Astle extends India's finals misery
In an enthralling contest which ebbed and flowed throughout, Nathan Astle's unbeaten 115 proved to be the crucial difference as New Zealand clinched the Videocon Cup with a six-wicket win at Harare. Set a challenging 277 for victory, New Zealand got off to a stunning start, as Stephen Fleming (61) and Astle put together 121 in 18.1 overs, and then rode on that momentum despite a few wobbles against the spinners.
Astle's matchwinning effort overshadowed a couple of fine Indian batting performances - Mohammad Kaif played the outstanding hand for the second time in three games with a beautifully paced unbeaten 93, while Virender Sehwag finally got some batting form back with his first half-century in 16 ODIs.
The last time the two sides met in a final, Chris Cairns had struck a magnificent century to make light of a stiff target. This time, he was the supersub, sitting in the pavilion and ready to walk out if the need arose, but as it turned out, his contribution wasn't even needed, thanks primarily to an astonishing onslaught at the start of the run-chase.
India's bowlers have often stumbled in finals, but it appeared they might have finally got their act together when Irfan Pathan started off with a maiden. The next five overs went for 62, however, as Fleming and Astle rocked the Harare Sports Club with strokes all around the park, taking full toll of the bowlers' proclivity to bowl on both sides of the wicket. Fleming was especially severe on Pathan, spanking him for five fours in his third over. Astle hammered boundaries square of the wicket on both sides, and Sourav Ganguly was forced to run for cover, spreading the field out after two power plays.
India's seamers leaked 137 from 18.1 overs, but the introduction of spin staunched the runs immediately. Sehwag nailed two wickets in one over, Harbhajan Singh bowled a tidy line and length, and even Astle found run-scoring far more difficult than he had earlier.
However, India had one power-play still to use, and when it was finally taken in the 24th over, New Zealand made use of it to get back their momentum - Jai Prakash Yadav was tonked for 14 in his only over. India fought back with their spinners - Yuvraj Singh was almost as effective as Daniel Vettori had been for New Zealand earlier - and the asking rate even climbed to 6.4 in the last ten overs. However, with wickets in hand, and Astle around to provide the steadying hand, the result wasn't in much doubt.
India's start had been pretty impressive too, but from 155 for 1 the batsmen, save Kaif, lost their way, finally being all out four balls short of 50 overs. After missing New Zealand's last match, Shane Bond and Vettori both returned to the line-up, and as expected, they were the two class acts in the attack: Vettori bowled with guile, varied his flight and pace cleverly, and deserved his returns of 2 for 35. Bond bowled an incisive first spell, but was clearly below par when he returned, finally hobbling off three balls short of his complete spell.
Sehwag provided the early impetus to the innings, but the crucial steadying hand in the middle and the late charge came from Kaif, who batted with all the fluency he showed in Friday's match, but was even more impressive for the manner in which he read the situation and played according to its demands. When Sehwag was firing away, Kaif played second fiddle sensibly, When Sehwag fell, Kaif took on the mantle of batting through to the end, and when wickets fell in a heap towards the end, he took on the role of main striker, belting three fours in a four-ball sequence off Styris and Bond to help the innings get the momentum it was quickly losing.
Kaif's innings ensured that the early contributions of the openers, especially Sehwag, wasn't wasted. Struggling for form before this match, Sehwag got into groove early, slashing a couple of fours off Bond, and then carried on from there, taking full toll of the width on offer. Ganguly was all at sea against Bond, but found the lesser pace of Kyle Mills much more to his liking. He fell against the run of play after an innings played in two halves - his first 22 balls fetched him a single, his last 22 got him 30 - but Kaif joined Sehwag in what was the best passage of the innings for India. The 81-run stand came in less than 12 overs as both batsmen made full use of Fleming's decision to use all the power-plays at a stretch.
After 24 overs, India were 153 for 1, a run-rate of 6.37, with Sehwag on course for a hundred. Vettori then stepped in, taking two wickets in an over, including that for Rahul Dravid for a second-ball duck, to peg India back. India continued to lose their way thereafter. Kaif kept his cool to guide the team to a competitive total, but that wasn't enough to prevent India from sliding to their 12th defeat in their last 16 finals.
Speaking of his side's victory, Fleming said: "It was a great match, a great win and a great series. The all-round strength of our team was what mattered in the end."
Ganguly highlighted his team's fielding as the weak part of their performance: "We got off to a good start, but couldn't sustain it. Virender Sehwag put us back in the game for a while with three wickets but our fielding was not up to scratch."
India now face Zimbabwe in a two-Test series, with the first starting on September 13.
Sourav Ganguly c Marshall b Oram 31 (44) (72 for 1)
Slapped a cut straight to point
Virender Sehwag c Vincent b Vettori 75 (65) (155 for 2)
Tried to chip the ball over the infield, but hit it straight to extra cover
Rahul Dravid lbw b Vettori 0 (2) (155 for 3)
Trapped in front by an arm ball which pitched within the stumps and straightened
Yuvraj Singh c Bond b Mills 20 (32) (185 for 4)
Swung a short ball straight to fine leg
Venugopal Rao c McMillan b Oram 8 (16) (203 for 5)
Swung at a short one, and McMillan completed a diving catch at midwicket
Mahendra Singh Dhoni lbw b Styris 11 (16) (230 for 6)
Adjudged lbw when hit around midriff while going down on one knee to sweep. Replays suggested the ball was going over the top
Jai Prakash Yadav c McCullum b Oram 0 (2) (231 for 7)
Edged a glide to the keeper
Ajit Agarkar c Mills b Bond 6 (5) (255 for 8)
Lofted one straight to deep cover
Irfan Pathan c Vincent b Oram 10 (7) (272 for 9)
Holed out to long-off
Ashish Nehra c Oram b Mills 0 (2) (276 all out)
Swung a short one to deep backward square leg
Stephen Fleming c & b Sehwag 61 (66) (121 for 1)
Played too early and chipped a return catch
Hamish Marshall lbw b Sehwag 3 (3) (125 for 2)
Shuffled across to play to leg, and was trapped plumb in front
Scott Styris st Dhoni b Sehwag 37 (41) (183 for 3)
Beaten by the turn as he came down the pitch to play the ball to the on side
Craig McMillan c Dhoni b Yuvraj 13 (14) (206 for 4)
Feathered a nick while trying to glide one to third man
S Rajesh is assistant editor of Cricinfo