Dravid hits fourth consecutive ton as India reach 457

A century a day is usually enough to keep the opposition at bay. Rahul Dravid, fighting dehydration and cramps, notched up his fourth hundred in as many matches and the 14th of his career, taking the Indian total to 457. Zaheer Khan then provided the early breakthrough, Harbhajan Singh pressed home the advantage, and India were sitting pretty as the West Indies responded with 33 for two at the end of the second day.

The day began with India on 278 for two and poised to go for a big total. The faithful thronged the Wankhede Stadium in their thousands, anticipating a day of watching Sachin Tendulkar knock the ball around endlessly to reach yet another hundred. But that was when the great cricket powers in the sky decided that uncertainty was the order of the day. Without adding a run to his overnight score of 35, Tendulkar attempted to cut a ball too close to the stumps and tickled Merv Dillon through to Ridley Jacobs.

Sourav Ganguly was hardly given a chance to find his feet, adjudged lbw by umpire Asoka de Silva in just his 14th ball. Prodding tentatively at a ball, Ganguly was late on the shot and rapped on the pads. A loud shout was upheld, and Cameron Cuffy had his first wicket of the match even as television replays suggested that the ball pitched outside the leg stump. Ganguly's dismissal on four left India at 296 for four.

The last recognised pair of batsmen in Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman had the responsibility of ensuring that no further wickets fell in a hurry. After all, only the inexperienced 17-year-old Parthiv Patel and the tail were to follow. As a magnifying glass can focus a ray of sunlight into an intense searing beam, the responsibility brought to the fore all the cricketing acumen and skill of the duo.

The session between lunch and tea is always the easiest for scoring runs at Mumbai. Perfectly aware of this, Dravid milked the bowling for runs. With the ball slightly soft now, the pacemen were rendered toothless, and the only Caribbean frontline spinner, Mahendra Nagamootoo, resorted to bowling around the wicket into the rough.

While the tactic has met with success against certain batsmen in the recent past, one has to be a brave man to try it against Laxman and Dravid. Perfectly capable of combining quicksilver footwork to get to the pitch of the ball and supple wrists to guide strokes past fielders, the pair proved how good Indian batsmen can be against spin. While never really cutting loose and attempting anything extravagant, Laxman made sure the strike was rotated. Dravid, for his part, was unshakeable.

And why would he not feel as solid as the proverbial wall when he has scored 115, 148 and 217 in his last three Tests? When he flicked a ball through square leg, set off for a single, doubled over with serious cramps, somehow summoned up one last burst of energy to cross over for the second run, and fell over, Dravid became the first Indian to score four hundreds in four Tests. It had come off 242 sweat-dripping, energy-sapping deliveries that saw the ball reach the fence 12 times. A man well aware of the game's history, Dravid will now have the name of the legendary West Indian Sir Everton Weeks at the back of his mind. None other than the Barbadian has managed five tons in consecutive Tests.

It was a pity though that Laxman, who ably supported Dravid in adding 105 runs for the fifth wicket, was not at the crease when the Karnataka middle-order bat reached three figures. In the last over before tea, with Dravid on 98, Laxman, anxious to return the strike to his partner, overbalanced in attempting a flick and was stumped. Laxman had once more done all the hard work and gotten well-set at 45 before throwing it all away.

Certainly, had Laxman been present, the Indian late middle-order would not have imploded as it did when Dravid was forced to retire hurt to be administered a drip to urgently rehydrate him.

Harbhajan Singh, Anil Kumble and Zaheer Khan all picked up ducks in the space of seven balls, and India were pegged back to 408 for eight - not a great culmination after 201 for no loss. Kumble chipped Nagamootoo to cover, while Zaheer was trapped in front of the stumps first ball to leave Javagal Srinath facing the hat-trick ball. The leg-spinner sensibly sent down a quick, straight delivery on the stumps. Srinath, getting his foot down the wicket, missed the ball and was palpably lbw, but umpire de Silva, for reasons best known to him, turned down the shout.

Even as Nagamootoo cursed his luck, Srinath swung his wanton blade with new-found enthusiasm, and India added 49 for the last wicket, reaching 457. Srinath's contribution was 30 (three fours, one six) while Patel remained unbeaten on 21.

The Caribbean response to the Indian total did nothing to change the bookmakers' presumption that India were dead favourites to win this Test. Chris Gayle (7), feet glued to the crease, was trapped lbw by an express delivery from Zaheer Khan. Wavell Hinds, Gayle's counterpart, should have taken the fall of the first wicket as a signal to buckle down and keep the bowling out. Instead he dabbed a Harbhajan off-spinner straight to Shiv Sunder Das at forward short-leg.

Fortunately for the visitors, nightwatchman Dillon, as scratchy as an old record, survived to end the day on 4. Ramnaresh Sarwan, in his contrasting sunny, youthful manner, knocked up 20 as the West Indies ended on 33 for two.

It was an uncomfortably hot and humid day at Mumbai today. For the visitors, though, the night will not bring much solace either, for there is a lot of work to be done yet.