A memorable performance

S. DINAKAR

THE dramatic sequence of events on a 'Big Day' in Kochi appeared a touch surreal. The third India-Zimbabwe ODI at this coastal town was to be followed by the meeting of the selection panel to pick the squad for the West Indies tour.

Md. Kaif was both forceful and wristy in his stroke-filled 56.-N. BALAJI

And the dismal performance of the Indian team was reflected in the long meeting of the selectors at the city hotel. The discussions began at 6.30 p.m. and after the media waited patiently for over three hours came the disappointing news that the Caribbean bound side would be chosen only on March 21 in Mumbai.

"After today's performance by the Indian team the selectors want to watch the next two games before arriving at a decision," said Mr. Niranjan Shah, secretary, Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI).

To make matters worse, rumours like putting on hold the decision to name Sourav Ganguly as captain for the West Indian tour abounded as the meeting stretched well into the night. Eventually, these were proved untrue, however, it was clear that the selectors were keeping this Indian team under scrutiny.

Earlier in the day, the Indian batsmen appeared keener to catch the afternoon boat ride in Kochi's backwaters than battling it out in the middle. Their attitude and approach were shocking. Ganguly's crude heave against young paceman Douglas Hondo after stepping down the track, when it was the skipper's responsibility to steer his side to a winning total, was one instance.

Mbangwa jumps for joy after getting Rahul Dravid caught by Wishart. Dravid in the process of essaying a cut dropped his bat.-N. BALAJI

Hondo, who received a look-in only because Zimbabwean batting mainstay Andy Flower was nursing a sore hip, bowled with spirit, even if he was helped to a great extent by the Indian batsmen's reckless ways.

It was his three-wicket early burst where he also scalped Dinesh Mongia and V.V.S. Laxman, that opened up the contest. And providing him fine support was Mbangwa, who seldom erred in length or direction.

To their credit, the Zimbabweans did not let the pressure ease and fielded with great heart, with Douglas Marillier's full length dive to his left at mid-on to snaffle an uppish drive by Ajay Ratra in the later stages of the Indian innings being a supreme example of commitment on the field.

Only Mohammad Kaif displayed the stomach for a battle, with a 78-ball 56, bringing into view the wristy nature of his strokeplay. And it was his 86-run partnership with Sanjay Bangar (36) - the two came together with the Indians tottering at 51 for four - that saved India from even greater embarrassment.

Alistair Campbell, who is in lovely touch, punishes Zaheer Khan.-N. BALAJI

"There was nothing wrong with the wicket... the fact is we batted badly," admitted Ganguly. Coach John Wright dwelt on the significance of each player understanding his role in the team.

And it was a clear role definition that led to the Zimbabwean victory, said captain Stuart Carlisle later. He spoke about a team meeting before the match where every player was assigned a particular task.

Indeed, the Zimbabweans performed as a single unit on the field. If Hondo provided the breakthroughs, and Mbangwa put the skids, then senior paceman Heath Streak, off-spinner Marillier and left-armer Grant Flower chipped in.

When the Zimbabweans chased, Alistair Campbell, in lovely touch on his comeback tour, and Grant Flower put the game beyond India's reach with a lively 102-run stand for the third wicket after the pace pair of Zaheer Khan and Ajit Agarkar had provided a couple of early breakthroughs.

Ajit Agarkar provided an early breakthrough by getting rid of Dion Ebrahim.-N. BALAJI

The danger for a team defending a small target is that even a single worthwhile stand can mean curtains for it. And running through a side is not an everyday occurrence. So the odds are always loaded against a team when it has only 191 runs to play with on an easy pitch.

Bringing his left-handed elegance into play, Campbell made a lovely 71, Grant, produced a typically spunky 49, and though they weren't around to finish the game, they took Zimbabwe to the doorstep of victory.

And it was a fitting end to a one-sided duel when Craig Wishart swung the part-time left-arm spin of Dinesh Mongia for a mighty six over mid-wicket - the winning blow.

The Kochi crowd booed the Indians as they wearily walked back, and it was surely a day Ganguly & Co. will want to forget in a hurry. Yet, they had only themselves to blame for the debacle.

The scores:

India: D. Mongia lbw b Hondo 4; S. Ganguly b Hondo 11; V. V. S. Laxman c Taibu b Hondo 20; R. Dravid c Wishart b Mbangwa 6; M. Kaif c Wishart b Streak 56; S. Bangar c Hondo b Marillier 36; A. Ratra c Marillier b G. Flower 3; A. Agarkar c Streak b G. Flower 3; Harbhajan Singh (not out) 24; Sarandeep Singh c Carlisle b Marillier 3; Zaheer Khan c Marillier b Hondo 2. Extras (lb-7, nb-2, w-14) 23. Total (in 48.3 overs) 191.

Fall of wickets: 1-10, 2-38, 3-49, 4-51, 5-137, 6-147, 7-155, 8-157, 9-169.

Zimbabwe bowling: Streak 8-0-27-1; Hondo 8.3-0-37-4; Mbangwa 10-2-31-1; Friend 2-0-10-0; Marillier 10-0-44-2; G. Flower 10-0-35-2.

Douglas Hondo displaying the Man of the Match trophy.-N. BALAJI

Zimbabwe: A. Campbell st. Ratra b Sarandeep 71; D. Ebrahim b Agarkar 3; T. Friend b Zaheer 15; G. Flower c Ratra b Agarkar 49; S. Carlisle (not out) 21; C. Wishart (not out) 17. Extras (lb-5, w-5, nb-11) 21. Total (for four wkts. in 44.2 overs) 197.

Fall of wickets: 1-13, 2-39, 3-144, 4-173.

India bowling: Zaheer 9-1-41-1; Agarkar 10-3-28-2; Bangar 5-0-18-0; Harbhajan 10-1-29-0; Sarandeep 8-1-49-1; Mongia 2.2-0-27-0.

THE pre-match press conference had 'hard news' for the media. Zimbabwe captain Stuart Carlisle revealed that Andy Flower, the pillar of strength in the batting line-up, was unlikely to figure in the Kochi ODI.

Soon the predictable question followed - Who is likely to replace Andy? Carlisle's answer caught everyone by surprise. "I think Douglas Hondo would play. He is a paceman and is fresh from a stint at the Australian Cricket Academy."

Choice of a bowler for a key batsman appeared intriguing, however, Carlisle had a clear-cut answer - "He would provide us with more bowling options."

Well, cricket can throw up unexpected heroes and Hondo certainly was the man of the moment for Zimbabwe at the Nehru Stadium on March 13, his early inroads setting up a famous victory for his side. He finished with four for 37 and there were several pats on his back, as he led the side back to the pavilion.

Credit is due to the Zimbabwean think tank as well for getting it right. Entering a vital game with a batsman short was a gamble, yet it marked a positive way to go about things.

The 22-year-old Bulawayo-born Hondo, who was also under pace guru Dennis Lillee at the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai, had little to show after his first three ODIs for Zimbabwe, where he ended wicketless.

In the event, trapping Dinesh Mongia leg-before with a delivery that straightened from leg-stump, came as a huge relief to him. There was added spring in his steps as he ran in to bowl.

He was lucky though with his next two dismissals - V. V. S. Laxman chasing a wide one and Ganguly charging down the track - but then a bowler will accept a wicket in any which way it comes.

The young Zimbabwean sent down 8.3 overs for 32 runs and in his first spell, he had prised out three top-order batsmen. Hondo, receiving a shade of assistance due to the morning dew, did move the ball around, though not at a pace that would make the batsmen hurry their strokes.

He was well supported too by the experienced paceman Mbangwa, who came up with an accurate unchanged 10-over spell with the 'keeper standing up. Senior paceman Heath Streak did not let the pressure ease as well.

Hondo returned during the climactic phase of a doomed Indian innings to scalp last man Zaheer Khan, taken in the deep, to claim his fourth victim, and it had been a performance that would stay in his mind for a long time.

A yard of pace would surely provide the cutting edge to his bowling, however, these are early days yet in Hondo's career. He is young, and if he stays in the right path, could emerge as a serious bowler for Zimbabwe in the years to come.

Hondo's voyage of discovery in India reached a memorable stop in Kochi. A town where Vasco da Gama is believed to have set foot.