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May 8, 1999


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Middle order middles it well for India

The Rediff team

The bad news is that India's opening pair of Sachin Tendulkar and Saurav Ganguly didn't last too long in the team's first warm-up game against Leicestershire, on a well-grassed track with more than a fair share of damp on it and cloudy overhead conditions.

The good news is that the Indian middle order of Rahul Dravid, Mohammad Azharuddin and Ajay Jadeja displayed good touch with the bat. So, as Anshuman Gaekwad pointed out, the light at the end of this particular tunnel is that once the openers get going, the settled middle order gives the batting a formidable look.

Indian skipper Mohammad Azharuddin won the toss -- Alec Stewart might do worse than appoint him 'toss consultant' -- and elected to bat. Doing that during the side's World Cup games could entitle him -- or indeed any skipper making the choice of first strike -- to a ticket to the nearest asylum. But doing that in this practise fixture made much sense -- the team can't bank on the toss going its way all the time, so the more practise it has playing first in unconducive conditions, the better.

A huge crowd of expat Indians turned up to watch Tendulkar bat, but their eagerness was not, apparently, shared by umpire Peter Willey, who gave the Indian opener LBW to one that cut back so late, and so very sharply, off the seam to suggest that it have missed leg stump.

Ganguly appeared to have some trouble adjusting to the new ball moving around as though it had a mind of its own, but once Rahul Dravid and Mohammad Azharuddin got together for a 95-run third wicket partnership, the smiles were back in the Indian dressing room.

Pre-tournament analysts had picked Dravid as the real key to the Indian lineup, since he is seen as the one batsman technically capable of surviving the seaming ball in inimical conditions.

On the day, he played a trademark innings, very watchful initially, taking his time to settle down, looking unflustered by the ball darting around both ways off the seam, and producing quality strokes when the line and length afforded the luxury of a full backlift. He has, however, developed a tendency to perish playing the sweep to the offspinner, and Tim Mason -- Leicestershire's resident practitioner of the finger-spinning craft -- got him on that stroke after Dravid had put up a solid 60 against his name.

Azhar, by contrast, started out attempting to whack his way out of trouble. That produced a couple of concerned 'ooohs' from the crowd as the ball flew around in the air, but fortunately wide of fielders. Once he got into double figures, though, the Indian skipper appeared to get his second wind, and settled down into fluent play. The timing on the wristy flicks through leg came back, the slashes outside off were eschewed -- it was not quite vintage Azharuddin, but he was getting there.

How Jadeja would cope with a moving ball was one of the key questions analysts ruminated on, while discussing the team's strengths and weaknesses. While one innings is not enough to judge by, the 54 off 52 deliveries that he produced heree, with three clean hits over the ropes, indicated that if he comes in to bat in the middle to late overs, he could be lethal.

Robin Singh, though, scratched around a bit, seemingly ill at ease against a wobbly ball, before perishing to a neck or nothing shot. Nayan Mongia and Ajit Agarkar also had brief tenures at the crease, and India eventually ended up on 219/7 in the allotted 50 overs, against a pretty decent seam attack.

That's the kind of score India will look to be getting in the early part of the tournament proper, and the fact that they got there without contributions from Tendulkar and Ganguly will be a heartening factor for the team management.

The rain came down almost immediately after the Indian innings ended, and that brought more smiles to the management -- the thinking in the Indian camp being that the bowlers are all on song or getting there, and avoiding possible injury in wet underfoot conditions was more important than having them slip the leash and bowl an over or ten.

The excited crowd, a substantial section of which had fuelled itself up on beer and other brews, then caused a little flutter when it surrounded the team's dressing room and caused organisers at Grace Road to put in a hurry call to the local cop shop.

The police duly landed up, and escorted the team onto its bus and back to its hotel. From where they departed for Harrogate, where they will play their next fixture, against Yorkshire, on Sunday.

"There was no trouble or problems from any of the fans," said Leicestershire chief executive David Collier. "They were just excited and exuberant and wanting to get as close as possible to the players."

While Anshuman Gaekwad was inside with the players, manager Brijesh Patel spoke to the media and said the team was quite happy with its outing.

"We wanted good practise and that is what we got," Patel said.

Asked about Tendulkar's failure, the manager said, "Tendulkar is one of the best batsmen in the world and he can't fail for long. He is fully recovered from his back trouble and there is now no injury problem as far as he is concerned, so for us, that is the best news going."

Note: Harsha Bhogle's audio feed from Leicestershire provides further details, check out the link from the Rediff World Cup home page.

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