A fine batsman

Published : Aug 04, 2001 00:00 IST


IT was a match the Indians would like to forget in a hurry. A chase that went horrendously wrong.

Sourav Ganguly and his men were upbeat going into the break at the Premadasa Stadium on July 20, having restricted New Zealand to 211, yet at the back of their minds would have been the fact that the wicket, with its uneven bounce, was not the easiest to bat on.

The Indians were rocked early on, with new ball bowlers Darryl Tuffey and Kyle Mills striking and could never really pick themselves up.

The irony about the 84-run defeat in their first match was that the Indians had gone into the game with more depth in batting, sacrificing a bowler to achieve the objective.

In the end, one batsman after another left without making an impression, with only the super-talented V. V. S. Laxman fighting hard for his 60.

The Kiwis themselves had struggled in the earlier encounter against the Lankans while chasing and that was precisely the reason Stephen Fleming was quick in opting to bat when he won the toss.

This game was played on the same pitch and the New Zealanders knew once they posted a total of above 200, they would hold the whip-hand.

The Kiwi attack too was strengthened with the return of paceman Dion Nash, always a slippery bowler. And Nash made his comeback a memorable one by cutting a swathe through the middle-order.

The collapse of the Indians also put Nathan Astle's 117 earlier in the day in the right perspective. On a pitch, that was never easy to bat on, Astle, batting intelligently, took on the pacemen, and when the spinners came along, played nice and straight, never missing out on an opportunity to score, the key to succeeding on less than good wickets.

In stark contrast, there was a lack of character in the Indian batting, with Laxman being the lone exception. The Indians played too many strokes on a pitch where Astle had shown that application was vital.

Skipper Ganguly was at least honest after the game when he said, "the middle-order did not apply itself." He also made it clear that this was not the ideal pitch for one-day cricket.

The shot selection of the Indians was wrong. Yuveraj Singh, thrust into a new role, might have been a touch unlucky to be adjudged leg-before to Mills, but the others perished to ill-advised shots. The need of the hour was to play themselves in, but the Indians, with the exception of the wristy Laxman, did anything but that.

The fact that the pitch was playing tricks too was working on their minds. They should instead have approached the task positively.

For the Kiwis, Tuffey was impressive, Nash surprised the Indians by rediscovering his rhythm so soon during his comeback, and left-arm spinner Daniel Vettori and Chris Harris, with his 'rolled leg-spin', supported the pacemen wonderfully well. It was a team effort, so typical of the way the Kiwis play.

Ironically, the Indians had bowled and fielded admirably earlier in the day. Left-arm seamer Zaheer Khan trapped Mathew Sinclair leg-before with the first ball of the innings, and this meant the Indians had begun on a rousing note.

Astle, who was lucky when an Ashish Nehra delivery brushed his pad, rolled on to the stumps, but did not disturb the bails, proceeded to play some fine strokes, with an expansive cover-drive off Zaheer standing out.

The Indians definitely took a chance when they went into the game with just three specialist bowlers in Zaheer, Nehra and Harbhajan, but it was a day when the support bowlers rose to the occasion.

Yuveraj Singh sent down 10 overs of left-arm spin fairly economically and Sehwag was useful too with his off-spin. The pick though was the vastly improved Harbhajan Singh, whose spell of 10 overs for 25 runs, scalping two wickets in the process, was a telling display of classical off-spin bowling.

The Sardar spun the ball sharply, straightened the odd one, took it away from the right hander, and did bring all his variations into play. As the Kiwis privately acknowledged, he sure is a different bowler now.

Sadly for India, Harbhajan's effort was in vain. It was a day when the Kiwis had all the answers.

The scores:

New Zealand: M. Sinclair lbw b Zaheer 0; N. Astle (run out) 117; S. Fleming c Sehwag b Harbhajan 25; C. McMillan st. Dighe b Yuveraj 17; L. Vincent c Yuveraj b Harbhajan 16; C. Harris (run out) 1; A. Parore st Dighe b Badani 9; D. Nash b Zaheer 5; D. Vettori (not out) 5; K. Mills (not out) 1. Extras (lb-4, w-9, nb-2) 15. Total (for eight wkts. in 50 overs) 211.

Fall of wickets: 1-0, 2-70, 3-106, 4-158, 5-163, 6-190, 7-198, 8-208.

India bowling: Zaheer 9-1-41-2; Nehra 7-0-35-0; Sodhi 1-0-7-0; Harbhajan 10-1-25-2; Sehwag 8-1-31-0; Yuveraj 10-0-43-1; Badani 5-0-25-1.

India: Y. Singh lbw b Mills 6; S. Ganguly c Harris b Tuffey 5; V. V. S. Laxman c Harris b Vettori 60; R. Dravid c Sinclair b Nash 15; H. Badani c Parore b Nash 2; V. Sehwag c Harris b Nash 0; R. S. Sodhi b Harris 18; S. Dighe c Nash b Harris 9; H. Singh c & b Harris 0; Z. Khan c McMillan b Vettori 2; A. Nehra (not out) 2. Extras (b-2, lb-3, w-2, nb-1) 8. Total (all out in 41.1 overs) 127.

Fall of wickets: 1-13, 2-13, 3-41, 4-50, 5-50, 6-88, 7-118, 8-123, 9-125.

New Zealand bowling: Tuffey 7-2-7-1; Mills 7-1-24-1; Nash 6-0-13-3; Vettori 8.1-0-39-2; Harris 8-1-23-3; Astle 5-0-16-0.

INDIAN coach John Wright regards Nathan Astle the best one-day batsman New Zealand has produced. Tell this to the soft-spoken Astle and he smiles.

"No, I don't think this is true. I think Martin Crowe was the finest," he quickly comes up with a reply. Yet, Astle has scored more hundreds in ODIs, 10 of them to be precise, than the combined century count among the others in this team.

And most of them have been match-winning efforts. Like his 117 against India at the Premadasa Stadium. It was an education in how an opener should go about his task on an unpredictable surface.

Astle began cautiously, took his chances against the pacemen, realised this was not going to be a high-scoring encounter, and cleverly proceeded to play the anchor role - the big hits sandwiched between the ones and the twos. "I think this is among my better one-day hundreds. It was not an easy wicket to bat on," revealed Astle later. He was right.

Harbhajan Singh in particular was a daunting challenge, but Astle, who has worked on his batting against the spinners, was equal to the task, striking the offie in front of the wicket, rather than square.

Under the circumstances, Astle's was a beautifully paced knock, and there was reward for all the hard work when he turned Harbhajan and took off for a cheeky single, his 100th run. His century had consumed 128 balls, and comprised eight well-hit boundaries and a splendidly struck six over mid-off off Yuveraj. He could have batted through the innings but was dismissed going for the extra run in the final overs. It didn't matter really. He had already made 117 in a total of 211, and the next highest individual contribution was skipper Stephen Fleming's 25. A staggering piece of statistic.

Astle's career has had its ups and the downs but he has learnt to live through the failures. And the Kiwi think-tank has persisted with this strokeful player, since it realises that he is a match-winner. The kind of player who can turn a game on its head.

Now that Roger Twose has reportedly bid adieu to international cricket, there is even more responsibility on Astle as a senior batsman, who can hold the innings together in times of distress, and whack the bowlers around the park when the need is for quick runs. Astle's usefulness is also reflected in his nagging seam bowling, that has put the brakes on the run-rate time and again. The affable Nathan Astle is worth his weight in gold for the Kiwis.

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