Kaif stars in India's run chase
A superbly paced 102 not out by Mohammad Kaif helped India to a six-wicket win against New Zealand and sealed a place in the final of the Videocon Tri-Series. On an excellent batting track at the Harare Sports Club, New Zealand's batsmen prospered too, getting 278 on the board, but Kaif made light of that target, putting together useful stands and ensuring that the momentum provided by the openers didn't go waste.
The earlier matches at Harare were low-scoring ones where bat struggled to dominate ball, but this one produced a run-fest, thanks to a strip with even pace and bounce which allowed the batsmen to hit through the line. New Zealand's innings had no single binding factor, but plenty of bit parts - Stephen Fleming, Lou Vincent, Scott Styris and Craig McMillan all passed 35. India's, on the other hand, was dominated by one batsman.
Plenty has been said about Kaif's inability to deliver consistently, but this was a classy knock. When he came in, India were doing fine on the run-rate count, galloping at nine an over, but plenty still needed to be done. Kaif did it in style, knocking the singles into the gaps and, as ever, running like a hare. But he also batted with far more fluency than usual, stroking drives down the ground and through cover quite magnificently. Rahul Dravid played a fine support act in a 101-run stand which was the foundation of the run-chase. When Dravid departed, India still needed 103 for victory at almost 5.5 per over, but Kaif played the anchoring act to perfection, first with Yuvraj Singh, and then with Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who provided characteristic flourish to the finish, tonking Jeetan Patel for a couple of sixes.
The early impetus had been provided by a breathless 66-run opening stand, as Virender Sehwag collared a lacklustre attack badly missing Shane Bond. Andre Adams was a poor replacement, repeatedly dropping short and feeding Sehwag's slash to point, for which he needed no second invitation. Sourav Ganguly seemed to be finding some form too, before pulling to fine leg. New Zealand missed Daniel Vettori in the middle overs too, though Styris, playing his 100th one-day international, did an admirable job with his medium pace, much like Jai Prakash Yadav had done for India in the morning..
The other plus for India from this match was their fielding, which was a huge improvement from their efforts earlier in the tournament, and was characterised by two outstanding examples from Ajit Agarkar and Yuvraj. Both came about when India were under pressure, and ensured that New Zealand didn't get closer to 300. Agarkar, who bowled splendidly in his first spell (6-0-16-1), gave a top-drawer exhibition of speed, athleticism, and accuracy, racing down the pitch to field and throw down the stumps at the non-striker's end to stop Fleming's charge on 47 (83 for 2). Yuvraj then followed with an equally exhilarating show, as he dived to stop the ball at backward point, and then fired in a throw straight at the stumps from a difficult angle to end Vincent's audacious 23-ball knock of 37.
Hamish Marshall fell soon after, and at 115 for 4 New Zealand were suddenly in danger of throwing away a fine start. Styris and McMillan then got together in a sensible partnership, in which the premium was on accumulating the singles and keeping wickets in hand for the final onslaught. McMillan only hit two fours in his 40, yet his runs came off just 54 balls as he cleverly guided the ball into the gaps. He fell trying to force the pace, but that, from New Zealand's point of view, was perfect, for Brendon McCullum came along and immediately upped the tempo, carting Agarkar for 18 in an over after being caught off a no-ball.
Styris made his 100th one-day international a memorable one by getting a workmanlike 56, but even as wickets fell in the last five overs, New Zealand continued to hammer the runs - 55 came in the last five to leave them with a reasonable total to defend. Mohammad Kaif, though, ensured that it wasn't a winning one.
Nathan Astle c Dhoni b Agarkar 11 (54 for 1)
Slashed at one just outside off, thin edge to the wicketkeeper
Stephen Fleming run out (Agarkar) 47 (83 for 2)
Caught short by a superb bit of fielding by the bowler, who ran down the wicket, fielded the ball, and threw down the stumps at the non-striker's end
Lou Vincent run out (Yuvraj) 37 (103 for 3)
A diving stop at backward point, followed by a direct hit
Hamish Marshall b Yadav 8 (115 for 4)
Played across the line and lost his off stump
Craig McMillan b Agarkar 40 (202 for 5)
Down the track and tried to smash the ball, missed, and found his stumps clattered
Brendon McCullum c Kaif b Nehra 28 (244 for 6)
Scooped the ball to extra cover while trying to force the pace
Jacob Oram c Ganguly b Pathan 14 (266 for 7)
Sliced an attempted hoick over the in-field to mid-off
Scott Styris c Sehwag b Nehra 56 (267 for 8)
Swung a slower ball straight to square leg
Andre Adams c Agarkar b Pathan 3 (271 for 9)
Tried to clear the boundary, but holed out to long-off
Sourav Ganguly c Patel b Mills 19 (66 for 1)
Hooked one straight to fine leg
Virender Sehwan b Oram 45 (75 for 2)
Tried to work a good-length ball to the on side but got an inside-edge onto his stumps
Rahul Dravid b Styris 39 (176 for 3)
Played across a straight ball, missed, and was castled
Yuvraj Singh lbw bowled Patel 22 (223 for 4)
Missed a sweep and was trapped plumb in front
S Rajesh is assistant editor of Cricinfo