India edge out Zimbabwe
India 255 for 6 (Dravid 84, Yuvraj 69) beat Zimbabwe 231 by 24 runs
Mark Vermeulen, and Zimbabwe, went down against India
A match which seemed to be going India's way turned out to be much closer than expected, as Zimbabwe made a spirited fist of chasing their 256-run target. Ultimately, despite healthy contributions from Sean Ervine and Dion Ebrahim (39 each), they fell 24 short, handing India their third win of the series, which took their VB Series points tally to 17.
Zimbabwe had little to cheer about in their first three matches, but they showed far more intensity today. It started with a splendid display in the afternoon, when they excelled in the field and bowled with plenty of discipline to restrict India - despite Yuvraj Singh's 69 and Rahul Dravid's 84 - to reasonable limits. Then they showed plenty of resolve with the bat as well.
Importantly, Zimbabwe attempted to fix the aspect of their game which had caused the most concern in the earlier matches - their top-order batting. Grant Flower was promoted to open, Travis Friend played as a specialist batsman and was slotted in at No. 3, and Stuart Carlisle returned after missing the previous game with an injury.
The moves seemed to pay off, too, as Zimbabwe got off to their best start of the tournament. Mark Vermeulen was forced to retire hurt after being hit just above his right eye by an Irfan Pathan short ball - reports later confirmed that he had suffered a fracture - but Flower guided the early part of the run-chase, scoring 36 as Zimbabwe reached 65 without loss at the 15-over mark. Then, instead of a period of consolidation, there came a period of capitulation, as four wickets went down for the addition of 15 runs in seven overs.
Friend was run out by a direct hit from Sourav Ganguly (66 for 1), Flower carved Ashish Nehra straight to VVS Laxman at deep extra cover (70 for 2), then Andy Blignaut, promoted to keep the asking rate under control, slapped a drive straight to Yuvraj at point (73 for 3). When Heath Streak suffered a rare failure, bowled through the gate by Ganguly for 3, Zimbabwe had slumped to 81 for 4, with all the earlier good work undone. Carlisle and Tatenda Taibu stopped the rot, adding 47 on either side of a 45-minute rain delay, but both perished soon after the resumption, and Zimbabwe, six down and requiring a further 108 from 13 overs, seemed out for the count.
But Ervine and Ebrahim thought otherwise, clubbing drives down the ground repeatedly. Anil Kumble, in particular, felt the heat, going for 22 in two overs as Ervine pulled and steered boundaries, and Ebrahim executed a perfect reverse-sweep for four. Balaji, who bowled quite superbly throughout, finally broke through when Ervine clubbed a cover-drive straight to Ganguly, ending a frenetic 49-run stand.
The run-chase was far from over, though, as Ray Price thrashed seven off his first two balls. Zimbabwe needed just 25 from the last three overs when Pathan - who, along with Balaji, was again India's best bowler - finally nailed the contest, persuading Ebrahim to hole out to Ganguly at midwicket (231 for 8). With Vermeulen not fit to return, that wicket effectively ended Zimbabwe's charge.
India's total of 255 owed much to a stand of 114 for the fourth wicket between Yuvraj and Dravid, which bailed the team out after they had stuttered out of the blocks.
On a flat pitch and against a modest Zimbabwean attack, the Indians would have expected a torrent of runs after opting to bat, but it didn't quite pan out that way as they managed just 67 in the first 15 overs, losing both openers in the process. Both Streak and Blignaut bowled testing spells, forcing the batsmen to take risks.
The rewards followed: Parthiv Patel, in the team in place of the injured Sachin Tendulkar, was bowled attempting a pull (41 for 1), Ganguly - for the second time in consecutive matches - fell to a short ball, and a magnificent one-handed catch by Douglas Hondo at short fine leg (67 for 2). When Laxman wafted loosely at one outside off and was caught behind, the Indian innings had slumped to 74 for 3, and was in danger of coming unstuck.
Dravid and Yuvraj then stitched together the revival. Dravid wasn't quite as fluent as in the match against Australia two days before, but his solidity was the ideal foil for Yuvraj's exuberance. Both started off with risk-free batting, before gradually stepping it up - Yuvraj essayed his trademark powerful pulls and drives, while Dravid finally started finding the gaps in the field.
It was still hard work, though, as the Zimbabweans threw themselves at the ball with gusto and stopped almost everything - Hondo at short third man and Ebrahim in the outfield were outstanding.
Price finally ended the partnership with the last ball of his spell, when he sneaked one through the gate to bowl Yuvraj (188 for 4). Rohan Gavaskar, sent in ahead of Hemang Badani, and Dravid kept the momentum going with some superb running between the wickets and a few meaty blows. Both Gavaskar and Dravid fell in the space of three balls in the quest for quick runs, and it needed a slogged four from Pathan to lift India past 250. As it turned out, it was just enough to sneak a win.
S Rajesh is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo.