A reward for determination

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

VICTORY tasted very sweet for the Indians. The Queens Park Oval has been rated as a home away from home by the Indian cricketers and what better way to confirm the impression! The 16-year jinx of not winning a Test outside the sub-continent, with the exception of the win at Bulawayo against Zimbabwe last year, was broken, thanks to the fact that the bowlers realised their roles and enacted them perfectly.

The Indians erupt in joy and make a beeline for Zaheer Khan, who took the last wicket.-V. V. KRISHNAN

This was also a Test which saw the team management decide its playing XI a mere five minutes before the toss. And all because no decision could be made, until the last moment, on which spinner to play - Harbhajan Singh or Anil Kumble. "The toughest decision of my career as captain," said Sourav Ganguly. But the matter was handled in a very unprofessional way. To tell a senior player like Kumble that he was not in the XI at the very last moment was in bad taste. "Sad but that's the way the game goes," Kumble's statemate Javagal Srinath was to say later.

Coming as it did in the first half of the series, the win at Port-of-Spain went a long way in making the players understand the significance of playing together as a team. No more relying on individuals and no more sulking after messing up from winning positions. Ganguly led from the front and set an example to motivate the team. The message was loud and clear, evoking a collective response from a bunch which had believed that winning this Test was just a small step towards achieving the bigger goals for the season.

Many in this team were not even born when India scripted that famous victory in 1976 at the Queens Park Oval in Port-of-Spain. Making 400-plus to win the Test was a fantastic feat then, what with Sunil Gavaskar and G. R. Visvanath slamming centuries and Mohinder Amarnath playing the anchor role to perfection.

Sourav Ganguly and V.V.S. Laxman (below) steadied the Indian ship in the second innings with well-made 70s.-V. V. KRISHNAN

Time has not taken away the memories of that match. Nor of the 1971 achievement either when Ajit Wadekar's little-known team made a place for itself in history. So, when Sourav Ganguly arrived in the Caribbean he made it known to one and all that his team had come well-prepared to win.

"We've come to win the series," Ganguly had announced. And the first step was taken when India won by 37 runs in Port-of-Spain, in a contest which had everything that makes Test cricket such a joy.

Till the time Sanjay Bangar took the catch that heralded India's victory, there was tension in the two dressing rooms. "It was disappointing. We fancied our chances and should have won the game," said West Indies skipper Carl Hooper.

"Delighted. Absolutely thrilled to have won because it was at the back of our minds that we've to win at Queens Park Oval. I would say it was a splendid team effort and that to me was the biggest gain from this victory," said India skipper Sourav Ganguly.

V. V. KRISHNAN

There was a lot to cherish from this match. Sachin Tendulkar's first century in the Caribbean in six Tests could not have been timed better.

"I wanted this century because I had come close thrice to making one," said Tendulkar. His knock was the foundation for India to build its challenge and he was supported well by V. V. S. Laxman, the 'Man of the Match' for his valuable efforts in both the innings. With Tendulkar once again showing the way, the others too tried to bring in a lot more discipline and application.

The Indians for once played percentage cricket and at the crucial stages did not ease the pressure. Like the time when Ashish Nehra struck to get rid of a well-set Brian Lara on the final day. "I knew it was going to be a crucial wicket but I also knew it would take an extra effort to confuse someone like Lara," confessed Nehra. So what did he do? He smiled. "Well I just stuck to my original plan of a tight line and length. With Lara, you can't take any chances and have to pray for him to make the mistakes."

Sachin Tendulkar cracks Mervyn Dillon on way to his historic hundred.-V. V. KRISHNAN

On that lethal delivery that foxed Lara, the left-arm seamer said, "I put in an extra effort and it helped because the ball bounced more than Lara would have expected. It moved a bit also and I had the most prized wicket of my career." It was a timely dent that Nehra made to rattle the West Indian camp.

The bowlers stood out for India. It was not a pitch they would like to carry with them because, as Hooper described it, the surface remained a belter all through. "It played all right throughout the match, whatever the experts may have to say," remarked Hooper. Considering the conditions, it was remarkable for the bowlers to have maintained a decent line and length. "I thought the Indians bowled with a lot of discipline. They had a plan in mind and bowled one side of the wicket," said Hooper.

It was this discipline that stood out. The batting collapse in the second innings was a setback for the team but then the bowlers, having pleaded for a cushion of 300, took over the job with confidence. There might have been a couple of occasions when the Indian camp looked concerned at the manner in which the game was drifting, but timely strikes by the seamers saw the side through.

Javagal Srinath's effort was praiseworthy because he played the role of the leader very well. "I knew I had to perform better than before and I was looking forward to such an effort from myself. It's a nice feeling really to have played a role in the team's victory," said Srinath, who took three wickets in each innings to inspire the young pair of Nehra and Zaheer Khan.

Javagal Srinath, who was a fount of inspiration for his fellow-fast bowlers, throws up his hands in delight after Ajay Ratra has pouched Shivnarine Chanderpaul. However, India's joy was shortlived as the third umpire ruled Chanderpaul not out.-V. V. KRISHNAN

Nehra had a fairly decent match, picking two wickets in each innings even as Zaheer Khan struggled to find his rhythm. But once he found the rhythm he looked a different bowler. He made a priceless contribution when he accounted for Lara and Hooper in the first innings. The privilege was Nehra's on the final day to remove Lara and Hooper. The two left-arm seamers lived up to their skipper's faith in them indeed by making crucial strikes at the right time.

The century by Tendulkar was the guiding light as India posted a decent score in its first innings. Rahul Dravid was refreshingly aggressive and Laxman in his element. A sore point was the lower half caving in meekly.

The Indian attack responded brilliantly, especially in snaring Lara and Hooper when they were peaking. It was Laxman once again who stood out even though Ganguly had a right to feel let down by his mates as he looked forward to his first century in the West Indies. And then the bowlers took over the responsibility to fashion a 37-run victory. It was a moment for which the Indians had toiled for in the last decade or so, coming close to scaling the summit but messing it from strong positions. This climb was an exception and at the end of it the team stood smiling and rightly so after taking a lead in the series.

The scores: India 339 (R. Dravid 67, S. Tendulkar 117, S. Ganguly 25, V.V.S. Laxman 69 n.o., Sanford 3-111, Black 3-53) and 218 (R. Dravid 36, S. Ganguly 75 n.o. V.V.S. Laxman 74, Dillon 4-42, Cuffy 3-53) beat West Indies 245 (S. Williams 43, R. Sarwan 35, B. Lara 52, C. Hooper 50, Srinath 3-71) and 275 (C. Gayle 52, R. Sarvan 41, B. Lara 47, S. Chanderpaul 67 n.o., Srinath 3-69, Nehra 3-72).

V. V. S. LAXMAN and Carl Hooper have little in common but there is a similarity when you look at the role they play - sustaining the innings by pacing their knocks. It can be a very taxing job but just watch them perform it to perfection.

Hooper returned to serve the team after a self-imposed exile. Laxman, on the other hand, was handed an exile by the National selectors who played with his career by forcing him to open the innings when all life he had batted in the middle-order.

So, when Hooper compiled that magnificent 233 at the Bourda, Georgetown, he was just playing to his potential and he simply walked away with the 'Man of the Match' award. Similarly, when Laxman crafted 69 not out and 74 at the Queens Park Oval, there could not have been any other claimant for the 'Man of the Match' honours.

Both the awards were given away in Port-of-Spain because rain on the last day in Georgetown had prevented Hooper from receiving this award.

The Man of the Match in Port-of-Spain, V. V. S. Laxman, poses with the Georgetown Man of the Match Carl Hooper. The West Indies captain received his award in Port-of-Spain because rain prevented the presentation ceremony in Georgetown.-V. V. KRISHNAN

Hooper's innings was a gem considering the situation in which it came. The West Indies was struggling at 44 for three when Hooper came in at the dismissal of Brian Lara. Another wicket at that stage would have put India in the driver's seat. In fact, the opportunity did arise but Deep Dasgupta gave Hooper a first-ball reprieve. "I was lucky," admitted Hooper, who then took over and batted in a very planned manner to hit his first Test double century.

That it was Hooper's first Test hundred in front of his home crowd made it more special for the West Indies skipper. The innings should go a long way in establishing him at the helm until the World Cup. "It was a big honour to score a century at my home ground," said Hooper.

For Laxman, the honour was a recognition of his selfless batsmanship. "I've always looked forward to scoring runs which would help the team win. There's no point in me getting a century if the team doesn't benefit. I would any day prefer a matchwinning fifty to a century which would only bring me individual distinction. I like to be part of a winning team and I'm glad that I could contribute towards my team's win," he said.

For too long, Laxman had been put under pressure by the selectors. It was only after the grand effort at the Eden Gardens that he was given the recognition due to him. There never had been any doubt about his talent but no effort was made to make him comfortable at the position he preferred. A middle-order batsman, he was pushed to open. It was obvious that Laxman found it difficult. And then he made it known that he would like to be considered only for a slot in the middle-order.

Sourav Ganguly singled out Laxman for praise. "He batted superbly. He has averaged nearly 46-47 in the last one year. He's a quality player but he gets out too many times in the 70s. He should have more hundreds to his name. He's such a class player. It was a fantastic knock."

Coach John Wright chipped in, "The other plus is that Laxman's looking comfortable with his batting. He likes to bat at number three but he's starting to look comfortable at the position that he is batting in. His consistency is looking good."

Consistency was the key word. Laxman has made great strides in the past one year and the 'Man of the Match' honours at the Queens Park Oval should firmly establish him as a frontline batsman in this team where the emphasis is always on Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Ganguly. But now Laxman can be added to the list with conviction.