India's bowling was nearly immaculate, though their batting was anything but.
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Sachin Tendulkar was still a relative greenhorn in international cricket
when India and West Indies met at Perth in a Benson & Hedges World Series
match in December 1991. And though he did nothing with the bat, it was his
dismissal of Anderson Cummins, caught by Mohammad Azharuddin at slip, that
allowed India to escape with a tie after a formidable West Indian pace
attack comprising Malcolm Marshall, Curtly Ambrose and Patrick Patterson
had skittled them out for 126.
All these years later, his impact was just as immense, with a gritty 65
paving the way for this improbable victory. When India were 69 for 5 with
only the tail to come, even 162 appeared to be a chimera. But with
Harbhajan Singh knuckling down to block and biff a marvellous knock,
Tendulkar could play shepherd, till the latest in a long line of bizarre
dismissals. Batting was a struggle for the most part, with Dwayne Smith
and Corey Collymore getting the ball to wobble alarmingly at medium pace,
but the manner in which he kept up one end was further evidence of his
consummate skill and a hammer-blow for those that would rather have
opinion polls about whether his powers are on the wane. An admiring Brian
Lara said later at the press conference: "I don't know if he has doubters
in your country, but he certainly doesn't have one here."
The morale-boosting nature of this win shouldn't however mask the deeper
problems that India face ahead of what is now a semi-final against
Australia. The bowling, with Irfan Pathan removed from the fray, was
nearly immaculate. The batting was anything but. The critics of the team
management will conveniently point to experimentation as the root of all
evil, forgetting the fact that the very same tactics fetched India 21 wins
in 29 games in the 2005-06 season.
No tactical masterplan works unless it's implemented properly, and the
vital gears in India's revitalised one-day machine have become unmeshed.
Pathan is a prime example. Last season, he was simply outstanding,
averaging 34.42 with the bat and taking 49 wickets at 19.63 in 25 games.
But since boarding the flight to the Caribbean, the returns have dwindled
to 88 runs at 14.66 and seven wickets at 33.28. When on song, he gives the
side enviable balance and flexibility, but with him off-colour, the main
battle-plan has had to be binned.
Yuvraj Singh and Mahendra Singh Dhoni are other examples. They averaged
58.05 and 68 last season, but since May, the figures are a rather less
imposing 30.5 and 19.17. Given the impact that both had in the catalogue
of victories last season, expecting India to prevail when they misfire is
akin to asking a boxer to get into the ring with one arm tied behind his
Without experimentation, there would also have been no Munaf Patel,
Sreesanth or RP Singh, all of whom bowled magnificent spells in defence of
a paltry target. All three beat the bat consistently, with Sreesanth
bowling just about the quickest spell seen from an Indian since Ashish
Nehra's heroics at the World Cup in 2003.
It shouldn't be forgotten that West Indies used this outing as an
opportunity to give their out-of-sorts middle order a better chance to get
used to the conditions. They didn't succeed, but the manner in which Lara
stroked a gorgeous unbeaten 40 at the end indicated that they certainly
won't be soft touches in the final, no matter who they face.
They can also take immense encouragement from the return of Collymore, and
the bowling of Smith. But for Tendulkar's determination and a
Munaf-Sreesanth-led riposte after the dinner break, their opening spells
would have marked a sixth win on the bounce against India. For an Indian
team that ended last season on such a high, that might have been one blow
too many, even this early in the season.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo