Campbell at slip, who then pouched similar chances off Dinesh Mongia (0) and Yuvraj Singh (3). Sachin Tendulkar, strangely reticent, knocked his way to seven before playing a wild slash against the first ball of the medium-pacer Shaun Ervine.

As only he can, Virender Sehwag continued to plunder runs. For fans it's a treat to watch. No matter what the situation is, what the ball is doing, or, indeed, what is best for the team, Sehwag attempts to hit the cover off every ball bowled at him. On the day, his attitude was a godsend to India. Despite having lost Ganguly, Mongia and Tendulkar in just 9.5 overs, the run rate was a healthy 6.7.

This helped the in-form Rahul Dravid. Fluent from the first ball he faced, Dravid punched the ball through the off-side both off the back and front foot, to keep the scoreboard ticking over. It bears repeating, that Dravid is in the best form of his life. His machine-like efficiency has bored many, but as Dravid himself would tell you, it's better to be boring and win than to be a flash talent and end up on the losing side.

Fans, however, sometimes do not subscribe to this opinion. The trickle of Indian fans who came to the cricket on this cloudless summer's day threatened to go quiet, or worse leave, as the boundaries dried up and India were forced to consolidate. Dravid and Kaif added 117 before the former was needlessly run out. Dismissed for 71, Dravid showed his disappointment at himself when he walked off the field, even before the third umpire could make up his mind.

Kaif then showed how you can combine a cool head with the cheekiness of a brat, taking apart the Zimbabwean bowling. It was not pretty, it was not classical, but it was enough to take India to the mountainous total of 288/6.

When he drove on the up, Kaif teased the man at cover, sending the ball just inches over outstretched hands. The heaves over mid-wicket were attempted only when it was possible to place the ball well away from the fielder. When neither was possible, Kaif cottoned on to the fact that fine leg was up in the circle to Ervine and scoop-swatted the ball away to the fine leg fence.

No wonder then, that Kaif, unbeaten on 111 (112 balls, eight fours, one six), was the Indian hero on the day, totally justifying his inclusion as the seventh batsman in the side. Even sceptics of the Indians' tactic of using Dravid as stumper to play an extra batsman would have to grudgingly grant the think-tank its due.

The Zimbabwean response to this mammoth total was a handsome if not successful one. No team has ever successfully chased such a tall score at this ground. Andy Flower gave the impression he didn't care two hoots about this particular product of the statistician's computer.

And despite the venue being Sri Lanka, where Andy Flower averages less than 25, he drove the Indian bowlers to despair. Knocking up his fourth ODI ton - apparently oblivious to the disappointing batting at the other end - he kept the Indians worried, and punters interested till the 49th over of the Zimbabwean chase. The southpaw, who has taken more than 1000 ODI runs off India in his career, brought up his first century against the team, adding to the three he has in the longer version of the game.

There was, however, nothing forthcoming at the other end. A steady stream of wickets, with no one making as many as 35 runs, made the task at hand too hard for the lone ranger.

The innings Andy Flower played though was worth more than the 145 (164 balls, 13 fours) he eventually ended up with. Thanks to this innings Zimbabwe reached 274/8 in 50 overs.

Shirt drenched in sweat, beady eyes popping out in the strain of concentrating for so long and so hard, legs not responding as they had earlier in the day, Andy Flower dared to go where no other Zimbabwean could. His innings, an epic, almost makes you wish he was playing for a stronger team, where his efforts would reap more just returns.

Just three days ago, however, this man said, with a steely look in his eye: "Before Zimbabwe got Test status, when I was starting off as a cricketer, I seriously considered moving elsewhere. But I wouldn't go elsewhere just to play first class cricket because the money was better. That can never match playing for your country."

That's enough to tell you why this man is so successful, so feared by opponents, and so respected by his peers.