The art of building an innings
After India's embarrassing top-order collapse against New Zealand at Bulawayo, Cricinfo's Verdict had asked `How low can they go?' At 36 for 4, the Indians seemed keen to answer that question, before a top-class innings from Yuvraj Singh, and a fine support act by Mahendra Singh Dhoni, settled matters and ensured that India's confidence levels wouldn't be at abysmal levels when they take the field in the final.
For a while now, the qualities asked of India's batsmen have been consistency, patience, and grit under pressure. Yuvraj has been one of the players found wanting in the past, but he is slowly demonstrating those qualities. This was his second century in his last six innings, and he's also had scores of 42 and 53 not out in this period. From the first time he batted on the international stage, Yuvraj's skill, at least as a middle-order one-day batsman, has never been in doubt. What has been found wanting at times is the ability to buckle down and do the hard yards.
Though Yuvraj delighted with some typically sumptuous strokes later in his innings, the aspect that was most pleasing about his innings today was the way he went about building it. There were hardly any adventurous strokes early on, and the entire focus was on getting into rhythm and gauging the pitch and the bowlers before taking chances. His first 30 runs took 52 balls, and his first 50 required 70, with only 18 runs in boundaries. The asking rate climbed to more than six, but by then Yuvraj was ready for the onslaught - his last 70 runs took him only 54 balls. Add Mohammad Kaif's matchwinning innings in the previous match, and India can celebrate the fact that two batsmen likely to be the fulcrum of Indian one-day batting over the next many years are putting their hands up when it matters.
Sourav Ganguly might shrug off the top-order collapse, but the early part of India's innings was yet another illustration of why this team is ranked where it is. One-day cricket is admittedly all about form on the day, but top sides still manage to bring in some consistency in the performances; India's fluctuates so wildly from match to match that it would require a brave punter to put any money on this team.
Though Yuvraj did finally pull them through, India's top-order display should give Shane Bond and co. plenty of cheer before the final. Against a Zimbabwe attack that can only be termed friendly, the Indians contrived to push themselves into a corner, often playing the reputation of the bowler rather than the ball itself. Virender Sehwag, Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid have tons of runs under their belt, but all of them - even Dravid, lately - have been undergoing a lean trot, and today's match presented them with a perfect opportunity to get back into groove before the big day - the total was challenging, but conditions were excellent for batting. All it needed was for them to spend some time at the crease, get their confidence back, before launching into their shots. Taking singles and working hard for runs might be a plebian way of playing the game, but sometimes even monarchs need to descend to those levels, temporarily, before they conquer the heights again. The way three of the top four got out demonstrated an unhealthy greed to stamp their authority on the game before they were ready to do so. Yuvraj demonstrated later how easy it could look if the early hard work is put in.
For Zimbabwe, it was another case of seeing the victory post, and then forgetting how to get there. Tatenda Taibu missed a crucial stumping to reprieve Dhoni - a crucial miss which might have cost them the game - but there were enough positives for him and Kevin Curran, the coach, to take home. They batted with considerable skill and panache in the morning - Charles Coventry, in particular was a revelation in the manner in which he tonked those sixes, while the bowlers, even without their main man, Heath Streak, bowled with plenty of discipline early on. Taibu played a sparkling knock, the spinners Gavin Ewing and Prosper Utseya showed plenty of promise - as they have throughout this series. The next step though, is often the toughest - converting all that promise into results.
S Rajesh is assistant editor of Cricinfo