Dravid stars in Indian triumph
50 overs India 260 for 6 (Dravid 104, Ganguly 55) beat United Arab Emirates 144 (Tauqir 55, Tendulkar 3-21, Pathan 3-28) by 116 runs
This was supposed to be a gentle initiation into the new season for the Indians, where Virender Sehwag would be gunning for the first double-century in one-day international history, Sachin Tendulkar for his 38th ODI hundred, and India for a total way in excess of 350. None of that happened, but while UAE stayed in the game till the halfway stage, allowing India to score just 260, their incompetence with the bat meant that India were still able to canter to a comfortable 116-run win and take home the bonus point as well in their Asia Cup campaign opener at Dambulla.
The Indians hadn't played international cricket for three months, and it showed. Many of the batsmen struggled for timing and form - with Sourav Ganguly being especially woeful through the first half of his innings. However, Rahul Dravid showed the way - yet again - with a classy 104 off just 93 balls, while the trio of Indian seamers had just too much firepower for a batting line-up which was woefully out of their depth.
However, till Dravid stamped his authority on the game, the Indians were in serious danger of being embarrassed by a spirited UAE side which bowled with plenty of discipline and control, and showed lots of spirit in the field. They had last played a one-day international more than eight years ago, but if today's performance is any indicator, that period has been well spent.
The script went wrong for the Indians at the very start - Sehwag flicked the third ball to leg, started off for a single, then saw Tendulkar stop after initially committing to the run. Sehwag out for 0, 200 short of his projected score; India 0 for 1. Tendulkar himself left soon after, inside edging a flick to short midwicket for 18 (30 for 2). Fahad Usman pocketed the catch, and Asim Saeed won himself the small matter of US$1000, which was on offer for the wicket. India could have been in even greater strife if UAE had pouched a couple of catches from Ganguly when the batsman was on 0 and 3.
Struggling for form and fluency, Ganguly repeatedly groped for the ball early on, and the ball repeatedly sneaked past outside edge and inside edge, or rapped him on the pads. Ali Asad, the right-arm seamer, was the pick of the bowlers, consistently getting the ball to swing away from the right-handers. Better support from the fielders - both of Ganguly's missed chances came off his bowling - would have given him far better figures than the none for 38 he ended up with.
India managed just 58 in the first 15 overs, and then lost another wicket soon after when VVS Laxman chipped back a return catch to Mohammad Tauqir, the offspinner, ending an innings which promised much - his effortless pulled six off the front foot to bring up the Indian 50 was among the shots of the match - but delivered only 14 runs (65 for 3).
Then came the revival, with Dravid at the forefront. The slow pitch had bothered most of the others, but not Dravid, who simply rocked back, waited, and repeatedly guided the ball in the arc between backward point and extra cover. There was little risk in the approach, yet the runs flowed effortlessly. Equally importantly, he injected some much-needed urgency into the running between the wickets, an aspect of India's game which had been awfully shoddy early on.
At the other end, Ganguly's monumental struggle ended for a laboured 55, when he holed to long-on (153 for 4). Yuvraj played a short cameo, and Dravid continued to show splendid one-day nous. With the overs running out, he shifted gears effortlessly, defeating the cordon of off-side fielders and the huge, slow outfield to find the boundaries. His century came with one such clean strike, a magnificent cover-drive off Rizwan Latif. He finally fell in the last over of the innings, bowled going for a cross-batted swipe off Latif, but by then he done enough to ensure that India had a reasonable score to defend.
As it turned out, 260 was more than sufficient. Not for the first time a minnow side showed far more skill with the ball than the bat. Repeatedly shuffling across the stumps, their batsmen were sitting ducks for Irfan Pathan and Lakshmipathy Balaji, who kept swinging the ball into the batsmen and trapping them in front. They shared the first five wickets, before Zaheer Khan, returning after a long injury layoff, celebrated with a wicket off his first over, forcing Syed Maqsood to edge to Laxman at slip.
UAE had slipped to 45 for 6, and an extremely early finish seemed likely, before the lower order decided to play spoilsports. Tauqir braved a barrage of short deliveries from Zaheer, taking plenty of blows on the body and helmet, in scoring a half-century on debut, before Tendulkar winkled out the tail in a trice.
S Rajesh is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo.