India v New Zealand, 1st Test, Ahmedabad, Day 2 October 9, 2003

A scratchy but significant century

The trademark Ganguly waltz down the wicket in action © AFP

A few minutes before tea, Sourav Ganguly deposited Daniel Vettori into the gallery behind long-on and allowed himself a smile. There was no smugness to it, just a quiet indulgence; it was a smile meant more for himself than the world. It was his first six and in the context of the match, it had taken a long time coming. He had scratched out 66 almost unnoticeable runs, while Rahul Dravid had been a picture of classical beauty and rectitude at the other end. It was a smile to signify the banishment of pedestrian struggle.

Ganguly is sharply touchy about his record. Ask him about poor form and he will be quick to point to a Test average of over 40. Ask him about his frailty against pace and he'll point to runs scored in South Africa and Australia, never mind if these were scored in one-day matches where fast bowlers have neither the licence to test him with the short ball nor the luxury of a close-in cordon. Sift through the numbers - series averages of 29.5 against Australia in 1999-00, 11.75 against South Africa the same season, 17.66 against Australia in 2000-01, 30 against South Africa in 2001-02, 12.25 against West Indies in 2002-03 and 7.25 against New Zealand in India's last Test Series - and you will see that without captaincy Ganguly might struggle to hold his place in the Test team. Which in itself is no shame because India play better as a team under Ganguly than they did under anyone else in the last two decades.

Ganguly's hundred today then should be seen in the right perspective. It wasn't pretty and it wasn't savage enough for India's good. In fact, till Zaheer Khan hustled three wickets, it had seemed India had batted into Stephen Fleming's hands by not showing enough urgency. Ganguly's 19 runs before lunch came from 70 balls and he took 100 more to get to his next 47, when that six came. Out of the five full sessions India batted, three yielded about 70, and almost from the first hour of the match, New Zealand had been overtly playing for a draw. The longer they could keep the Indian batsmen out in the middle the better it served their cause.

But still Ganguly's hundred was an important one, both for him and his team. He has shown himself to be resilient in the past and has rarely let his poor form with the bat affect his ability to lead. But since the captain is often the symbol of a team's strength, it is good for India that Ganguly has started the season with a century. It will keep the doubters quiet for a while.

Few doubt Fleming's ability to maximise his limited resources and his field placements were inspired once again today. But you can't help feeling that his decision to under-utilise Paul Wiseman worked to India's advantage. Wiseman had done the job adequately in Sri Lanka earlier this year where he was New Zealand's highest wicket-taker. Yet he was trusted with only five overs yesterday, just one more than Craig McMillan, whose surprise weapon, the bouncer, is decidedly less macho than his new moustache, and 12 less than Scott Styris, who is in the team for his batting. Daniel Vettori was the bowler of the innings for New Zealand, but for a team that puts such a premium on planning, it was inconceivable that New Zealand would have been unaware of Ganguly's fondness for left-arm spinners. Yet Wiseman was brought in only after Ganguly had got a feel of pitch, and even then he was constantly troubled by balls turning across him.

But cricket has an uncanny tendency to mock the best-laid plans, and Zaheer Khan, in the space of six inspired overs, had reduced New Zealand's arduous preparations against spinners to naught. Zaheer had looked sluggish in India's season opener, the Challenger trophy and bowled well only with the old ball in the Irani Trophy. But this evening, on a pitch that had little for his kind of bowling, he was outstanding, bowling with pace and hitting the seam at the right length. New Zealand surely hadn't bargained for this. Two of New Zealand's best players of spin bowling are gone, the ball is beginning to grip and the spinners haven't fully come in to play yet. This game will now take some drawing.

Sambit Bal is Editor of Wisden Asia Cricket and Wisden Cricinfo in India.