Mohammad Kaif played one of his best innings for India since the 2002 NatWest Trophy final and guided India to a comfortable win chasing 278 against New Zealand. This has got to be one of India’s most impressive wins while chasing a large total. Today, after the blistering start provided by Sehwag, the customary panic and choking in the end was replaced by solid partnerships throughout the innings and a brutal flourish in the end by Dhoni.
New Zealand’s bowling attack sorely missed Shane Bond’s firepower and Chris Cairns hamstring injury resurfaced to restrict him to only 3 overs. This loss causes one to reflect why Fleming would want to rest Bond and Vettori and let India enter the Final on a high. One will have to wait and see whether his strategy to keep his trump card for the end works or not.
Earlier in the day, it was the much maligned Ajit Agarkar who bowled an excellent first spell after both the left armers had an off day. Agarkar picked up the first wicket of Nathan Astle with a good outswinger that bounced more than Astle expected. Agarkar also deserve’s credit for the second wicket, as he effected a stunning run out of a dangerous looking Fleming with a sharp bit of fielding in his follow through. An inside edge of Fleming’s bat onto his pad trickled the ball onto the legside and as Lou Vincent charged down for a single, Agarkar quickly moved to his left swooping on the ball, picked it up, turned and threw down the stumps at the non strikers end to have Fleming well short of his ground. Agarkar easily is India’s best outfielder and one of the faster movers in the Indian team. Agarkar first 6 overs cost just 16 runs and he had a wicket and a run out to his name. His 7th over went for 14 runs as Lou Vincent took to him with some stunning shots on the up and a lucky top edged hook also. Just as Vincent was racing away to a big score, and even better piece of fielding from Yuvraj Singh at point resulted in his run out. Hamish Marshall slashed the ball, and Yuvraj diving full length to his left, collected the ball cleanly with his left hand, sat up on his knees and threw down the stumps to run out Vincent. Good fielding is not usually associated with India, but today they were excellent on the field. At the post match ceremony Ganguly remarked that India has fielded well in the last 3 games, and said one of the reasons was the good outfields in Zimbabwe. This reminds us that India really needs to improve all the outfields in the State cricket grounds to have a national team full of excellent fielders. I think the conditions of the Indian outfields are improving and more of the newcomers will be better fielders.
JP Yadav was bowling wicket to wicket and keeping things tight, and he snuck one in through a surprised Marshall’s defense. At 115-4 in the 22nd over New Zealnad had to be cautious and India were doing well, but McMillan and Styris played very sensibly for the next 20 overs and added nearly a 100 runs without taking too many risks. This is where India was missing Harbhajan’s wicket taking spells. Bhajji bowled well, but they played him equally well with McMillan especially, frustrating him by taking guard on off stump and working most of his balls to the leg side for runs. One didn’t see too much off Bhajji’s doosra, and I think he bowled it only once or twice. Yadav bowled well to finish with 1-34 off his 10, but one expects more from Harbhajan than is 0-46 in 10.
Agarkar cleaned up McMillan in the 43rd over, but after that Brendon McCullum played a blinder taking a heavy toll of both Agarkar and Pathan. Agarkar went for 20 runs in his last over, ruining his bowling figures to finish with 2-61. McCullum’s hitting prowess is fearsome and he smashed 3 fours and 2 sixes before Nehra finally got him. Then Jacob Oram stepped up to the party, clobbering 14 of only 5 balls before a wayward Pathan finally got him. These New Zealander’s bat deep and they bat powerfully, they didn’t even have to really use Chris Cairns big hitting and the only thing that prevented them from reaching 300 today, was India’s sharp fielding. India took all their catches and Dhoni was also neat behind the stumps, even though he conceded one bye while standing up to JP Yadav’s medium pace. In the end New Zealand finished on 278 and it was a very good score.
To win the match India needed a good start, and Sehwag and Ganguly obliged. Sehwag pummeled Andre Adams multiple times through the point region and Fleming had to keep two fielder on the off side boundary and four in the ring. For good measure Sehwag pulled the next short ball through midwicket to finish the Adams over with 4 boundaries. In fact today he played a couple of pull shots for boundaries as New Zealand tried to cramp him for room. Even Ganguly looked to be in good touch with a couple of exquisitely timed shots through the off side, but his plan to aggressively counter the short ball by pulling it didn’t pay off today as he hooked one right down the throat of the lone fielder at deep fine leg. He and Sehwag had set the platform with a 66 run opening partnership.
Looking to the future, one can’t expect Ganguly, Tendulkar and Dravid to pull of their heroics again in the 2007 World Cup and Chappell’s flexible batting line up policy has finally identified the new number three batsman for India. It is Mohammad Kaif. He displayed his maturity today and announced that he was ready for this role. His on drives off Oram were beautiful to watch and even Tendulkar would have nodded his head with pride. Sehwag’s pyrotechnics finally came to an end as Oram brought one in back sharply to knock out his off stump. Sehwag missed his half century, but he had played his part.
Kaif didn’t play many false strokes and scored his 50 at almost a run a ball with the help of the fielding restrictions of the 3 power plays. Dravid settled in for the long haul and the two played sensibly with cushion of a rate well above the required one due to Sehwag. Chris Cairns was off color coming back after his hamstring injury and he bowled a few short balls which were powerfully dispatched to the point boundary by Dravid. Dravid and Kaif reprised their roles from the 2003 World Cup super six match against New Zealand and shared another 100 run partnership. Styris, got Dravid bowled for the third time in this series, to keep NZ in the match. Yuvraj came in and started well and even stroked a beautiful six of Nathan Astle over the long on boundary. The Kiwi Super sub, off spinner Jeetan Patel, bowled pretty well on debut but today the Indian’s played him well with Kaif being pretty severe on him early on. He was brought back for another spell and the Indians continued to nudge him around for singles until they were within 60 runs of victory. Yuvraj tried to hasten the proceedings by driving Patel to the long off boundary but perished trying to sweep a quicker one. 223-4 in the 40th over and the match wasn’t over yet.
Dhoni was the next man in, and he had his eyes set on Patel. He played it easy for a couple of overs as Kaif reached his hundred, and then after elbowing Patel while completing a single, he smashed him for 2 successive sixes. The first one was a powerful blow that hit the roof of the stadium. I have said it before, but I’ll say it again this guy Dhoni is really strong, built like an ox, and he hits the ball really hard. He can turn out to be a really good late order hitter for India.
After Dhoni’s pyrotechinics the match ended quickly and India won with 15 balls to spare.
Ganguly and Chappell must be really happy with India’s performance and Stephen Fleming must be ruing not playing Shane Bond in this game. India has to play another game against Zimbabwe on Sunday before the Final against New Zealand on Tuesday. With Bond in the final, New Zealand will be a much better bowling attack and it is going to be great just watching him bowl, the anticipation is to see how Sehwag will tackle him.