Laxman seals a thriller
India 280 for 7 (Laxman 131, Darvid 56, Gavaskar 54, Streak 3-53) beat Zimbabwe 277 for 6 (Carlisle 109, Ervine 100, Agarkar 3-39) by 3 runs
VVS Laxman: whenever India needed him, he was there © Getty Images
VVS Laxman could do no wrong today. Zimbabwe needed seven runs in four balls when Andy Blignaut hit a ball in the air towards midwicket, and Laxman, running in from deep midwicket, seemed just that shade too far way. But the improbable became possible in the space of a second, and Laxman took a magnificent tumbling catch to take the wicket - decisively, as it turned out for India. Laxman had taken another superb diving catch earlier, to dismiss Travis Friend, and there was also the small matter of the 131 runs he made while batting to rescue India from 4 for 3, and take them to 280 for 7 in their 50 overs. India won by three runs at the end, in a thrilling encounter in which Zimbabwe redeemed themselves for all their failures earlier in the series.
For much of the last quarter of the match, though, Zimbabwe seemed the side most likely to win. It hadn't seemed that way at the start of their innings, when they slid to 46 for 3, but Stuart Carlisle and Sean Ervine added 202 glorious runs, the highest partnership in Zimbabwe's ODI history, to seize the upper hand. None of this was due to any complacency on the part of the Indians but rather, to the grit and intensity of the batsmen, who kept their heads while playing out of their skins.
The first phase of their partnership contained many singles and twos, as they eschewed risks and consolidated the innings. But they punished any loose bowling that came their way. Carlisle was especially severe on anything short and slightly wide outside off, cutting with ferocity, while Ervine welcomed any chance to free his arms. They did not panic after the required run-rate climbed past six an over; instead, they kept on accumulating runs, and kept Zimbabwe in the chase. With wickets in hand, Zimbabwe were the favourites as the last phase of the match began.
But once Ervine was run out for 100 in the 46th over, sacrificing his wicket after a mix-up, the innings unravelled. Ajit Agarkar, who had bowled excellently at the start as well, and Irfan Pathan bowled a couple of tight overs, though Zimbabwe were still in with a chance until Laxman took that superb catch. Carlisle, who made 109, couldn't take his team through the last mile - but the fact that they were still running was awesome in itself.
Earlier, India had got off to their worst ever start - never before had India lost their first three wickets for as little as four runs. Sanjay Bangar, in the side in place of the injured Yuvraj Singh, and Parthiv Patel were both out for zero, trying to drive Heath Streak and edging him behind. Sourav Ganguly, batting at No. 4, was out again to a short ball, top-edging an attempted pull off Blignaut. The underdogs had taken the first bite.
Sean Ervine engineered Zimbabwe's tremendous fightback with run-a-ball 100 © AFP
But India had the last laugh. First, Laxman and Rahul Dravid, who made 56, added 131 crucial runs. Laxman was a revelation in the first 15 overs, confounding Zimbabwe by whipping balls from outside off to the leg side, and punishing anything remotely short or full or wide. His cutting and cover-driving was characteristically elegant, but it was his pull shots that left one gasping, both for their audacity - just short, outside off, midwicket boundary -and the effortlessness with which he seemed to execute them.
Dravid, meanwhile, was a picture of classical grace and beauty, especially when driving through cover. The two took the score to 83 at the end of the 15th over, after which, with the field restrictions off, the momentum slowed. Laxman, who had reached his 50 off just 44 balls, concentrated on milking the bowling as his strike-rate dipped, and Dravid did the same.
Ray Price was the pick of the bowlers, not afraid to flight the ball and varying his pace well. He eventually got rid of Dravid, drawing Dravid into a pull, holding the ball back just a bit, and inducing a mishit to Blignaut at short midwicket (137 for 4). Dravid had made 56, and the new man in was Rohan Gavaskar, who would finally have enough overs left in the game to play himself in.
As indeed he did. Gavaskar, running adroitly between wickets, kept the scoreboard ticking along, as Laxman eased towards his century. Price and Grant Flower bowled well in the middle overs, and did not allow the batsmen too many boundaries. Price took 1 for 43 in his 10 overs, while Flower had figures of 0 for 48 in nine, which would have looked much better had he not been hit for two sixes towards the end of his spell - one, an inside-out shot over cover from Laxman; the other, a hoick over midwicket from Gavaskar.
Gavaskar's fluent innings of 54 came to an end in the 47th over, when he mishit Douglas Hondo to Blignaut at midwicket (255 for 5), and wickets fell regularly after that, as India bumbled their way to 280 for 7 - only 33 runs had come off the last five overs, and in the end, it was left to Laxman to make sure that it was enough.
Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.