India coasted to a 39-run victory at the RMCCG ground in Rajkot to close out the one-day series against Zimbabwe by four games to one. They owed the win largely to the frail looking Ajit Agarkar who looks ready and capable to ensconce himself into the role of the all rounder India does not have. After a splendid 102 run stand in just 99 balls between Hemang Badani and Reetinder Sodhi strengthened the edifice of the Indian innings, Agarkar produced a spectacular late blitz of 67 in 25 balls that lifted India to a once unthinkable 301. Despite earning the springboard of a rollicking start, the visitors sputtered in the middle overs and the loss of Trevor Madondo and Grant Flower in successive overs signalled the end of the road for them.
The younger members of the Indian team also stepped up a notch and indicated they were quite capable of standing the heat at this level. After the early exits of the two senior batsmen in the team, Badani was the stabilising influence in the middle order that afforded Agarkar the luxury of going for broke in the end. Skipper Rahul Dravid said it was a fantastic feeling to post a win in his first match as captain. The depth in the Indian bowling also provided for a plethora of options as Dravid said. "We were just discussing that we had ten guys in the side who could bowl, other than the keeper, and I thought Sriram and Shewag did a very good job in the middle overs".
Alistair Campbell had begun with a flurry of attacking shots which was nothing new but as usual, to the frustration of his team-mates, he failed to convert that start into anything like a substantial score. Campbell presented Reetinder Sodhi, given custody of the new ball in Zaheer Khan's absence, with his first ODI scalp. His partner Trevor Madondo was in ominous touch and it certainly baffles the imagination why Zimbabwe tarried till the end of the tour to give him a stage to announce his undoubted ability. Madondo generated plenty of power off his strokes which came all around the wicket as the Zimbabwe fifty came up in just 6.2 overs. He shrugged off the loss of a second partner in Gavin Rennie and greeted the first appearance of spin in the form of Aashish Kapoor by smacking a four over cover, wasting no time in getting acquainted with the bowler's craft.
An Andy Flower reverse sweep that beat a very square short fineleg stationed to cut off the very stroke brought up the hundred in the 14th over, a good 11 overs earlier than India took to reach the corresponding milestone. Agarkar was working up a good burst of pace to keep the batsmen on their toes after the gentle medium pace of the opening pair of Prasad and Sodhi. At 103, Zimbabwe suffered what seemed to be an irreconcilable blow as Andy Flower flicked Agarkar into the waiting hands of Sodhi at square leg. Madondo refused to let that be a dampener on his belligerence, and before long had swept Kapoor for a boundary, that fetched him a half century in 40 balls. Grant Flower joined him in a battling partnership that formed the main repository of Zimbabwe's hopes as they proceeded to 146 at the halfway stage with the asking rate still at manageable proportions.
The specialist spinner Aashish Kapoor had gone wicket less in seven overs but the back-up, comprising of Sridharan Sriram and Virender Shewag, did a fine job under the circumstances. Having made 71 (70 balls), Madondo was deceived in flight by Sriram as he stepped out to drive and played inside the line to have his stumps rattled. When Shewag trapped Grant Flower leg before on the back foot in the following over - his first - Zimbabwe had lost the plot at 156/5 in the 28th over. They did have two specialist batsmen left in Guy Whittall and Dougie Marillier but on past record on this tour neither inspired a particular sense of confidence.
Whittall disappointed again, holing out to deep midwicket off Shewag and the asking rate soon spiralled out of reach. Marillier struck a few audacious blows in the course of a swift 38 (42 balls) and the tail never gave up hope but the target remained tantalisingly out of reach. Even after the 47th over, Zimbabwe were ahead of India at the corresponding stage, which put the value of the late surge spearheaded by Agarkar in perspective. Having added three wickets to his kitty, he was the undisputed Man of the Match.
In the morning, a brilliant opening spell by Heath Streak, taking the new ball for the first time in the series, put India firmly on the defensive from the start. Bowling a relentless off stump line and a three quarter length or thereabouts, he challenged the batsmen to force him away at their own peril. Given the rare opportunity to bat out the full 50 overs, Sridharan Sriram squandered it with impunity. Drawn irresistibly into a ball angled well wide of him, the resulting nick was gobbled by Andy Flower. In six ODI's, the lefthander is still to reach double figures, a result not so much deriving from any deficiency in technique but rather an inability to curb his natural instincts.
The tight bowling from Streak frustrated skipper Dravid to play a shot out of character and trying to go over the infield, he failed to get hold of the ball and holed out to midoff. Sachin Tendulkar had found the pickets at easy intervals and was quick to pounce on any errors in line and length, almost entirely from Strang. One sensed however that he was exercising all his powers of self-control to guard against a false shot and open up a middle order that had hitherto promised more than it had delivered. When Streak took himself off after a tight first spell, it just might have been lulled Tendulkar into indiscretion as he dragged a widish delivery from Mluleki Nkala onto his stumps.
That left India in disarray at 42/3 and although Yuvraj Singh and Virender Shewag both played some delightful shots in their brief appearances in the middle, they did not help the cause by getting dismissed at inopportune moments. Yuvraj started in blistering fashion with boundaries off his first two balls off Nkala whom he continued to single out for attention, a pull to the midwicket fence being singularly contemptuous. The innings was just blossoming when it was snuffed out by umpire Saheba, making his ODI debut, who gave him leg before when he seemed to be playing enough forward to induce a reasonable doubt in onlooker's minds.
Virender Shewag is another who is built very much in the cavalier mould and there was murder in his eye as he danced down the wicket and cleared Murphy over the straight boundary. Something had to give in this confrontation and as it turned out, it was the batsman who blinked first, being caught behind by Andy Flower at 114 in the 27th over. Badani was the guiding light of the innings, allowing for the strokemakers to blaze away, and then perish, at the other end, while he himself carved the ball into the gaps, accumulating the runs with stealth. His half century contained just one boundary - a six in fact off Murphy that thudded into the sight screen at the pavilion end - and there wasn't an element of extravagance in his stroke play, just level-headedness taken to an extreme.
Sodhi also blossomed into his own after an unsteady start, an effortless six over long on off Bryan Strang, being the acme of his repertoire after which his confidence started flowing back. He was however overshadowed by Agarkar who tucked into some loose bowling with gusto. Agarkar's bread and butter strokes were the inside out shot over cover and the lofted heave to deep midwicket as he hurried to a fifty off just 21 balls. The last five overs produced 73 with all the bowlers including Streak being severely punished. Dropped early in his knock by Brian Murphy at point, Agarkar finished off the innings with two sixes in two balls off Alistair Campbell who was invited to bowl the 50th over by a rattled Heath Streak. The unbroken seventh wicket stand was worth 85 in 39 balls, Agarkar's share being 67 off 25. Sodhi who was already on 39 when his partner joined him, finished on a comparatively sedate 53 in 67 balls. "The situation was quite simple. I just had to go out and hit. Today I connected everything", said Agarkar. A precociously talented batsman as a schoolboy, who once hit a triple century in Mumbai's Giles Shield, Agarkar seems to have rediscovered the flair he lost along the way. Combined with his skill with the old ball, he was simply the revelation of the series.