April 1, 2008

Monstrous innings, rebuilt reputations

Dream debuts and predictable farewells, records broken and boots filled ... we've got all the March action in a nutshell for you

Little Weed 1, Big Queenslander 0 © Getty Images

The Grudge Wickets
All through India's tour of Australia, Harbhajan Singh was a marked man, but it turned out he had his men marked out too: two Queenslanders, to be precise. And so it was that in the CB Series finals, Harbhajan dismissed Andrew Symonds twice, and Matthew Hayden once (and took the bails off when Hayden was run out on the other occasion). What would have pleased Harbhajan most was that on both occasions he nipped in the bud a threatening comeback Hayden and Symonds were manufacturing: in Sydney they had added 100 for the fourth wicket, and in Brisbane 89.

The Unexpected Hero
On the morning of the first CB Series final, Mahendra Singh Dhoni told Praveen Kumar he would be bowling the first over. By his third over Praveen had dismissed Adam Gilchrist and Ricky Ponting. In the second final he went one better, claiming Gilchrist, Ponting and Michael Clarke in his first spell with impressive swing bowling before coming back to bowl a tight over during the slog, during which he fooled Brett Lee with a slower ball, and finishing with 10-2-46-4 and the Man-of-the-Match award in India's biggest ODI win in more than 20 years.

The Innings (ODI)
Going into the first final, Sachin Tendulkar had not achieved many things: an ODI century in Australia, a century in 37 innings, a chase-winning century since 2001, a century in any chase since March 2004. In a 235-minute masterclass, Tendulkar washed it all away, scoring 117 off 120 balls and leading India to the target on a difficult wicket just about solo. He dominated in the initial overs, shepherded the tentative middle order, and stayed unbeaten to see the side home.

The Partnership
What do you do if you are South Africans struggling in the heat of Bangladesh and have been made to work really hard in the first Test of the series? In the second Test, you win the toss, bat first, and flog the opposition senseless - and the fewer people you use to do so, the better. Two - Graeme Smith and Neil McKenzie - were enough in this case. Between them they hit 52 boundaries and four sixes on day one, putting 405 runs on the board. Then they came back to claim the world record for the highest opening partnership. Smith (234) finally got out with the score on 415; McKenzie scored 226.

The Catch(es)
England's New Zealand tour left many a reputation changed, most pleasingly Alastair Cook's of being a lousy fielder. In the Hamilton Test, he came up with one spectacular catch after the other until he had five of them, in the process single-handedly (well almost - he got both hands to most of them) getting Ryan Sidebottom his hat-trick. The dismissal of Mathew Sinclair, the middle victim in that hat-trick, stood out: at gully, Cook dived full-length to his left, got both hands to it, in the process resembling a goalkeeper trying to tip one over the bar, and pouched it safely.

Seven up: 'Every dog has his day' © Getty Images

The Debut
In the Under-19 World Cup, Tim Southee took 17 wickets off 44.4 overs for 113 runs, and it was clear he needed to start picking on people his own size as soon as possible. The New Zealand selectors thought so too and put him where they thought he belonged: a Test match in Napier. Whereupon the lad bowled his mid-80mph outswingers with guile, removing Andrew Strauss and Michael Vaughan in his first three overs, and then claimed Kevin Pietersen with the second new ball. He duly dismissed two more from the tail to finish with 5 for 55. And then, with the game all but lost, he put on an agricultural display with the bat in the second innings: 77 off 40 balls, with four fours and nine sixes. Coming off 29 balls, the fifty was the fastest in Tests by a New Zealander, and the sixth-fastest overall.

The Broad Bat
Like Cook's, this was another reputation that needed mending. When you are looking for impetus, Ian Bell is not the man you want to see walking out. In the second innings of the deciding Test in Napier, Bell put that notion to rest. Leaving well enough alone was not on his agenda on that day: in a 167-ball 110, he put bat to the first 99 balls he faced - quite possibly a record.

The Spell
England were bowled out for 253 in their first innings on a flat track in Napier and by lunch on the second day, New Zealand had scored 93 for 1 and seemed all set to take a handy lead. Then, along came Ryan Sidebottom, who bowled through the middle session unchanged, taking five wickets for 33 runs and turning the series on its head. Sidebottom took 7 for 47 in all, and New Zealand finished on 168. "Every dog has his day," Sidebottom, who ended the series with 24 wickets at 17.08, said modestly later.

The Sophomore Effort
Before there was Sidebottom, there was Tim Ambrose. Down a match, England were 136 for 5 in the second Test, waiting for the undertaker, when Ambrose, all of one Test old, took the sword to the defensive mentality that had been the highlight of England's batting till then. He followed his first-Test fifty with 102 off 149 balls here, setting an example for some of his more illustrious team-mates in the line-up in the process. By the time he was out, England had reached 300. Ambrose was the reason the series was not dead before it reached the third Test.

The Fitting Farewell
"If I had scored a hundred, it would have been an anomaly," said Stephen Fleming after his last Test innings. The man knew himself well: all through his Test career, his batting average never gone past 40.15, once the effects of an impressive debut subsided. His last innings encapsulated it well: Fleming scored an attractive 66, 12 more than what he required to get his career average up to 40, and then, against the run of play, went for a lazy cut and edged to the keeper.

The Finale
On a slow and dead wicket in Guyana, Sri Lanka creatively and immaculately plotted West Indies' downfall. But in the end they needed two wickets in the last 24.3 overs, and Chris Gayle and Jermaine Taylor were in no mood to go gently. Every ball negotiated was as good as a run scored, as Sri Lanka started to run out of time. Finally, after the two had eaten up 58 minutes and 82 deliveries, Chaminda Vaas produced a peach in the final hour to remove Taylor. Darren Powell then provided his captain with valuable support, but with 29 deliveries to go, Muttiah Muralitharan, after having bowled 36 overs in the day, back-pedalled four steps from short mid-off, and then dived backwards to take a corker of a catch, sealing Sri Lanka's first Test win in the West Indies.

Sehwag: fastest this, most devastating that © AFP

The Monstrosity
March 28 can now officially be named Virender Sehwag Day. Exactly four years after he marauded 228 runs in one day in Multan, Sehwag scored 257 in Chennai to move from 52 to 309 not out. In the process, he hit 42 fours and five sixes, bettering almost all his records from Multan. He also scored the fastest triple-century ever, and the third-fastest double-century, scored 66.02% of India's total till the end of the third day, missed Sir Don Bradman's record of hundreds in back-to-back sessions by just nine runs, and most importantly, left a Test that had widely been considered dead, wide open. He hit two boundaries in his 90s, and a six each in his 190s and 290s. He eventually fell the next morning for 319 (out of India's 481 for 2 then), edging to slip as he went for his 43rd boundary.

The Comeback
Just about a month ago Neil McKenzie seemed to have failed in his attempt to make a Test comeback (54 runs in three innings) after close to four years in the wilderness. Then in Chittagong he scored 226 in a world-record partnership. A fortnight later in Chennai, he got South Africa's campaign in India off to a rollicking start, first frustrating the Indian bowlers with a 94, and then ensuring a draw with an unbeaten 155 in the second.

Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo