A first for Zaheer

The left-arm Mumbai seamer, looking his trimmest in three years, felled the top-order, and then bowled an effective spell at the death as Sri Lanka was restricted to 230 for eight. A report by Vijay Parthasarathy.

India managed to chase down an iffy target, one that was neither large nor small, and beat Sri Lanka in the third one-dayer of the series in Margao. Rahul Dravid and Mahendra Singh Dhoni were involved in a two-paced century partnership that ensured India levelled the series 1-1; but the win was set up in the morning session when Zaheer Khan picked up his first five-wicket haul in ODIs, bowling with the kind of aggression and precision that he has always promised but rarely summoned in recent years.

The left-arm Mumbai seamer, looking his trimmest in three years, felled the top-order, and then bowled an effective spell at the death as Sri Lanka was restricted to 230 for eight.

Sri Lanka never recovered from the triple strike that left the team struggling at six for three. Jayasuriya was done in by a ball that climbed on him; Tharanga and Sangakkara fell with their feet seemingly in fetters. Marvan Atapattu and Mahela Jayawardene briefly threatened to arrest the slide, as did Russell Arnold and Tillekeratne Dilshan subsequently. But Harbhajan maintained a tight line in the middle overs, mixed his deliveries, and foxed Dilshan for the second time in two matches with a doosra.

Had Sri Lanka managed to put up 260, it might have had something to bowl at. But Zaheer shafted yorker after yorker at the death — something he has not done in a while — and the visitor had to figure out how best to defend this potentially awkward total.

The Lankan bowlers began in awful fashion, Mahroof bowling four consecutive wides and then conceding two boundaries to Sehwag. But the out-of-form batsman, back as opener, was dismissed soon, fending away a well-directed bouncer. Sachin Tendulkar came in at No. 3 — not a bad idea, since he has been in decent form — but he was bowled off the inside edge, trying to impose himself on the off-side field without adjusting his feet.

Some early trouble for the Indians, then. Not too long ago, Indian teams were shockingly inept at chasing totals, however meagre, on any kind of surface. The problem was, partly, a psychological block — one that took years to overcome. India had great batsmen but they weren't necessarily match-winners.

It wasn't until the 2004 NatWest Trophy final that things changed significantly. The Kaif-Yuvraj-led resurgence did much to instil a sense of self-belief. India went on to post 17 consecutive victories while chasing in the 2005 and 2006 seasons; most members of this current squad that will play the World Cup were involved in the careful construction of India's image as good chasers.

But India has since slipped again and truth be told, the result in the previous match in Rajkot — close as it was in the end — didn't come close to reversing that trend. Dravid pointed out that the team hadn't chased too often in the recent past and that would have contributed to the rustiness; but by itself that wouldn't hold as an excuse.

The Margao wicket was a bit slow but it wasn't as if the ball stopped on Yuvraj when he tried to play the ball off his hips, only for the leading edge to carry to mid-on. Still, his 21 runs was an encouraging innings. It consumed only 31 deliveries; Yuvraj ran some quick singles and didn't drag the run-rate down. His form is bound to improve in the initial stages of the World Cup.

One major problem with this side is that players who get starts don't often convert them into hundreds. In Rajkot the match was as good as lost after Tendulkar and Ganguly got out to poor shots.

The left-handed opener failed to cash in on his start again, in Margao. Still, this wasn't a large enough total to cause problems for a good batting side, which is why Ganguly's dismissal didn't prove disastrous. What India managed better than its opponent was, to force the pace inside the first 10 overs despite the loss of early wickets. Ganguly returned from South Africa with a firmer grasp of the larger perspective; the gritty player from Bengal has, against the odds, re-established himself as a first choice opener in one-dayers. Here he combined grace with restraint, slicing whenever the opportunity presented itself through point and cover. Although he made only 48, with the odd inside edge screaming past leg-stump, crucially, Ganguly held the first portion of the innings together.

Entered Dravid, a couple of places lower than usual, at the fall of Yuvraj's wicket, and immediately began to rotate the strike. He shared a partnership of 133 (off just 139 balls) with Mahendra Dhoni, who has, over the past year, curbed his instinct for the all-out assault and matured into a steadfast lower-middle order bat. Dhoni compensated for the error in judgement he made in Rajkot, by timing his aggression better.

With just under 100 runs to get, Dravid crashed three successive boundaries off Nuwan Kulasekara, the second and third bisecting sweeper and third-man, and from then onward India never lost its hold.

THE SCORES

Third ODI, Margao, February 14, 2007. India won by five wickets.

Sri Lanka: U. Tharanga lbw b Zaheer 1; S. Jayasuriya c Ganguly b Zaheer 2; M. Jayawardene lbw b Harbhajan 30; K. Sangakkara b Zaheer 0; M. Atapattu c Tendulkar b Patel 42; T. Dilshan c Dhoni b Harbhajan 42; R. Arnold (not out) 66; F. Maharoof c Agarkar b Zaheer 14; M. Bandara lbw b Zaheer 2; N. Kulasekara (not out) 9; Extras (b-4, lb-3, w-11, nb-4) 22. Total (for eight wkts in 50 overs) 230.

Fall of wkts: 1-5, 2-5, 3-6, 4-82, 5-91, 6-180, 7-196, 8-204.

India bowling: Zaheer 10-0-42-5; Agarkar 10-2-40-0; Patel 10-2-41-1; Harbhajan 10-0-37-2; Tendulkar 4-0-33-0; Sehwag 6-0-30-0.

India: S. Ganguly lbw b Bandara 48; V. Sehwag c Dilshan b Fernando 12; S. Tendulkar b Kulasekara 1; Yuvraj c Kulasekara b Fernando 21; R. Dravid (run out) 66; M. Dhoni (not out) 67; D. Karthik (not out) 4; Extras (lb-1, w-10, nb-3) 14; Total (for five wkts in 46.3 overs) 233.

Fall of wkts: 1-20, 2-35, 3-83, 4-94, 5-227.

Sri Lanka bowling: Maharoof 8-0-47-0; Fernando 10-1-43-2; Kulasekara 8.3-0-46-1; Bandara 10-0-46-1; Jayasuriya 7-0-34-0; Dilshan 3-0-16-0.