Marlon Samuels missed an ODI hundred by a whisker, but Brian Lara marked his return to the side with a masterful 83 as West Indies kept their series hopes alive with a three-wicket win in the third ODI at Chennai. A calibrated run chase was in keeping with West Indies' rejuvenated display in the field, where they clawed their way back and derailed India from 232 for 3 in the 35th over to 268 in 48 overs. Not lost in India's struggle, however, was Robin Uthappa's 41-ball 70, a strong statement of intent as two batting spots remain up for grabs ahead of the World Cup.
Chasing 269 to keep the series alive, Samuels and Lara overcame a top-order wobble with a 127-run fourth-wicket stand. Samuels was the aggressor as the tourists recovered from the first-ball dismissal of Chris Gayle and kept a largely lacklustre Indian bowling attack at bay. Samuels has continued to frustrate over the course of his six-year career, and today was one of those efforts that left people yearning for more. When the gears are all working, Samuels is a treat to watch - Gayle maintains that Samuels's maiden ODI hundred against India at Vijayawada in 2002 was the best he's seen - and tonight his efforts were extreme. In the company of Lara, he took on the lead role, finding the gaps with regular ease. Taking a cue from his captain, he stepped out of his box and lofted Ramesh Powar for six and four.
Lara read the spinners well, especially Anil Kumble, preferring to sweep anything marginally off line. Off the pads, he was sublime. In the 19th over, bowled by Kumble, Lara gave the crowd plenty of reason to cheer with a six and two fours, using the feet well and hitting over the top. Having only been passed fit in the morning, his role throughout this innings was paramount to West Indies' chances. He picked up consecutive fours dabbed around the corner off Sachin Tendulkar and brought up his fifty, his 62nd and sixth against India, in the 30th over.
West Indies stuttered after his dismissal, but in the end victory was achieved with 38 balls to spare. At the heart of West Indies' win was the turnaround they caused in the second half of the Indian innings. Despite a lack of firepower, their bowlers chipped away and were backed by some athletic fielding. Capitalising on the momentum provided by Uthappa's blitz Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, who had progressed to the 75th fifties of their careers in a fourth-wicket stand of 106, were in cruise control but once they departed in quick succession, West Indies refused to look back.
Dwayne Bravo, spanked for 19 runs in his first over, returned to remove Tendulkar, Yuvraj Singh and Dinesh Karthik and suddenly, India's inexperienced middle order was removed. The big guns out of the way, there was a visible spring in the West Indians' step. Right away Jerome Taylor was quick, and bouncing batsmen, and Bravo started to beat the bat regularly. Gayle relieved Karthik when he spilled a sitter in the deep, but made sure it didn't cost them. Bravo's 4 for 39 from eight overs proved his best spell in ODIs, given that the series is on the line. Both Gayle and Samuels too did a highly commendable job with the slower stuff, accounting for three wickets. Gayle's canny offbreaks ensured boundaries were not taken at will and Samuels's ability to stifle the run rate was impressive.
Conversely, India couldn't boast the same throughout. Agarkar got the early breakthroughs, and robbed Samuels of a third century, but his 3 for 45 consisted of some erratic bowling, and to say that he was the best bowler is to put in perspective how India bowled today. Sreesanth began with a horror first over that cost 22, ten courtesy two shocking wides either side of the stumps. His inability to get wickets early up remains a worry for India, he was easy fodder for a well-set Samuels when he returned in the 16th over, and he has a problem with wides. Kumble, handed another life in the limited-overs game, was rendered pretty much ineffective in the face of Lara, and the character that he is, figures of 1 for 67 will surely keep him up tonight.
Where their opponents threw themselves around in the field to back up their limited bowling attack, India failed to do so. It's an area where they lack big time, even with a bunch of young enthusiasts at their disposal. It's a telling statement when Yuvraj Singh, playing his first match after three months, was the best man out there after only just rehabilitating himself from a knee injury.
With two World Cup spots up for grabs, and three candidates vying for those, the pressure was on Uthappa, Suresh Raina and Gautam Gambhir, but only Uthappa really seized the chance. After a prolific domestic season, he showed that he was no means satiated, producing some breathtaking strokes all sides of the wicket to stun the opposition early on. Uthappa's belligerent form should be some consolation for India as they take on West Indies for the last match in Vadodara on the 31th.