Lara’s Triumph

Brian Lara couldn’t have scripted it better himself, a twinkle toed match winning knock in the fourth game at his home town, Port of Spain, Trinidad, to seal the series and a comprehensive victory in the fifth game to bookmark his final one day international at his home ground. Taking on the captaincy till the World Cup seemed to be a fitting swansong for Lara but after a dispiriting performance under Shivnarine Chanderpaul nobody would have expected such a quick turnaround in the West Indian team. Lara showed that nobody knows the Caribbean side’s strengths better than him. He masterfully maneuvered his bowlers to contain India’s free flowing batsmen, who were unable to adapt to the conditions. Lara’s captaincy was a revelation as he turned to his spinners to put a strangle hold on India. In the end, he even brought on the young left arm chinaman bowler, Dave Mohammed, to bamboozle the perplexed Indians. While Dravid’s team looked stale and lacking in strategy, Lara’s team looked fresh and innovative. A 4-1 triumph over an Indian team that had just thrashed Sri Lanka, Pakistan and England is a tremendous performance and is a tribute to the cricketing brain of this great batsman.

After the patchy first game, the West Indies have been outstanding in the field, improving with every match whereas the Indian fielding has progressively deteriorated. In the must win fourth ODI, India got off to a poor start when Gayle plucked a good catch to send back a dangerous looking Sehwag. Suresh Raina fluffed his chance up the order once more, and also played an atrocious shot in the final game after being sent back down the order, to conclude a horrible tour. Yuvraj Singh, who was back in the side after making a recovery from back spasms, quickly highlighted that he is the rock around which the Indian middle order is built by initiating a recovery with Mohammad Kaif in the fourth ODI. But, neither of them kicked on past their fifties and Dwayne Bravo was the outstanding bowler at the death once again. India finished about 20 runs short in spite of Dhoni’s efforts. Chris Gayle got the Windies off to a rollicking start again, and set the stage for the Brian Lara masterpiece that inspired and kickstarted Bravo’s batting in the last two games. Lara used his feet beautifully to both Powar and Harbhajan and treated everyone to a masterclass on how to play spin bowling.

Dravid’s decision not to open the bowling with Ajit Agarkar when the Windies were chaising in the fourth ODI was one of the mysteries of the series. Agarkar was India’s best bowler in the one day series and when he was belatedly brought in to the attack he immediately picked up the wicket of Sarwan. In the final game, Agarkar got the early break through with a beautiful delivery to the left handed Chattergoon, who left a ball pitched outside his off stump only to see it swing back and clip the top of the off stump. Agarkar was duly rewarded for his consistent performance in the series by not being included in the Test side. Apparently the selectors have categorized him as a one day player only, and categorization is an erroneous way to pick a team.

Sehwag looked like he would salvage some pride for the Indians with a powerful knock in the final game, but he found that nobody was willing to partner him. The alarming collapse was that of team with a morbid air of defeat suffocating them as the West Indies did to India what the Indians had previously done to its opponents.

India came in to the series as the favorites, but with only one practice match the undercooked Indian side got thrashed. The momentum is now with the West Indies and they are definitely favorites to win the Test series. Perhaps, the Indians are more comfortable with the underdog tag but with only a 2-day match as preparation before the Test series starting on June 2nd, it will take some doing to purge the stench of defeat and recover from the Turmoil in Trini.


Misfiring in the Caribbean

Trailing 2-1 after the first three games is something Rahul Dravid would not have been expecting. In all three games, India’s batting was below par, with the lower middle order failing to live up to expectations. India won the first game only because of an exceptional century from Dravid, and after he got out the lower order almost botched it up. The second match was a heart stopper and one was left at the end with the image of a crushed Yuvraj Singh squatting on his haunches and wincing with the pain of the loss. It was a wonderful piece of deception by Dwayne Bravo to outfox a batsman in the 90’s with a slower ball.

Even though one Indian batsman has played a big knock in each of three matches, Dravid, Yuvraj and Sehwag, the others have failed to carry on. The most alarming loss for the Indians was the third match, where there was a rash of run outs that bordered on the ridiculous which ruined a great platform setup by a Sehwag special. Once more it was a Bravo beauty that arrested the Indian charge by removing Sehwag. The batting following that dismissal seemed to indicate a lack of hunger for the win. But, this Indian team has fought back before and Dravid highlighted the team’s self belief by saying that they just have to win the next two games.

Irfan Pathan’s lack of form in both batting and bowling has been a contributing factor in the losses. He hasn’t been picking up early wickets and has been tonked about with disdain whereas his counterpart, the much less fancied left armer from the Caribbean, Ian Bradshaw, has been outperforming him with some intelligent bowling. Harbhajan Singh and Ajit Agarkar have been the outstanding bowlers for India, and are the main reason why the West Indian batting has been kept in check. Harbhajan has been bowling a tight line to Lara, with some wonderful flight and spin that troubled Lara in all three matches. Agarkar has stepped into the senior pro role, using his previous tour experience to put on a display of some wonderfully controlled swing bowling.

Ramnaresh Sarwan and Shivnarine Chanderpaul have been thwarting India’s bowling, and even with Chanderpaul out with a hamstring injury for the last two matches, India needs a plan to stop the in form Sarwan who is living up to his words of the need to be consistent. With two matches in three days in Trinidad, Dravid has to rejuvenate his misfiring batting lineup and inspire his team to yet another comeback.


Milestones on a Marathon

When you watch sport, and witness a young team developing with every game, you get excited wondering what heights the team can scale. There is a sense of anticipation and spine tingling sensation as you wonder what they can achieve. You feel that they have the talent to make it to the finish line, but will they be able to? So many things can go wrong, incorrect decisions will be made and the wrong turn can be taken, where will that lead the team? When they are at the threshold, the threshold to greatness, will they misstep to be cast away into history and classified as merely good?

You never know, and that is exactly why you watch. That is the beauty of sport. Can Dhoni become all that he can, will Raina reach the levels of immortal left handers like Lara? Watching them bat, you wonder how they can be so good when they are so young?
And what about the veterans like Yuvraj and Kaif, will they ever achieve the consistency to maintain a 50+ average over 100 Test matches? Will Harbhajan be able to climb the Everest that is Kumble and perhaps scale 700 wickets? Will Irfan Pathan become the best swing bowler in the world? Will Sreesanth and Munaf blitz away the opposition?

The 2007 World Cup is merely the half way point of the marathon, the top of the ICC Test ranking is where the finish line lies. Right now, the Indian team is in the first quarter of the race, and is approaching the sixth mile. Dravid and Chappell will know that winning the one day series against the West Indies is a requirement and the main prize will be the Test series; which will be a significant step toward proving that the team has the stamina for the marathon.

Thus, we wait and watch each step and the few missteps along the way. Keep counting the milestones, Acropolis awaits.