It was yet another humdinger of a match at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai, and England again came out on top, this time by five runs. Nasser Hussain and his men have almost pulled off the impossible, winning back-to-back one-day internationals on Indian soil. I have always believed that the run of the ball on the day decides the winner in a limited-overs match, and that was proved amply on Sunday.
Yet I am rather intrigued by the manner in which India lost the last two one-day internationals to throw away a healthy 3-1 lead in the series. The margin of loss clearly suggests that our batting chokes under pressure, and in both of the last two matches, India was just one stroke away from victory.
England possibly did all the right things on the day, including winning the toss and electing to bat first. If not for a brilliant spell of off-spin bowling by Harbhajan Singh, they might even have amassed a score well in excess of 300. As I had mentioned at the start of the tour, Marcus Trescothick was the key batsman, and he lived up to those expectations by giving England yet another brisk start at the top of the order.
The Indian fielders are still not up to the task of stopping those sharp singles from being stolen. On the contrary, the English fielding was of the very highest order. The determination, effort and preparation was there to be seen. Hussain was simply superb in the covers, and it always helps when you have a captain who leads from the front on the field, setting very high standards for others to emulate.
England were 218/9 at one stage, but they then rallied superbly to make it to 255 all out. Andrew Flintoff and Darren Gough applied themselves very well, and those 38 runs made all the difference in the end. Even after that, there was a point at which India were cruising to a win and Sourav Ganguly was running into good form. It was his dismissal that triggered the collapse yet again.
The Indian middle order still looks too weak. There seems to be a lack of self-confidence that is hurting the team's fortunes a great deal. The kind of shots that the batsmen are currently attempting - pulling a bowler of Flintoff's pace, which is definitely not their strength - are puzzling, to say the least.
What is required now for India to do well is some consistency and common-sense cricket. I wonder what the selectors are planning for the future. With a packed international schedule and the World Cup coming up in 2003, there is a lot of work to be done. Ideally, Ganguly should drop further down the order to number five to lend some experience to the middle order. I find no reason why the current opening partnership of Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag should be disturbed for now.
In addition, the team really requires a player in the middle order who can accumulate runs by improvising and taking quick singles. Rahul Dravid does not fit into that role, nor does VVS Laxman, who seems to be going through a crisis of sorts in trying to harness his own talent. I would even consider the ageing war-horse, Robin Singh, to be tried during the one-dayers against Zimbabwe, a move that would allow the younger players to learn about successfully chasing a moderate target in a tight situation.
It is also intriguing why no other fast bowler was tried out during the series. Zaheer Khan should have been given a go in at least one of the games. The pitch at the Wankhede stadium was the most suited for the fast bowlers, and it might have been worthwhile to have played Zaheer in the final game. I thought that Ajay Ratra did very well behind the stumps; if he can score a few more runs consistently, it would fill a major void in the lower-order batting.
As I have been writing in my previous columns, I have only deep admiration for Hussain's captaincy. Over a period of just a few months, we have seen how he helped transform a bunch of inexperienced players into a winning unit. It is this team spirit and this will to win under trying conditions that helped significantly in the process.
Even before the series began, I had suggested that Trescothick and Flintoff would be the two key players for the English side. Flintoff's bowling has been of top-class quality on this tour, and it was his batting that was a huge disappointment for the most part of the tour. In Delhi and Mumbai, though, Flintoff played two responsible knocks of high value. To me, Flintoff was the Man of the Match at Mumbai, and my Man of the Series was Trescothick.
As I have maintained through the series, these two sides are well matched. The final outcome of 3-3 was possibly the best result to an engrossing ODI series. It is to their credit that this English side has learnt a lot from this tour. Now they have a world class bowling with the likes of Caddick, Gough, Flintoff, Hoggard and Giles, who could take those 20 wickets to win Test matches in their upcoming tour of New Zealand. Nasser Hussain, take a bow!