India edge past despite Chanderpaul's masterclass
Sourav Ganguly followed up his impressive Test comeback with a spectacular return to one-dayers, but even his outstanding 98 was overshadowed by a stunning unbeaten 149 by Shivnarine Chanderpaul as the Vidarbha Cricket Association Ground saw the most number of runs ever scored in a one-day international in India. On a belter of a pitch, India rode on Ganguly's knock and a late fourish to pile up a gigantic 338 for 3. That seemed to be way beyond West Indies' reach, till Chanderpaul turned it on towards the end. Even his blistering strokeplay wasn't quite enough, though, as West Indies finished on 324 for 8, allowing India to sneak through by 14 runs.
On a day when boundaries rained from start to finish, India were the early aggressors. Ganguly smashed 98 from 109 deliveries, and with Gautam Gambhir in spectacular form as well, the new opening combination put a rollicking 144 for the opening wicket - the first century partnership for India in ODIs for close to nine months. Sachin Tendulkar, walking in at No.3, showed the creativity he could offer in the middle overs, while Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Rahul Dravid provided a lustrous polish at the end of the innings, pillaging 119 off the last 11.5 overs and erecting an awesome skyscraper.
That skyscraper, though, was in serious danger of crumbling as West Indies put together an inspired run-chase. Requiring more than a run a ball, they got off to a frenetic start too, as Chris Gayle and Chanderpaul added 80 in less than 13 overs. Like the two left-handers who opened for India, Gayle and Chanderpaul complemented each other with their contrasting styles. While Gayle was all brute force, freeing his arms against some wayward bowling, Chanderpaul resorted to touch, cannily finding the angles. Gayle had two let-offs - on 2 and 12, both off Sreesanth - and he made the Indians pay for their lapses, swinging through the line and creaming boundaries almost at will.
Subsequently, Harbhajan Singh's double-strike pegged them back and following Gayle's dismissal things slowed down considerably for them, reaching 139 for 2 at the 25-over stage. Chanderpaul was methodical and sly in his run-gathering. He glided Zaheer wide of first slip, top-edged Harbhajan over the same fielder, pulled Ajit Agarkar for six over square leg, pushed, tapped and burrowed. He didn't try anything silly when India didn't enforce the Power Plays - between the 10th and 14th over - but cashed in when the field was up soon after. He lost a couple of partners - Gayle was foxed by an offbreak from Harbhajan while Runako Morton had no clue against a doosra - but brought up his half-century in 52 balls and kept his side in the contest.
Earlier, India got the start they needed. Gambhir set the ball rolling with a salvo of boundaries early on and was especially severe on Jerome Taylor's wide offerings. He didn't miss out on anything wide and, once he'd gauged the true nature of the surface, even endeavored to pull the short ones.
The story of the morning, especially when one considers what went before, was Ganguly. Returning to the one-day side after a gap of 15 months, he didn't take long to find his groove. Displaying divine touches when he slashed through the off side, and showing no fear in charging down the track, he rattled West Indies. The shot with which he brought up his half-century encapsulated the mood: with an important landmark ahead and a chance to strengthen his case, he walked down the track to Daren Powell and smote him over extra-cover for a six. Risk without recklessness seemed to be the motif for the day.
He was commanding against spin - whacking Gayle and Samuels straight over their heads - and showed enough energy when he ran between the wickets. He was always on the look out for a single but his eagerness led to his dismissal, falling two short of his first century in close to four years. Chancing Dwayne Smith's arm at short midwicket, he was caught napping against a direct hit. The packed stands applauded his fine effort and one banner in particular - "The Tiger's back" - said all that was needed.
What eventually made the difference was the 71 runs in the last five overs, with both Dhoni and Dravid going ballistic. Dwayne Bravo's slower deliveries proved effective initially but Dhoni soon teed off with a muscular approach that few can match. He jumped down the track to the fast bowlers and stung with an array of unorthodox slogging. Dravid, at the other end, was more delicate in approach but as deadly in execution. His three sixes were like flowers transforming into grenades - one over cover required just one hand - and the contrasting styles completely put off the bowlers. The stage was set for an interesting denouement and though the West Indies responded bravely India just had too many runs on board to seal their success.
However, India's slow over-rate marred the victory as the players were individually penalised 5% of their match fees. Dravid, on the other hand, copped a higher 10% fine.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo