India enjoyed a very successful opening day in the first Test match against Zimbabwe at the Queen's Sports Club in Bulawayo on Thursday. They bowled the home side out for 173 and by close had scored 83 for three. India played well, but were helped by a dismal Zimbabwe batting performance, as one soft dismissal followed another.
The early-morning cloud had largely dispersed by the time play started with Heath Streak deciding to bat on a good-looking pitch. Dave Houghton's prediction that the pitch would give some brief early life proved to be correct, and the batsmen struggled for the first halfhour or so.
There must have been close on a thousand spectators present at the start of the match, certainly a record for Zimbabwe. Almost all of them were school children, and the Matabeleland Cricket Association must be congratulated in its initiative in attracting so many to watch. Unfortunately they were treated to one of their team's most mentally challenged performances.
Zimbabwe were on top for exactly one ball. Srinath's first delivery was a gentle half-volley wide of the off stump, which Guy Whittall joyfully put away backward of point for four. The next ball was much better, bringing a confident lbw appeal. Ashish Nehra opened from the other end. Both bowlers at first erred in direction, but produced some superb deliveries when they put it on the spot. It was a hard struggle for the Zimbabwean openers.
Nehra picked up the first wicket when Whittall (6) drove at a wide half-volley with a diagonal bat and managed to drag it on to his stumps. Just as the wicket was easing up, Dion Ebrahim (12) fell foul of cricket's most unfair law, as bowler Harbhajan Singh accidentally deflected a drive from Carlisle on to the bowler's stumps as he was backing up, and Zimbabwe were 46 for two.
After that, there was little excuse for Zimbabwe's batsmen. Carlisle (28) was just looking well set when, five minutes from lunch, he snicked Zaheer Khan low to Laxman at second slip.
The afternoon session was crucial for both teams, as it involved the recovery or otherwise of the Zimbabwean innings. As it proved, Zimbabwe's batsmen flattered only to deceive. Alistair Campbell fell for 21, skying a sweep against the spin off Harbhajan Singh, and Grant Flower (5) flashed and snicked Srinath to the keeper.
Andy Flower immediately went on to the attack, cover-driving and cutting the seamers fiercely, but he took his chances and this was not the determined accumulator to whom we have become accustomed. It was as if he was making a statement: "I am tired of constantly having to dig my side out of trouble and I am not going to play that way any longer." The result was an innings that appeared even irresponsible at times.
It was death or glory as several powerful shots in the air just evaded the fielders. Flower looked capable at one stage of recording Zimbabwe's fastest Test fifty, a record held by Campbell - off 40 balls against Pakistan in 1993/94. But he settled in the end for 44 balls. It was his eighth fifty in nine innings. Death followed next ball, as attempting another big hit he skied Nehra into the covers to depart for 51.
Even Streak (16) threw his wicket away ill-advisedly, paying the penalty for attempting to distract the umpire after an lbw appeal by setting off for a leg-bye without looking; he was rightly sent back and smartly run out by a direct hit from Samir Dighe. Zimbabwe's mentally challenged batsmen had slumped to 154 for eight at tea. Afterwards Henry Olonga (16), a last-minute replacement for the injured Travis Friend, brought joy to the school children with some big hits before the innings closed for an inexcusable 173, the first time they have been bowled out for less than 200 by India. Nehra, India's most impressive bowler, finished with the best figures for three for 23, while the other pace bowlers tended to pitch too short.
Brighton Watambwa did his best to make amends for the failures of the batsmen, producing a superb inswinging ball of real pace to remove Ramesh's off stump with only two runs on the board. Streak and Watambwa produced bowling as good, if not better, than anything the Indians had offered, but were countered with much better batting.
The pressure lessened as Andy Blignaut and Olonga proved more wayward, and Venkata Laxman in particular helped himself to some classic boundaries. But suddenly Laxman (28) pulled Olonga to be caught at mid-on and then, at 81, Das (30) was given out caught off pad and bat off Brian Murphy's first ball of the match. Sachin Tendulkar batted quietly for the close, finishing unbeaten with 16. Play was extended by 40 minutes to fit in all the day's over allocation, showing once again the incompetence of the ICC in dealing with slow over rates.