Dravid's team

One realizes that Rahul Dravid is a classy man when he thanks the crowds for the support they have extended to the Indian team through the length and breadth of the country at the pre-game mid-pitch TV interview after the toss for the final game against the South Africans at the Wankhede stadium, Mumbai. That this astonishing public relations exercise comes immediately after the barracking he and his team received from the crowd at the Eden Gardens in Kolkatta is a sure sign that this is an Indian Captain who knows what sports is all about. It is about performing in front of your fans. And perform they did today.

The Indian team was outstanding in it’s pursuit for a win in the final game, the hunger was evident in Pathan’s guttural scream as he swung one right into the middle stump of a stunned Andrew Hall. Graeme Smith was tucking into a once again wayward Ajit Agarkar, before he fell over playing a low full toss on leg stump from Pathan, scooping it to Harbhajan Singh at square leg. South Africa prime batting weapon in their last 21 matches was Smith, and once he was gone, the batting lost direction. Kallis and Prince labored painfully, struggling to get the ball away. While Irfan was immaculate from the onset, after Smith’s dismissal even Agarkar tightened up his line in a splendid five over second spell. Harbhajan Singh was immaculate in his control and suffocated the South African’s. Prince finally succumbed to a top edged sweep, but Harbhajan wasn’t done yet. He made up for a misfield early on with a fantastic performance in the outfield. He stopped several boundaries and astonished everyone as he dived forward to take a stunning catch of a powerful Boucher sweep. Later, Harbhajan was brought back into the attack to get rid of the big hitting Justin Kemp, and he did just that when Kemp tried to sweep a sharply turning off break only to get another top edge to Yuvraj at short fine leg. Kallis meanwhile continued in first gear and only when Shaun Pollock clattered a few boundaries in the 47th and 48th overs did he attempt to seize the initiative. Kallis flayed one Pathan full toss to the off side boundary, but failed to clear long on off the very next ball. He had accumulated 91 painstaking runs off 146 balls with five boundaries at a strike rate of 62%. He had played a similar knock against New Zealand on an extremely slow track, a match winning one on that occasion, but this time he had not read the conditions properly and he was the primary reason why South Africa were about 20 runs short finishing only on 221 with 4 wickets remaining.

The Indian chase started poorly with the Super Sub Gambhir departing for a duck but the crowd was soon going hoarse screaming “Sachin, Sachin” as Tendulkar began to play some stunning drives and cuts. At the other end Sehwag raced away to a typically bellicose 27 in 20 balls including an awesome tennis serve like pull shot of a Shaun Pollock short ball. Sehwag’s innings was cut short by a poor lbw decision to Pollock. Dravid was the next man in and determination was writ large on his face. His timing was excellent as he turned Pollock to the mid wicket boundary and drove him to the long on boundary in the same over. Just as the partnership was guiding India to a winning position, South Africa struck back. Both Nel and Langeveldt were bowling superbly and it was the hustling Nel who struck. Sachin cut powerfully only to see Ashwell Prince diving to his left to pull of a blinder. The South Africans really are an outstanding fielding side. Yuvraj Singh, India’s best batsman of the series was in next and he combined with Dravid in a 79 run partnership that eased all flutters in the Indian dressing room. This time young Johan Botha couldn’t trouble Yuvraj, and both Botha and Hall couldn’t contain the Indians. Botha did miss a sharp return catch from Dravid, and that would have been a vital wicket. Andre Nel came back to dismiss Yuvraj on 49 and Langeveldt got rid off a lackluster Mahendra Singh Dhoni but at that point the Indian win was never in doubt. Dravid was unbeaten on 78 as Kaif hit the winning runs in the 48th over.

It was a great team effort from India to come back after the comprehensive defeat at Kolkatta. The bowlers and fielders did a fantastic job in containing South Africa and made it a relatively easy task for the batsmen. Dravid has every right to be proud of his team, and India should be proud of its new Captain.

The Stumble at the Garden

The Indian team may have felt that they were not playing in home conditions at the Eden Gardens, Kolkatta with a pitch suited for the South African pace bowlers and a rabid crowd baying for their blood. But, they have only their poor performance to blame for the jeers from the fickle crowd. If India had done well the Kolkatta crowd would surely have been singing hosannas for Dravid and Chappell. If South Africa could chase down the Indian score without losing a wicket then the pitch can’t be all that bad, so the conspiracy theories against Dalmiya’s Cricket Association of Bengal need to be tempered down. Maybe the pitch was a little mischievous effort on the part of the groundsman, but India has to learn to win on all kinds of surfaces after all both teams play on the same pitch.

The toss played a crucial role again in these day night games. Irfan Pathan has succeeded at all batting positions and it was another brave move to send him to open the batting with Gautam Gambhir, but it failed and he was dismissed in the very first over by the canny Shaun Pollock. If Pathan had played for 5 overs at least maybe the top order wouldn’t have collapsed. Sachin tried to play out Pollock, but the ever patient Pollock got his man, and Gambhir’s loose shot was not in keeping with him being India’s only genuine Test opener. Pollock had taken 3 wickets to knock India back. Sehwag responded with a blazing counter attack as only he can. The pitch doesn’t seem to matter when he bats, and he was brutal against Hall. Hall finally pitched one wide off the stumps and Sehwag in his belligerent mood just could not resist having a swing only to get an edge to the keeper. Langeveldt prodeuced a beauty to get rid of Dravid and India were in danger of getting bowled out for an embarrassingly low total. Yuvraj has been India’s crisis man in this series and he played another back to the wall innings of great character. But, just as Kaif and Yuvraj were leading India to a decent score, the brave Johan Botha caught him LBW with a straighter ball that may have been a doosra. It was a crucial wicket by the young off spinner and it couldn’t have come at a better time. After that wicket the innings collapsed as Dhoni just wasn’t able to get the ball away and the tail crumbled. All international bowlers would have picked up on how South Africa bowled to Dhoni, short of good length and into his body, and it will be a test for Dhoni to counter it. India were bowled out for 188 and under the lights with the dew, it really wouldn’t have challenged South Africa.

Graeme Smith chose to make an emphatic statement guiding his team to a ten wicket victory. He made an incredible 134 runs out of the 189 total runs they scored in 36 overs. Andrew Hall was unbeaten on a patient 48 of 94 balls. India needed wickets right at the start to put pressure on South Africa, but that never happened. While Hall was watchful against the new ball Smith launched into both Agarkar and Pathan. Harbhajan Singh bowled a tight line but Smith never let him dominate as he jumped down the track to hit him straight down the ground for a six. Murali Karthik couldn’t contain Smith and was ineffective with the wet ball. Soon every South African boundary was being cheered by the angry crowd and in the end it was capped with jeers for Dravid and Chappell during the post match ceremony.

Rahul Dravid would have felt bitter and hurt with the reception, and he would have quickly realized that the Indian captaincy is a prickly crown to wear.