Dravid hails bowlers' spirit
Rahul Dravid was a relieved man at the end of a gripping game at the Kinrara Oval, with India snapping a losing streak that extended back to May and their first outing in the Caribbean. Having made just 162 on a pitch that always kept the bowlers interested, he was indebted to his pace attack and Harbhajan Singh for a sterling display that saw India edge home by 16 runs.
"We just tried to stay relaxed, and we did speak about getting a couple of wickets early," he said, when asked what the team had discussed at the dinner break, when West Indies were 34 for 0. "In the last couple of games, West Indies has lost wickets quite quickly in the middle order. If we put the ball in the right areas and held our chances, then anything could happen. Our bowlers came back and bowled beautifully, and things really worked out for us."
He pin-pointed the phase immediately after dinner as the pivotal one. "That was a very important part of the game. Munaf [Patel] and Sreesanth bowled beautifully, with pace and in good areas. They got us three quick wickets, and then Ajit [Agarkar] came on and bowled a beautiful spell. We kept the pressure on right through. Harbhajan came on later, and RP [Singh] got a crucial wicket, so all in all, the guys bowled really well."
The return of Sreesanth, who finished with 2 for 25 from eight overs, gave India a genuinely pacy option, and Dravid revealed that Irfan Pathan's poor run of form had forced his hand. "I thought we'd go in with our five best bowlers for this match," he said. "Irfan's not been bowling that well. That doesn't mean he won't be bowling well in a month's time, or in two months. Irfan remains very much a part of the scheme of things. He lends a lot of balance to the team when he plays, and his ability to do both roles in crucial to us." He was brusque when asked what Pathan had been told prior to being benched. "What I discuss with my players is pretty personal," he said, "and it's not my prerogative to tell you."
The batting debacle against an attack having one only specialist bowler, Corey Collymore, was understandable cause for concern, but he denied that it had anything to do with the batting order being shuffled around too much. "I don't know how you can say that. Irfan didn't play today, so we moved Virender Sehwag up from where he's supposed to be playing for us. Yuvi hadn't had a bat for a long time and he was feeling slightly unwell today, so we thought we'd give [Suresh] Raina a chance up at four, with Dhoni at six. The thing with Sachin [Tendulkar] and me opening is something that I thought we'd try in the last two tournaments, but we haven't had much opportunity to try it out.
"It was a combination of some good bowling and some poor batting. Some of the boys who batted for a while said that if we'd got to 210 or 220, that would have been a good score on that pitch. There was something in the pitch, but we're disappointed that we didn't get that. But these close games provide for great, exciting cricket. As batsmen, we've got to play on pitches that do a bit, and learn to cope. We can't always play on flat tracks."
Dravid was also full of praise for Harbhajan, whose superb spell with the ball was preceded by a gritty 37 with the bat. "One of the positives to come out was the way Harbhajan batted," he said. "We give our lower order a lot of batting, and that was stressed during the camps in Bangalore. It's nice to see that some of that has paid off, at least in terms of Harbhajan, if not anyone else. When you're playing with just six frontline batsmen, you're taking a bit of a gamble and if people like Ajit and Harbhajan can contribute, which they're capable of, it makes a big difference."
Brian Lara, who came in at No.9 and stroked a fluent 40 before running out of support, was disappointed with the manner in which the match was surrendered, but made no apologies for his attempt to give a misfiring middle order more batting practice. "It showed that the guys are out of form and lacking in confidence," he said. "We used this game to see if our boys could gain something, especially in that department, guys who are batting 6,7,8, push them up the order and see if they showed some responsibility. That did not happen but we've still got the finals to play.
"We could have won the game by eight wickets had myself, [Chris] Gayle and others batted up the order, but then we wouldn't have known what to expect from guys like [Wavell] Hinds and [Runako] Morton in the final. At least now, we know where they stand and they have the opportunity to correct themselves."
Despite the pitch being a challenging one, Lara was still dismayed by the nature of the capitulation. "I just told the guys in the dressing-room that it was not a 250 pitch. If you bowled in the right areas, you might get something out of it. [Ian] Bradshaw had shown that in a few matches, as did Glenn McGrath and Johnson earlier, and Dwayne Smith today. I always thought that at some point of time, a team was going to fold for under 200. I never thought two teams would fold at the same time."
The one bright spot, the return of Collymore apart, was a marvellous spell from Dwayne Smith with the new ball. "I am proud of the bowlers," said Lara. "Dwayne Smith bowled well and Collymore, who did not look 100% fit, looked unplayable on occasions. We've still got guys like Bradshaw to come back, so I'm a little happier in that area though there is cause for concern in the batting.
"With one strike bowler in Collymore, I obviously had to turn to Bravo, Smith or Hinds. Smith has been the best support bowler so far. He put the ball in the right areas and got genuine wickets. I would like to see him score some runs as well because he has some part to play in that department."
The defeat put an end to West Indies' five-match winning streak against India, but Lara reckoned that his side would still hold the edge if they met again in the final. "If they do make it to the final, it's going to be a different ball game," he promised. "They came here to win the match and to be kept under 200 with one strike bowler; they will have the psychological disadvantage going into the finals if we meet them."
While praising Harbhajan - "He tries to get wickets and is always a good attacking bowler in one-day cricket" - Lara was also appreciative of the manner in which India battled back. "Sometimes, when you have a small total to defend, you knuckle down a bit and come out harder. Their guys showed consistency in line and length and it paid off at the end of the day."
He saved the best for last, waxing eloquent when asked about Tendulkar's 65, the defining innings of the match. "Sachin is a very good friend of mine," he said when asked whether he was disappointed to be at the receiving end once again. "If he scores runs, it is attractive, a sight to behold. I want my players to learn from a guy like that, he's an exceptional talent.
"Seeing him bat, there's not much you can do sometimes. He is such a perfect batsman that on occasions, you see guys struggle and he does not. I'm happy that he has come back and is scoring runs because such a great player needs to come to the fore. I don't know if he has any doubters in India, but there's definitely not a doubt here. It's nice to see him come back and show his class. I want to see him do that on Friday as well."
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo