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January 19, 1999


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Kiwis square series 2-2

Prem Panicker

A 2-2 squaring of the ODI series, allied to the Test series loss earlier, about sums up the balance sheet for India's tour of New Zealand.

Rather ironically, India found itself on the flat kind of belter prevailing at home -- and, in conditions supposedly suiting its strokeplayers, was outperformed by the hosts.

Lancaster Park, Christchurch, produced a lovely batting track allied to a fast outfield -- indications that the game coming up could be a high scoring one.

In such, India was a touch disadvantaged with Sachin Tendulkar resting a forearm injured when Saurav Ganguly's bat handle gouged through muscle during a mid-pitch collision in the previous game. In his place came Hrishikesh Kanitkar, with Mongia being slotted in the opener's slot as per the card handed in at the start of the game.

Azharuddin won the toss -- like, that's news? And opted to field first, arguing that there was a shade of moisture on the pitch and that, further, his side would prefer to chase.

The first quarter of the match belonged unequivocally to the Indians, with both Srinath and Prasad coming up with lovely initial spells that, on a track made for batting, had the Kiwis struggling along at 20/1 in 5, 39/1 in 10, 56/2 in 15. At this point, Kumble and Chopra, then Saurav Ganguly, chipped in to throttle the Kiwis back to 78/2 in 20, 101/3 in 25, 124/3 in 30, 151/3 in 35.

Predictably when Bryan Young and Mathew Horne are at the crease, wicket number one went when both batsmen found themselves at the same end -- this time, Horne cutting Prasad for Kumble to effect a superb stop at gully, his throw helping to effect the run out. Does make you wonder, this having happened for the second time in this series, how come such a well-trained outfit don't give their openers a bit of practise in running with each other -- but then again, Astle is the regular opener, which perhaps explains this phenomenon.

McMillan did his usual hustler act, including the mandatory lip aimed at Venkatesh Prasad, in a bid to throw the bowlers off their line. While on that, one does hope some good soul advises the lad that what works with a Prasad could prove rather dodgy happen he tries it against the Protean pacemen, who he will square up to shortly. However, here a strict adherence to line and length and some good ground fielding meant that McMillan, for all his bustle, found himself both strokeless, and runless. Srinath then put him out of his misery, producing one on off that kicked and left the batsman, to induce the outer edge for Mongia to snap up with ease.

Bruce Young, batting very fluently after a hesitant start, and Roger Twose steadied things, albeit slowly -- but just when the pair began looking good, a fortuitous dismissal intervened. Twose straight drove Ganguly, the bowler got his fingers to the hard hit, the richochet crashed into the stumps and Young found himself run out, yet again.

That brought Cairns to the wicket, and what the Kiwi television commentator of the time said was the worst decision he had ever seen on a cricket field in New Zealand materialised when the all-rounder palpably edged Robin Singh behind -- the umpire remaining disinterested and the batsman, who had taken a couple of steps homewards, hastily clambering back into the crease.

Seemingly sobered by the near mischance, Cairns played with watchfulness while Twose, by then in good touch, took over the job of run-scoring. The left-hander never quite looks the ideal ODI player, yet produces good solid knocks time and again -- this particular one ending when Srinath bounced one and Twose, tempted into the hook, found the ball come in to him, causing the mishit and bringing Kumble off the line at midwicekt to hold a well judged catch.

But by then, Cairns had got his second wind -- and proceeded to play the innings of a lifetime. Appearing in his 100th ODI, the big hitting all rounder produced an exhibition of power play that saw him take seven fours, and the same number of sixes, off an Indian attack that slid from desperation to flat out despair under the onslaught. It wasn't that the bowlers suddenly lost it -- merely, that Cairns read the track well, set himself nicely and put his considerably shoulder and muscle power into some cultured slogging.

115 off just 80 deliveries, 121 runs taken by the Kiwis off the last 60 deliveries of the innings, and by the time the onslaught ended, the home side had put 300 on the board, and made a good stab at winning the game right there.

India goofed at the very outset when the team management promoted Jadeja to open with Ganguly. In the first instance, the recent Test series has provided enough evidence that the vice captain is ill at ease against the new, seaming ball. And in the second, Jadeja in a big chase is best suited to the middle order, to provide the acceleration needed at that stage -- to promote him to opener was to deprive the side of that asset.

As it turned out, Jadeja's tenure at the crease proved an embarassment to himself, and a handicap to his partner who found himself having to do all the strokemaking. To Ganguly's credit, he did so to brilliant effect, stroking round the wicket and getting India off to a flying start, 65 coming off the first ten as compared to the 39 the Kiwis had made at that point.

Simon Doull performed manfully during this phase, going at three runs an over in an extended spell. But first Cairns (30 off his first three) and then Harris came under the hammer from Ganguly. However, the pressure of doing the bulk of the scoring saw the left-hander taking risky forays down the track -- one such had Doull spotting the intention and pitching short, Ganguly attempted to change it to a cut over the slips, but only managed to find third man. The left-handed opener had made 60 out of the first innings partnership of 78 -- off a mere 50 deliveries.

Ajay Jadeja, who had meanwhile taken advantage of a swinging half volley to cart Cairns over midwicket,departed immediately after the 15-over stage (90/1 India, as opposed to 56/2 for the Kiwis), playing a loose drive down the wrong line at Gavin Larsen, to lose his off stump.

Azhar and Dravid then came together to steady things somewhat and, with India 132/2 at the halfway mark, still looking decently poised for a late onslaught. However, the pressure of needing boundaries got to Dravid, tempting him into a kneeling pull-sweep that Chris Harris, out on the backward square region, judged, dived, and held in the manner that marks him out as the best fielder in the side.

150/3 in 30 (against 124/3 by the Kiwis) meant another 150 to get in 20 overs -- difficult, but for a team used to such conditions, do-able. However, this phase coincided with a superb spell of seam up, wicket to wicket bowling by Larsen that made run-scoring look well nigh impossible. The pressure told on Robin, who aimed an almighty heave at the bowler only to put the ball straight up, and down the throat of mid on -- good captaincy there by Nash, who pulled the fielders inside the circle tempting Robin to try and go over the top.

And this was where the problem with promoting Jadeja showed to worst advantage. Where the need was for a seasoned bat who could run quick, work the ball around and come up with the big boundaries at regular intervals, India was forced to try Srinath in a bid to club a quick few -- his unsuccessful attempt ending when Cairns found consolation for the stick he had earlier taken, making one hold its line to have Srinath heaving cross bat, missing completely and getting rapped on the back pad.

Hrishikesh Kanitkar looked in good touch, working the ball around quite nicely and looking unflustered by the situation -- only to lose his wicket to a completely needless run out. Azhar's attempted flick to leg went off the edge onto pad and trickled in front of him. The Indian skipper called for the run, then retraced his steps -- but by that time, Kanitkar was so far down that Cairns had time to field on the follow through, turn, race a few steps back towards the bowling crease and underarm the stumps down.

That wicket saw Azhar attempting to take charge -- a Vettori over producing a lovely straight hit for six, the stroke played inside out, followed by a clubbed four through midwicket. An attempt to repeat the latter shot in the next over, off Harris, however, spelt disaster -- the slow pace at which Harris bowls meaning that the ball did not come sufficiently onto the bat, causing the batsman to hit too early and flat bat it down midwicket's midriff.

To all intents and purposes, that ended the Indian challenge. Ironically, at 35 overs, India were in terms of runs placed way ahead of the Kiwis -- 182 to India compared to 151 for the home side. The difference lay in wickets lost, and also in the fact that once past the top order, there was little in the Indian batting lineup to write home about.

So, for India, a humbling defeat, and shared honours, where it had looked to take the one day series to compensate for the Test loss. And, on the long flight back home, this food for thought -- that the result was due to the one obvious fact, that at no time in either the Tests or ODIs, with the possible exception of ODI number four, did the side play close to its full potential.

Which, when you come to think of it, has explained so many Indian defeats -- what is one more, or less, huh?


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