India v Zimbabwe, VB Series, 3rd ODI, Hobart January 14, 2004

An utter mismatch

Heath Streak: battled valiantly once more
© Getty Images

After a less-than-convincing performance in the VB Series opener against Australia, this was the perfect outing for the Indians - apart from a brief period towards the end of Zimbabwe's innings when Heath Streak and Sean Ervine turned it on, the Indians were never threatened, and ended up taking home a bonus point without even appearing to be playing anywhere near full throttle.

Sourav Ganguly made the right moves too, ensuring that the Indians got the most out of this match - Virender Sehwag and Hemang Badani got to bowl plenty of overs, while Badani and VVS Laxman were promoted up the order to get in some batting practice before the more crucial games ahead.

Before the tournament, Streak had made bold statements about Zimbabwe's ability to test the two other sides in the fray; just three games into the competition, those words appear to be little more than a lot of brave talk. The top order is far too brittle and lacking in confidence, while the bowlers are at best honest toilers. This motley crew might be good enough to pull off one upset win, but it is difficult to imagine them doing any more than that.

For the second match in a row, it was left to Streak, coming in at No. 7, to do the salvage operation after a shockingly insipid display from the top five. On a pitch which was perfect for a high-scoring game, they pushed and prodded, seeing imaginary devils in the track, and allowed the Indian bowlers to climb all over them. Grant Flower is easily Zimbabwe's most experienced batsman, and, while he had a forgettable game with the bat today, it surely makes sense to have him bat higher than at No. 5.

Streak and Ervine demonstrated what could be achieved with a bit of enterprise. In his last 15 ODIs, Streak has been Zimbabwe's best batsman, scoring 342 runs at an average touching 43. Not only did he prop up Zimbabwe's innings to something resembling respectability, he also tested the Indian openers with some superb swing bowling early in the run-chase. Sadly, the support cast failed to show up.

Virender Sehwag was just too hot to handle
© Getty Images

The Indian bowlers all ended up with respectable figures, but they will know that the margin for error will be far less when they take on Australia in four days time. The one bowler who impressed more than the others was Irfan Pathan: he got the new ball to swing, bowled with admirable control a little later in the piece, and then came back to bowl a fine final over.

Before the tour began, Pathan was expected to be little more than a tour-match bowler, who would ensure that the frontline seamers got enough rest between international fixtures. In less than two months, he has won the vote of confidence from the captain to be bowling the last over of an ODI. Pathan's has been a clear case of the selectors' gut-feel being vindicated.

Many eyebrows were raised when Pathan was first included in the squad, ahead of Lakshmipathy Balaji. (Balaji came in later only because Aavishkar Salvi had to pull out due to injury.) First-class figures of 98 wickets from 33 games, at an average of nearly 33 is at best modest, but the selectors clearly saw potential in the way Pathan performed with the under-19 and A teams, and backed their hunch. Judging by the way he has performed in Australia, Pathan is a far better bet than Balaji, and deserves a sustained run in the team.

After a scintillating Test series, the VB Series threatens to become an insipid contest, with only the best-of-three finals to look forward to. The three weeks leading up to those matches already seems an eternity.

S Rajesh is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo.