After dew forced a delayed start to the 48-over-a-side match, Sourav Ganguly could not have been too disappointed at being asked to bat first on an easy-paced pitch. But at 20 for two, a few twinges of regret would not have gone amiss. First pocket-sized-firecracker Virender Sehwag pulled the first ball of the second over - short and on leg-stump - down Merv Dillon's throat at fine-leg. Seventeen runs later, Ajit Agarkar, India's new number three, drove a full Dillon delivery to Ramnaresh Sarwan at mid-on.
But VVS Laxman and Ganguly set about rebuilding as only pure stylists can - with a minimum of effort and more than a few soupcons of grace. Pushing singles with ease and pouncing gleefully to punish even half-bad balls, Ganguly and Laxman steadily boosted India's score, giving the crowd a few delectable shots along the way. En route, Ganguly went past 8,000 one-day runs, but the milestone, inexplicably, seemed to displease the crowd. The time lost in placating a paperand debris-spouting crowd resulted in another over being lopped off each innings.
On 78 (99b, 9x4), and 128 runs into a fine partnership with Laxman, Ganguly tried the stroke that had been looming ever since leggie Mahendra Nagamootoo came on to bowl, but the intended heave over long-on only found Vasbert Drakes on the fence.
Perhaps Ganguly was disoriented, or perhaps Harbhajan Singh just had his pads on faster than anybody else, for out came the turbaned off-spinner at number five! Even before commentators and spectators had a chance to fully thresh out the puzzlement of that move, Harbhajan had departed again, essaying a wild slog to Ricardo Powell running in from the long-on fence.
Rahul Dravid then came into the middle, and class settled like a warm quilt on the VCA stadium as Laxman and Dravid proceeded to string together a stand for the fifth wicket. Laxman seems to get rejuvenated after every Eden Gardens century; last year he shone during the one-day series against Australia, and now the West Indians are bearing the brunt of his silken touch and wrists of steel. After his 47 at Jamshedpur, Laxman conjured up a gem of an innings here, finding the gaps with supreme felicity and getting singles off the good balls.
As Kolkata 2001 proved, Dravid is the perfect partner for Laxman in such vein, and the Karnataka bat more than held his own, picking Chris Gayle for particular punishment, collaring the attack in general and ensuring that India motored around at more than seven per over during the partnership. The indisciplined West Indian bowling hardly helped their cause. Dravid got to his 50 off just 39 balls, and the Indians had not even started slogging.
A hurried second to get VVS Laxman his century ran Dravid out for 51, and minutes later, Laxman played a lazy waft outside the off to Gayle to be agonisingly stumped for 99. Wickets tumbled; Yuvraj Singh was caught at cover off a skier, Javagal Srinath was called for a non-existent second, and Anil Kumble was castled by Drakes. When India finally reached 279 for nine, it was difficult to believe that with Laxman and Dravid unbeaten, they were at one point 260 for four.
Chasing a score of 280-odd two games in a row is not easy, but the tourists were not about to let that particular supposition deter them. Wavell Hinds and Chris Gayle started off in characteristically aggressive fashion, and erratic bowling did not help. Javagal Srinath, in his comeback one-dayer, was mean and effective, but he found little support from the other end. Hinds' wicket - caught by Agarkar at mid-off - was almost incidental, a mere blip in an otherwise relentless charge.
Marlon Samuels and Gayle dug into the Indian bowling with abandon, the former taking 17 runs off Sehwag's first over. A variety of back-foot punches and delicate glides followed, off just about every bowler who came on to ply his trade. Gayle reached his 50 off 51 balls in the 20th over, and as if that wasn't rapid enough, launched himself into overdrive with a mighty six off Agarkar and two more off Kumble.
Samuels pulled a rank long-hop from Sehwag to short midwicket just after reaching his 50 - ending a 134-run partnership - but Sarwan slipped neatly into the role of foil, and when Gayle reached his century off 111 balls, Sarwan was the one scampering the second run hard to seal the milestone.
Srinath's second spell saw Gayle bowled, playing across the line, for 103 (116b, 8x4, 3x6), but victory, it seemed, was not to be denied. Shivnarine Chanderpaul thwacked 39 (32b, 7x4) off the Indian bowlers, Sarwan ended on a responsible 39 (40b, 3x4) and hit the winning runs yet again. The Indians, consequently, were left to rue a loss that was principally precipitated by some very shoddy bowling - and some sensible West Indian batting that fully exploited the weakness.