A win amidst turmoil

S. RAM MAHESH

The victorious Indian team.-V.V. KRISHNAN

THE celebrations were subdued, the grins less toothy and the struts not as pronounced. India's first series win outside the sub-continent since Kapil Dev's men whipped England in 1986 came amidst curious circumstances. Reports of a spat between coach and captain had surfaced during the first Test in Bulawayo. Naturally all eyes analysed the relative geographical and physical coordinates of the two men during the second and final Test at the Harare Sports Club.

If India managed a 10-wicket victory with turmoil and not joy as the backdrop, Zimbabwe deserved credit. A lack thereof to be precise. The African nation had suffered innings defeats in all Tests in the past 14 months. India's triumph was more a function of propinquity than skill. The visitors picked the only team in as much strife as they.

"To be honest we were expected to win this series," said Indian captain Sourav Ganguly. "We should have done something stupid to lose it." He also chose to bowl after picking two spinners. In hindsight, it didn't matter. It was only the fourth time Indian players have managed to put their feet up after three days of play — the most recent being the Mumbai Test against Australia in 2004.

Man of the Series Irfan Pathan, who finished with 12 wickets in the match, also equalled the record of 21 wickets in a two-Test series.-V.V. KRISHNAN

Irfan Pathan ravaged Zimbabwe again to finish with 12 wickets in the match, the man of the match and the man of the series awards. He also equalled the record of 21 wickets in a two-Test series held by John Briggs (England vs South Africa 1889) and Anil Kumble (India vs Pakistan 1999). The left-armer's skill at kinking the red Kookabura ball into Zimbabwe's right-handers scarred them psychologically.

The African nation's strategy to counter Pathan was simple and, in hindsight, simplistic — deny him the leg before wicket. Coach Kevin Curran had spoken of limiting him to one such dismissal an innings. So he called up left-armers to help batsmen tweak their alignment to the differing angle and get used to batting out of the crease. Accordingly, those who strode to the middle shortened the distance between them and the bowler's arm.

Grass on the track wasn't treated with a vehement mower — the extra bounce expected to reduce the risk of leg before decisions. But in trying hard to prevent one mode of getting out, Zimbabwe opened another. Pathan showed his opponents the ace he held; the trump card stayed concealed. In the first innings, Brendan Taylor and Tatenda Taibu — self promoted — played for the in-nipper and nicked deliveries that were angled across.

Zimbabwe lasted just 44.2 overs. Coventry was the only batsman who tamed the broad-shouldered man from Baroda. The bespectacled 22-year-old slapped Pathan over his head; the feet didn't move. A bouncer was met with a savage hook that prompted an anxious search in the bushes, which Daryl Harper joined. But, Coventry threw it away — Rahul Dravid swiveling and running from first slip to pouch the steepling miscue at long stop. Responding to the hosts' 161, India finished with 195 for one on the first day.

Of nearly eight sessions of play, Zimbabwe controlled just two — the second and third mornings. Streak minus the troublesome blood clot hustled and muscled on day two, moving the ball in the air and off the wicket. One spell of 14 consecutive overs with the second new ball for four wickets left him with career-best figures of six for 73. Both Gautam Gambhir and Dravid fell agonisingly short of centuries.

Gambhir didn't miss a step during his stint, turning off his hip with alacrity. He cut well, both to ground and over gully. The man from Delhi also played a variant of the exquisite left-hander's cover drive. Needing five for his second Test century on the second morning, Gambhir rued not sealing the deal the previous day. Blessing Mahwire had angled one across him in Bulawayo and the left-hander had caught enough of the ball to send it to slip. Gambhir forced his hands at the ball similarly in Harare but merely feathered it, three short.

V. V. S. Laxman departs after being trapped leg before wicket by Heath Streak, who had a career-best haul of six for 73.-V.V. KRISHNAN

Dravid had said after his refined 77 in the first Test that he'd take an ugly century to a pretty 70 any day. He put his bat where his mouth is. "It was more my kind of innings," he said, "a hard-fought grinding one." On 98, the man from Bangalore brought his bat down at an angle that encouraged the ball to sneak through. It was the vice-captain's seventh dismissal in the 90s and his fifth in this mode on tour.

The wicket wasn't easy — it inhaled the ball and spat it out in a slow loopy curve. Yet the batsmen should have pressed on. Or at least rotated the strike. India's batting performance for the day read 171 for nine in 64.3 overs. "It was our best bowling in a long time," said Curran.

"Heath (Streak) obviously did well to get six, but it was the pressure applied from both ends. It's huge positive that we restricted this classy Indian batting line up who average over 40 to less than three an over. Full marks to the guys."

This left the side 205 ahead, and Ganguly found the decision to declare taken off his hands. And Zimbabwe's batsmen found themselves — with the best part of a session and three days remaining — strapping on their pads a second time. India's catching, a hitherto disinterested observer, joined the party as the hosts were reduced to 39 for four.

Denied two simple catches in Zimbabwe's first innings by rude dives in front of him, Dravid decided enough was enough. Moving sharply yet gracefully to his right, his palms ended the flight of a Terrence Duffin nick. Yuvraj Singh at gully altered the position of his body, twisting mid air, to catch up with an edge that had passed him. Senior statesman Anil Kumble then dived forward to get his long fingers under a dying ball. And emerged with a hand raised in triumph.

The third morning was the most invigorating passage of play in the Test. It yielded 157 runs in 28 overs as Zimbabwe rollicked to within 15 runs of making India bat again. The visitors were expected to put the opposition out of its misery early — a spot of euthanasia perhaps. Heath Streak was turned inside out like an old sock in the first over of the day by Zaheer Khan bowling around the wicket and the telephones of travel agents began jangling.

But a masterly innings by Hamilton Masakadza and a chancy one from Andy Blignaut delayed the Indians. Masakadza showed rare maturity picking the right balls to lean into. Through the tour he had looked a class act albeit a brief and slight senseless one. On the last day, he showed why he made a century on Test debut.

Blignaut was dropped thrice in successive balls off Zaheer Khan in the Indian slip, whose members had forgotten their catching hands of the previous day. They put on 116 in 147 balls, each partner going to a half-century. A gallant effort but too little too late. So 2-0 it ended. A score that reflected the difference between the sides. But the destinies of both teams are still submerged in chaos. With a hard-boiled coach and a new work ethic Zimbabwe might fancy its chances of getting better. India has a coach that fits the description. Does the system have the will?