Mumbai v Rest of India, Irani Cup, Nagpur, 2nd day October 2, 2009

Odd couple put Rest on even keel

Two contrasting men led Rest of India's revival with some lovely exhibition of seam bowling. If Sreesanth, of late, is trying to avoid getting into a hyper-aggressive state and tries to remain calm and focused on his craft, Munaf Patel, who is generally laid-back, seems to bowl better when he gets more aggressive. Both hit the right notes today in slightly overcast conditions to turn out impressive performances on what still is a decent batting pitch.

Watching Sreesanth bowl is a fascinating experience. You know what he is capable of in his bowling art - that proud seam and the rest of it - but you also know that he is prone to self-destruction. The entire package is so sizzling that you can never turn your eyes off him when he is on the field.

The day started with that familiar sinking feeling as Sreesanth featured in a newspaper supplement talking about his ambition of acting and his thoughts on marriage. On the ground, though, Sreesanth the bowler turned out in full force.

Right from the start, he was switched on. With Sreesanth, as always, you don't only notice his bowling but the entire package of quirky traits. Today, those signature self-exhortations at the top of the run-up were not seen too often, nor was there any special celebration on claiming a wicket. Not that there is anything wrong in either trait, but of late, he has been waging a battle within himself to avoid anything that could be seen as evidence against his attitude.

And he didn't offer any room for criticism of his bowling either. He judged the pitch correctly and knew that full-length was the way to go on this surface. The seam rushed on straight and landed on a good length before cutting either way as the flick of the wrist at the release had wanted it. Sahil Kukreja couldn't pick him yesterday and his harassment increased today before Sreesanth terminated his misery with a peach that cut in to hit the top of the off stump.

He returned in the afternoon to lead Rest of India's revival with yet another probing spell. He later said that after his stint under Allan Donald for Warwickshire, he has tried to concentrate on his own bowling rather than on what the batsman is doing. There were just a couple of occasions when the old fiery Sreesanth threatened to crack open the lid of self-control.

The first came when the umpire denied a plausible lbw appeal against Ramesh Powar. He stared at the umpire, turned and looked at the batsman, then to his fielders and then back again at the umpire. He slowly trudged back and stood at the umpire's position and had a look down the track as if he was trying to gauge the umpire's field of vision as he played back the ball in his mind. It was pure drama. The holiday crowd roared at the sight of the old Sreesanth. They had tried baiting him at the boundary the whole day but he remained stoic - on only a couple of occasions did he indulge them with a wave and a disarming smile.

The second occasion came immediately after that lbw shout, when he hurled a couple of bouncers at Powar, who was trying to upset Sreesanth's length and composure by walking down the track. After one such delivery left alone by Powar, who suggested later he should have upper cut it, he walked down the track to have a few words. For couple of deliveries, he even shortened his length and bowled with wicketkeeper Wriddhiman Saha standing up to the stumps, but thankfully shelved the idea quickly. He later played it down saying it was a just a friendly encounter with his IPL team-mate and he was in control of his emotions. For the main part, though, there was no side drama: just good old classical seam bowling.

A short while before his chats with the umpire and Powar, Sreesanth had drawn Wasim Jaffer forward, out of the comfort zone, and produced few mistakes but without any success. Couple of deliveries collided with the inside edge and a few rushed past the outside edge but by presenting a visual evidence of Jaffer's weakness, Sreesanth had done his job in inspiring Munaf to up his game.

Watching Munaf bowl is a not a tantalizing treat; he doesn't make the ball swerve in intriguing parabolas but you know his performance won't vary inconsistently like a sine curve. You know what you will get from him: steady line and length and bit of seam movement and on his good day, some extra bounce. He doesn't possess a visually arresting art to crash into the team ahead of the other flashy contestants but when they slip up and you are looking for something steady and trusted, he presents a strong case for himself.

Today, Munaf had been economical in the morning but he was bowling back of length when the pitch required him to be fuller. He upped the ante in the second with some inspired performance where he hit a fuller length and immediately began to taste success. He was much more animated post-lunch, constantly asking his acting captain S Badrinath for field changes and increased his pace too.

He got one to bend back in to go through the defenses of a lunging Jaffer before getting one to hold its line outside off to remove Prashant Naik. He was on song throughout that spell. Time and again, the ball landed on a length in the off-stump channel and either moved in or straightened. He was so sure of his control that at one point he even placed a seven-two off-side field and bowled to his field.

It's a luxury that MS Dhoni doesn't have, at this point, with the Indian bowling line-up. By bowling as well as they have done, Sreesanth, through out the day, and Munaf, in the improved afternoon performance, have sent out the right signals. And they will get another shot in the second innings. However, both would know that one game doesn't make a summer. It's still too early to say, though, whether they are good enough to be drafted into the national team at the expense of RP Singh and Ishant Sharma for they would have to reprise this effort spell after spell, and day after day.

Sriram Veera is a staff writer at Cricinfo

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