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March 28, 2006
And so the Indian limited-overs juggernaut rumbles on, with an inspired defence of a low total and a 13th victory in 17 matches. Kevin Pietersen's hoick at a full toss was the breach in the wall, and India stormed through with the vigour of a team whose self-belief borders on the unshakeable. After a batting meltdown that was perhaps inevitable after a catalogue of excellence in Pakistan, the slow bowlers reined in England once the ball had lost sheen and hardness. A two-paced pitch of variable bounce helped, and the match on the whole was ample evidence that 872 runs and bowlers-to-the-slaughter alone don't one-day entertainment make.
At 117 for 3, this was a match that England appeared destined to win with 15 overs to spare, but once Pietersen swung across the line - a recurring theme as the innings unravelled - the momentum shift was startling. Harbhajan Singh enjoyed the bounce on offer, getting Matt Prior on the sweep, and with the second Powerplay enforced in the 21st over, he started to turn the odd ball viciously. Flintoff, who had struck the ball beautifully with the straight bat, was plumb when he chose the horizontal-bat option, and Geraint Jones, who opted for a forward step allied to hesitation, only succeeded in yorking himself.
For all his tribulations in the Test arena, Harbhajan has been one of India's most effective bowlers during the one-day resurgence, and figures of 5 for 31 didn't flatter him on a day when he once again resembled the man who had routed Australia five years ago. What was truly revelatory though was the support act. Yuvraj Singh's bowling stints are rarely more than cameos, but throughout his 10 overs today, he was a more than adequate foil - tossing the ball up, pushing it through, and getting wicked turn and bounce as Dravid's fifth-bowler dilemma was rendered redundant.
All of that was backed up by superb fielding, with Mohammad Kaif showing scarcely believable reflexes at forward short leg, and Gautam Gambhir pouching three in the deep, none of them straightforward in a background that was a riot of swaying colour. His fielding display was atonement for another start squandered with the bat, another lazy waft outside off stump while well set.
For as well as England bowled, this was no 203-run pitch. Virender Sehwag's woes continued - only four 50s in his last 34 innings - and his response to the short ball is rapidly becoming something of a joke. Seemingly incapable of exercising the sway-and leave option, the way out seems to be a tutorial - maybe Greg Chappell could help, given how well Australians traditionally play the horizontal-bat shots - in playing the pull and hook.
With the exception of Dravid, who got a peach from Liam Plunkett, the others had only themselves to blame for their dismissals. All four English pace bowlers did sterling work on an encouraging pitch, with Plunkett and Kabir Ali showing just why the team management could afford to leave out the hugely impressive Matthew Hoggard. There was also a star turn - literally - from Ian Blackwell, whose miserly spell of left-arm bowling must have implanted the first seeds in Dravid's mind about who to choose as Harbhajan's sidekick.
Only fortitude allowed India to resurrect the innings from the depths of 80 for 5. Suresh Raina and Mahendra Singh Dhoni, fluent strokemakers both, were restraint personified for the most part, taking 30 and 25 balls respectively before lashing a ball beyond the rope, and on a day for the patient man, it wasn't an approach to be criticised.
Irfan Pathan, who produced a splendid first over to fire up the side, and Harbhajan both batted with flair and responsibility, giving themselves something to bowl at later in the day. And with indomitable spirit coursing through the veins, 203 turned out to be more than enough.
It was further evidence that this one-day team possesses what the Test side lacks - supreme confidence allied to a greater mastery of the skills required. And while the Test team has paddled in pools of mediocrity since the Pakistan tour in 2004, the one-day side has risen from the black hole that it plunged into the following season. This was another huge stride for a team that increasingly looks like genuine contenders for the ultimate prize a year from now.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of CricinfoFeeds: Dileep Premachandran
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