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May 30, 1999

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They done it!

Prem Panicker

The story of the first day's play of what turned into a two-day ODI (a contradiction in terms that, but one we have to live with, since we are playing in the English 'summer') was told on these pages yesterday.

The reserve day merely rubbed things in for England. It dawned blustery and gray -- conditions that made the umpires postpone start of play by about half an hour. What this meant was that the conditions were perfect for seam bowling -- overcast, and a bit of moisture on the wicket from the pitch sweating under the covers.

In fact, if you review this game, you've got to say that Alec Stewart compounded his personal inability to get runs by gifting the advantage to India after having won the toss -- an insertion by Stewart he is going to have a hard time living down.

To their credit, the Indians exploited the conditions perfectly, taking out the remaining 7 English wickets for just 96 runs to pull off a 63 run win that took them into the Super Six.

Mohammad Azharuddin, for the second day running, could do no wrong in the field. Having got Mohanty to complete his unfinished over, he attacked with Prasad and Srinath, and India's two premier seamers responded with a controlled spell that really set it all up. Their bowling effectively ensured that Thorpe and Fairbrother did not get off the blocks early on in the day. And Srinath got a bonus, courtesy Umpire Javed Akthar, when he had Thorpe declared LBW -- the ball was bowled from wide of the crease and angling down to leg when Thorpe played all over it and was rapped on the front pad.

That brought Flintoff out to join Fairbrother. The British media has been hyping the former as an incredible late order hitter, and the former as one of the best 'finishers' in the business today. However, thus far neither had shown any sign of living up to that hype, and for the final time in this tournament, they disappointed. With the bowling tight on line and length, and the fielding on its toes -- the Indians seemed to be all over the place today, egging each other on, backing up beautifully and giving their bowlers the support that was required -- there were no openings for either of the batsmen.

The one who really sealed it for India was Ganguly. Azharuddin took a big risk in bringing him on early, obviously looking to get the fifth bowler's quota out of the way before the pressure of a late assault from the England batsmen began. Instead, Ganguly -- with Kumble bowling a dream spell at the other end -- nailed England to the mast with very accurate seam bowling, keeping a three quarter line around off and not letting either batsman get away from him.

Kumble was the one who produced the second breakthrough, frustrating Flintoff with his line and length till the burly middle order batsman lost his cool. Off the first ball of the 32nd, he came down and used his muscle to thump Kumble over wide long on for a huge six. The bowler responded with a flipper, then pushed another one through very quickly. Flintoff, beaten for pace on the ball, pushed blindly, missed and was trapped bang in front, rapped on the back pad, no problems there.

Adam Hollioake's descent from the heroic heights he was elevated to when he led England to an unexpected triumph in Sharjah has been swift. Today, he hit rock bottom. With no batting to follow, it really was up to him to keep Fairbrother company and see England as close to the target as possible. But in the face of tight bowling and a close in ring of fielders who made singles very hard to find, Hollioake lost his nerve and went down on one knee to try and swing Kumble to leg. That was, to no one's surprise, the flipper yet again, and the strike of ball on back pad had the batsman walking back, out to yet another plumb decision.

Mark Ealham -- again, if the British media is to be believed -- is supposed to be a dangerous late order player. Probably -- but Ganguly nipped that danger in the bud when he produced one outside off seaming away late, for the right hander to push straight to Azhar at slip.

Neil Fairbrother's forte is supposed to be an ability to push and poke the singles and keep the scorers bustling. If so, that gift was certainly not in evidence today 62 balls for his 30 being merely the statistical indication of how static his scoring pattern was. Both Kumble and Ganguly bothered him with their accurate line and length, Azhar screwed the lid down tighter with a fielder at short cover, another at short midwicket and a third at short fine leg, thus shutting off the three 'single' spots.

Kumble effectively had him when, off the last ball of the 38th, he hurried one through outside off, Fairbrother cut, got the under edge and Mongia held -- but this time, Javed Akthar turned the appeal down. Perhaps his way of evening the scales of justice? Who knows.

In the very next over, Fairbrother was walking back -- frustration at not being able to score causing him to come charging down the wicket, flinging his bat at a ball from Ganguly slanting across him. The seam movement defeated the shot, the ball went off the edge to Mongia and this time, Darrell Hair was the umpire and up went the finger.

Darren Gough kept throwing his bat around, landing a few big blows and missing lots of bigger ones, till Prasad gave him the slower one, which the batsman pulled around for Kumble to hold a very well judged catch right on the midwicket boundary line.

Srinath then returned to fire a reverse swinging yorker into the base of Mullally's middle stump, finishing things off with 4.4 overs to spare.

It was as near perfect a bowling and fielding performance as one would hope to see, and India were easily the better of the two sides on view in this game. One little fact merits mentioning here -- every one of the five bowlers on view got wickets, and the 5th bowler, supposedly the vulnerable element in this lineup, benefitted from the pressure created by the other four and, thanks to the ability to keep line and length, ended up as the most successful of the bowlers (incidentally, Saurav Ganguly also picked up his second successive man of the match award in the progress, for his 40 with the bat and three for 8 with the ball).

However, what was most heartening, if you regularly follow this team, was the team spirit visible out there, and the way Azharuddin appeared to have found a new and very effective captaincy style.

So India are into the Super Six, with no points to their name. Alongside them are South Africa with two, and Zimbabwe with four.

For now, we won't analyse the possibilities -- time enough for that once the opposing lineup from Group B is firmed up. The point to note though is that the lack of points does not automatically mean that India doesn't have any hope of going further -- the ask now for the side is to focus on winning all three games in the Super Six stage, and then worry about the various permutations and combinations.

That sounds like a tough ask -- but on the plus side, the side appears to be peaking at just the right time, so we should be in for some fun in early June.

Meanwhile, for England, the sorry fate of being dumped -- for the first time in its history -- before the knockout stage. And what must have rubbed it in was that on English soil, it appeared as though India had taken over. Throughout this match, it was the Indian fans who made their presence felt -- full of colour and noise, bringing a festive atmosphere to the ground that lifted the side and had them playing out of their skins.

England though only has itself to blame for this plight -- first, it gifted India the advantage by inserting them, and when it came their time to bat, batsman after batsman kept playing across the line. Surely they have seen enough of India's bowlers, especially Kumble, to realise the dangers of that ploy?

In passing, a little thought, about the two overs that England bowled after regulation time, and for which they were not docked.

In emails and on the reader feedback forum, some have suggested that a slight injury to Azharuddin, and some problems with the sightscreen, meant that some time was wasted and therefore, England could not be docked those overs.

Sorry, but I disagree. When India played Zimbabwe that day, there were sightscreen problems too. Hell, there always is. And breaks for injury -- a couple of players, if you recall, were hit in the box and needed time to recover. I don't have a problem with such factors being taken into consideration by the match referee -- the point I was making in my report yesterday was that match referees need to be consistent.

Thus, India bowled four overs short at regulation time, and were docked four overs. No complaints, the rules are there, and meant to be enforced. No concession was made for time lost due to various external factors. Again, fair enough, if those are the rules, then they should be followed.

But then, they should be enforced equally, for all teams. And that is not happening here, and that is reprehensible. This plaint, by the way, is not simply because it happened to India -- fair is fair for everyone; and what happened out there is not fair.

Why are some teams treated differently from others? Why are some batsmen penalised for dissent for simply looking at the umpire on given out, while others mutter, utter obscenities on being dismissed, but are let off scot free?

The International Cricket Council makes a big hoo-haa about its code of conduct. If that code is not to become a mockery, then it should be enforced with fairness.


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