February 19, 2003

India motor to comfortable 83-run win over Zimbabwe

A billion people in India, 15 cricketers in Southern Africa and one coach will sleep well on Wednesday night after India rolled Zimbabwe over by 83 runs to take four points from their third game of the 2003 World Cup. Amidst massive recriminations, stone-throwing at cars, burning of effigies and passionate pleas, the Indian team showed that all was not certainly lost with a performance that will silence most critics. It was not an altogether emphatic win against one of the lesser sides in the game, but it certainly set India on the road to recovery.

When former Zimbabwe cricketer Andy Pycroft spoke to the two captains at the toss, there was a hint of hesitation in Sourav Ganguly's voice. Yes, India had lost the toss, but no, it didn't matter much as India would have batted first anyway.

With Andy Blignaut fully fit and back in the side at the expense of Henry Olonga, the Indians had one less thing to worry about. This showed as Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar walked out to the middle. The pair seemed to know what was needed and restrained themselves as Heath Streak bowled a probing line. Moving the ball both ways, the Zimbabwean skipper posed many questions. The opening pair, however, sensed that it was do-or-die time and posted their best stand in a long while.

Using the first 15 overs to good effect, the pair added 99 for the first wicket, safely seeing off the new ball. It was first-change bowler Guy Whittall provided his skipper with the first breakthrough as Sehwag (36) feathered an edge to Tatenda Taibu, standing up to the stumps.

Dinesh Mongia, coming in at number three in the re-shuffled batting line-up, looked to bat himself in and play around Tendulkar. The little man from Mumbai, who only yesterday appealed to Indian fans to keep the faith, was in good touch. After he got a good measure of the bowling, Tendulkar sent the ball scurrying off the meat of the bat, beating the field at will.

Mongia, however, seemed to get tied down by the Zimbabwean bowling, facing as many as 37 balls for his 12 before holing out to Douglas Hondo at long on off the left-arm spin of Grant Flower.

Two balls later, Grant Flower produced the ball of the match, slipping a well-flighted delivery through the defences of Tendulkar. Neither forward nor back, a confused Tendulkar saw his stumps pegged back against the grain of play. By this stage, though, Tendulkar had notched up 81 from 91 balls with 10 boundaries.

Rahul Dravid then paired up with Ganguly to shore up the middle order after the Grant Flower double-blow. While nowhere near his best, Dravid stuck it out in the middle, inadvertently doing India's cause a great deal of good, when a scorching off-drive took out Grant Flower. Attempting to stop the drive, Grant Flower badly injured a finger on his bowling hand and went off the field.

Ganguly hardly appeared his usual self ­- and one could not really blame the skipper, given the indifferent form he has been in. However, one straight six off leggie Brian Murphy illustrated what Ganguly has been saying ­so often - that he and India are just one good day away from turning things around. Ganguly (24) however gave comeback man Blignaut his only wicket of the day when he presented Streak with a relatively straightforward catch soon after that mighty six.

Yuvraj Singh fell early once more, and it was left to Dravid and Mohammad Kaif to give the Indian innings some much needed impetus towards the death. Striking one magnificent six over mid-off, Kaif made a 24-ball 25, while Dravid drove and swatted his way to an unbeaten 43, helping India to 255 for seven from 50 overs.

After Javagal Srinath sent back Mark Vermeulen in just the first over of the run-chase, the Indian camp heaved a huge sigh of relief. Summoning up resources built over years of bowling medium-pace, Srinath kept a tight line and length, giving the Zimbabwean batsmen few deliveries to score off. He was rewarded again in the ninth over when Craig Wishart dragged one back onto his stumps.

At 23 for two, Zimbabwe had gotten off to a start they could ill afford in pursuit of 256 on a wicket that was not exactly ideal for batting, with spongy bounce keeping the batsmen guessing.

The best batsman of the home side, Andy Flower, was unusually reticent, unable to strike the ball cleanly. With pressure on him to shepherd the Zimbabwean innings towards competitiveness, Andy Flower found the going tough. More than once the Indians attempted run-outs and missed, and once a loud shout for a catch behind was turned down.

When his trademark reverse sweep failed him, it was clear that it was not to be Andy Flower's day. Trying to be a touch too cute, Flower swept and missed a Harbhajan Singh off-break to be bowled around his legs for 22 off 53 balls.

Grant Flower and Dion Ebrahim put together 35 for the fourth wicket before a Ganguly double breakthrough gave India first hints of victory. Grant Flower and Ebrahim both hit catches to the outfield off the fourth and fifth balls of the 24th over, and Zimbabwe were in all manner of trouble at 83 for five.

Even the most optimistic of Zimbabwean supporters at the picturesque Harare Sports Club ground would have given up hope at this stage. Despite contributions from several lower-order batsmen, Zimbabwe were never really in the hunt as the Indians picked wickets at regular intervals. In the end - and it came in the 45th over - Zimbabwe were all out for 172, giving India a comfortable 83-run win. Srinath, with two for 14 from eight overs, was easily the pick of the Indian bowlers.

Most notable about this win was that, at the fall of every wicket, the Indians huddled together, talking animatedly, pumping fists and displaying the kind of unity that bodes well for the team. "I know we did badly against Australia but I think some of the reactions to our performance in that game were extreme," said Ganguly at the end of the game. "We were getting into huddles because we needed to support each other during a tough period. After all, we weren't getting much support from outside the team," said the skipper with a wry smile.

But the Indian populace is the kind that can and will change its tune more swiftly and more times than a jukebox in a crowded pub. More than pleasing its fans, though, this victory simply furthers India's chances of progressing to the Super Six stage.