Swinging with Streak

In what was easily the most competitive day of Test cricket in Zimbabwe all season, the hosts put in the kind of seam-bowling performance which would have made any of the top eight Test sides proud: nine wickets for 171 runs in 64.4 overs tells the story, and had it not been for some late-order runs and a clanger dropped by Blessing Mahwire, those numbers would have looked even better for Zimbabwe. And while all the fast bowlers had a part to play, one man made the difference between a good day and an exceptional one.

The last five years haven't been particularly memorable ones for Heath Streak the Test match bowler: since taking 6 for 87 at Lord's in 2000, his sixth five-for, he has struggled through his next 34 matches, with 84 wickets, no five-fors, and an average of 37, a huge contrast to his stats in his first 30 Tests. As if the battles with poor form and leading an otherwise toothless attack weren't enough, Streak was also forced into a long and ugly confrontation with the Zimbabwean board. Through these five years, his pace has gradually diminished, and while the outswing has remained a weapon, it's often been predictable, making him a threat only for a few overs with the new ball.

Today, though, Streak was irresistible, as the figures of 5 for 39 from 21 overs testify: he swung the ball appreciably, and late, mixed the straight one or the indipper superbly, and slipped in the bouncer every once in a while, all at a sharp pace. The way he pieced together all his weapons to work batsmen out was wonderful to watch too - to VVS Laxman, he kept swinging the deliveries towards the slips, lulling him into a false sense of security, before nailing him with the straight one. Dinesh Karthik wasn't sure whether to play or leave, and ended up playing on to his stumps. Even Rahul Dravid, probably the best player of swing bowling in the game today, had his share of problems against Streak, managing just eight off 33 balls against him, and managing an in-control factor of only 73% as deliveries went past both outside and inside edge.

Through most of his career, Streak has waged a lone battle, but today, Zimbabwe's support cast played their role to perfection too. Blessing Mahwire, Waddington Mwayenga - so impressive on debut - and Andy Blignaut all homed in outside off, gave the Indians no easy runs, and reaped the rewards.

Dravid is the one batsman who has the skills to play the swinging ball, and he battled like he typically does in such situations, buckling down, biding his time, and patiently playing defensive stroke after defensive stroke. Experts often ask batsmen to play the ball, not the bowler. That advice is often taken to mean that a half-volley from a Glenn McGrath should be dispatched just as a loose ball would be from any other bowler, but it also means that a swinging delivery in the corridor deserves due respect, whether it's delivered by Wasim Akram or Waddington Mwayenga.

Today Zimbabwe's bowlers, with no reputation to back them up, bowled with exceptional control, and Dravid played them with the consideration it deserved. After making 77 at Bulawayo, Dravid had stated that he would prefer an ugly century to a pretty 50, and while he certainly wasn't ugly at the crease today, he lacked the fluency of that innings, simply because the bowlers and the conditions didn't allow him such an extravagant approach. In the end, though, even he was frustrated by the lack of easy leg-side runs, playing an uncharacteristic flick to a ball which demanded a straight bat.

Those who didn't watch the game today might be tempted to compare Dravid's strike-rate in this innings (41) with Ganguly's in the previous match (38). While Ganguly copped some flak for his ultra-defensive approach in that innings, such a criticism can't be levelled against Dravid - the conditions were far tougher, the attack far sharper, and there were no easy runs on offer against spin.

All of Streak's heroics were, of course, rendered redundant by another poor batting display late in the day, hampered further by a dubious lbw decision by Daryl Harper. Another two-and-a-half day finish looms, which, given Streak's outstanding effort, is such a pity.