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May 26, 1999

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Runs by the ton as India beat Lanka

Prem Panicker

If there is a cricketing god up there somewhere, he certainly has a perverse sense of humour.

Three years ago, at the Eden Gardens in Calcutta, India and Sri Lanka met in the World Cup semifinals. Mohammad Azharuddin won the toss and inserted Sri Lanka. "It was a good toss to lose," Arjuna Ranatunga, dimpling at the television cameras, said then.

Azharuddin doesn't have the cheek -- literally or otherwise -- of Ranatunga, or he would have said the same today. For it was the Lankan captain, this time, who inserted. And then played ringside audience for one of the most brilliant displays of one day batsmanship in recent memory -- a duet by Rahul Dravid and Saurav Ganguly that saw the World Cup holders crash to their most humiliating defeat yet.

It was doubly ironic that Lanka, in this game, were challenged, and humbled, on the very strengths that saw them win the last World Cup. Taunton is a small ground, with small boundaries -- which, so the conventional wisdom went, would help the free spirits in the Lankan batting lineup.

Conventional wisdom got it right to a point -- the short boundaries did impact on the game, to the extent that in the Indian innings, 35 fours and 9 sixes were struck (194 runs in boundaries alone!). But it was the Indians, who generally hit straight down the ground, rather than the Lankans who tend to hit square, who benefitted.

The Indian innings got off to a bad start, mainly because Sadagopan Ramesh, for all his strengths, has a touch of arrogance that causes his downfall. As early as the fourth ball, he was heard, over the stump mikes, telling Ganguly, 'Arre, the ball is not doing anything today'. A ball later, he was walking back -- Vaas from over the wicket pitching middle, squaring him up, and seaming it away late to go past the bat and onto off stump.

That was off the 5th ball of the first over. And that was the only joy the Lankans were to have, till the 4th ball of the 45th over, when they finally saw the back of Rahul Dravid.

The 318-run partnership for the second wicket, off 260 legitimate deliveries, broke every record worth breaking. On 238, they went past the 237 unbeaten Dravid had put up with Tendulkar against Kenya the other day. When they reached 276, they went past the best partnership for any wicket in limited overs internationals -- the unbeaten 275 between Mohammad Azharuddin and Ajay Jadeja for the fourth wicket against Zimbabwe at Cuttack in April 1998. And on 310, they went past the 309 put that, till then, had stood as the highest partnership in any limited overs game anywhere in the world.

Cold statistics, those. Mohandas Menon will probably have a lot more such milestones to point out. But what figures can't encapsulate is the passion, the pride, the sheer arrogance in their play today. Dravid and Ganguly were, on the day, inspired -- and so brilliant was their display that, for the first time in a long time, the audience didn't sit there longing for one of them to get out so they could see Sachin Tendulkar stride to the wicket.

The assault was brilliantly set up by Dravid. Coming to the wicket in the first over, he seemed in touch from ball one. In the 6th over, he launched a blistering assault on Eric Upashantha, a sequence of fierce square cuts, off drives, and on drives milking 16 in the over.

That opened the floodgates. The rest of the story was about strokes flowing from both batsmen in a tidal wave. Barring a brief spell between overs 15-20 when only 15 runs were scored against some tight bowling by Muralitharan in particular, the two went at five or more per over throughout their association, climaxing with a spectacular 74 runs scored between overs 40 and 45.

The two played in contrasting styles. Dravid, who after the warm up match against Leicestershire said that he felt his feet were moving well and he had decided that if the ball was in the slot to hit, he would pull out all the stops, played an innings of the sort of savagery you don't expect from him. If it was short, he rocked back and cut with stunning power. If it was fuller, he was immediately forward, driving with the full flourish on both sides of the wicket. And if it strayed fractionally outside towards middle or leg, the wrists came into play, rocketing the ball onto the on side to find gaps at will, scoring throughout at a run a ball.

At one point in his innings, I found myself wondering if Kishen Rungta, the former chairman of the national selectors and the man who once told me that he had dropped Dravid from the one day side because he believed that the batsman would never fit into the limited overs format, was watching this performance.

At the other end, Ganguly started off circumspect. To his credit, realising that Dravid was on song, he concentrated on letting his partner have the bulk of the strike, while he contented himself with easing the odd stray delivery through the off side cordon to the fence.

The turning point was one over from Muralitharan, where he kept going down the track, trying to hit him out of the ground, only to be repeatedly beaten by the flight and forced to defend. An over later, he waltzed down to get under one ball of fuller length, hoisting it out of the ground and into the river that flows outside it -- and with that shot, he changed gears.

At the time, Ganguly was going along at a strike rate of around 72 per cent. By the time his innings ended, it was well over the 100 per cent mark -- and the bowler who suffered the most was Muralitharan. So lethal against most other teams, Murali here found himself helpless as Ganguly, four times in all, came down to lift him out of the ground, three of those hits clearing the stadium and landing in the river.

In the exhilaration of this display, a little tragedy went largely unnoticed. Towards the end, Ganguly was obviously aware that Saeed Anwar's record of 194 was within reach. Sachin Tendulkar, who came in after Dravid's dismissal, appeared to have reminded him of it -- and pushed him into trying for that particular slice of cricketing glory, by taking singles to two deliveries he would normally have punched forcefully through the off, to give him the strike.

It was, in a sense, a pity that the ones who followed Sachin -- first Jadeja, then Robin -- didn't go along with the plot. Jadeja kept whacking them for braces before taking a single off the last ball of the 47th to retain strike. And then Robin, rather than place the single, attempted to puncture a hole in the ozone layer and holed out first ball.

The upshot was that Ganguly, into the final over, saw himself a good 12 runs short of that mark. And with a couple of yorkers coming in at that point, there went his chance.

Perhaps, when he looks back on this innings, he will regret the one statistic that is hidden behind the 183 off 158 deliveries that he ended up with -- and that is, that 68 of those deliveries that he faced were unscored of (his 183 had in fact come off 90 scoring shots). If only he had pushed himself a bit more in working the singles...

Personal glory is generally put behind team interest -- but here, the two did coincide since Ganguly, hitting out to get to that target, could only have lifted the run rate even higher than it was. Anyway, spilt milk, so enough about that -- there was enough in his innings, and that of Rahul Dravid, to celebrate.

There is, too, one rather ominous fact for other teams to ponder about -- first against South Africa, now here, Ganguly and Dravid have served notice that the fall of Sachin Tendulkar does not mean the end of India's batting hopes. And that, coupled with Tendulkar's determination to honour his late father's memory with good performances in the rest of this tournament, can come as bad news for other sides.

The Lankan captain, after the match, said, "This is the most pathetic bowling display I have ever seen," and he was right. Where the prescription was for the bowlers to bowl three quarter length and keep the line wicket to wicket, they committed every error in the book. If the ball was not short, it was full. If it was not wide of off giving the batsmen room to swing their arms, it was drifting onto the pads of Dravid and Ganguly. The last time such gimme balls were dished up with such frequency must have been when Santa Claus led the bowling for the North Pole side.

And batsmen of this calibre don't really need a second invitation, do they?

When Lanka started its chase, the only option was for Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana to go berserk early on. Had a few shots found the fence, the Indian bowling, prone to wilting under pressure, could have buckled.

Srinath ensured that this did not happen, with an outstanding piece of fielding. Jayasuriya played one down at his feet, off the back foot, and responded to Kaluwitharana's call. Srinath, racing down on his follow through almost the length of the pitch, picked up, spun round, and threw the middle stump down at the bowler's end, leaving Jayasuriya a foot or more out of his ground.

An over later, he hammered another nail into the Lankan coffin when he pushed one through at top speed, the ball swinging in, pitching off and straightening. Kaluwitharana tried to play across the line, was beaten for pace, and trapped plumb in front.

With Kaluwitharana and Jayasuriya -- Lanka's assassins of 1996 -- gone inside 5 overs with just 23 on the board and 350 still to get, the game was as good as over. Atapattu showed signs of spirit, driving brilliantly when Srinath and Prasad overpitched, but the key to the chase was that Lanka had to go at 7+ from the first over on. Every time they failed to get 7 in an over, the ask was going to go up, the risks in their strokeplay was going to mount.

And that as it turned out was what did happen. First Atapattu, then Mahela Jayawardene, were trapped in front playing across the line, looking to make use of the onside gaps as Azhar set an offside field. In fact, four of the first five batsmen fell leg before -- and that underlines an important facet of the Indian bowling today, which was that the frontline bowlers, Srinath, Prasad, Mohanty and Kumble, bowled wicket to wicket, on a very tight line, throughout.

It was a very disciplined performance, and though Ranatunga and Aravinda attempted to steady things in the middle, Lanka were already out of the chase when they found themselves on 79/4 in the 16th over.

This permitted Azhar the rare luxury of letting his fifth bowler -- in this case, Saurav Ganguly and Robin Singh -- have an extended spell in the middle. Together, the two bowled 14.3 overs, in an exercise obviously aimed at giving them some practise and, more importantly, confidence.

Robin Singh, for once, came good. With the Lankans needing to lash out at everything, all that the bowler had to do was bowl a tight line around the sticks and that he did to perfection -- the batsmen did the rest, mishitting as they kept trying to take chances against what should have been the weak link in the Indian bowling lineup. Irony of ironies, Robin Singh in fact turned in the best ever bowling performance by an Indian in World Cups!

Contrast this with the Lankan performance with the ball. Vaas, their premier bowler, went for 84. Muralitharan, after going for 22 in his first six, went for 60 overall. But the real killer was their 'fifth bowler' -- a combination of Jayasuriya, Jayawardene and De Silva, went for 81 runs in their ten overs, Jayasuriya in the process recording the worst ever figures in World Cup history when he went for 37 in his three.

Today, India was far and away the superior side in every department of the game. And the most important aspect was not the way the batting clicked, or the bowlers found that much needed discipline. Rather, it was the fielding. For once, the team was pumped up and stayed that way right through the full 50 overs. They were behind one another, loudly egging each other on, furiously applauding good stops, angrily remonstrating at the odd misfields. And wonder of wonders, they seemed to be able to hit the stumps from anywhere. Jadeja had two direct hits that ended in photo finishes. There was the Srinath run out. And there was the Mahanama dismissal, Wickremasinghe batsman turning it to short fine leg and taking off, Tendulkar attacking the ball, picking up, and in a flash going for the bowler's end, realising that Mahanama was looking for the single and hitting direct to catch the non-striker unawares.

Somewhere, somehow, this side appears to have found its second wind. And with it, a new found jauntiness. Did it come from the shame, the shock that pervaded the dressing room following that humiliation against Zimbabwe? Or from the emotional turmoil of the Tendulkar tragedy, the batsman's abrupt return to India and equally abrupt return to blaze the track that day against Kenya?

No matter. It is there. And with India now pretty much a certainity for the Super Six stage, that should come as unalloyed good news for the captain, the management, the players and, most importantly, the fans.

Ravi Shastri, adjudicating, gave the Man of the Match award to Saurav Ganguly. Who in his acceptance speech underlined what many of us felt -- that it should have been a shared award, between the two players who produced the best ever partnership in LOI history.

Then again, perhaps it is Dravid's destiny to play out of his skin and find himself upstaged, first by Tendulkar in the game against Kenya, and now by Ganguly here.


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