Beyond the boundary

Laxman considered every delivery with such circumspection that it seemed inconceivable that the same man had reduced the powerful Aussie attack to mortality.

S. RAM MAHESH

Irfan Pathan with Harbhajan Singh ... perseverance pays.-V.V. KRISHNAN

A FEW events have so much compressed into them, reality and perception intermingle; it becomes difficult to sift the relevant from the irrelevant as strands intertwine masking the master thread. The first Test between India and Zimbabwe at the Queen's Sports Club had it all.

It was Sourav Ganguly's 48th match as skipper, surpassing the record of 47 Tests held by Sunil Gavaskar and Mohammad Azharuddin. Irfan Pathan took his five-for outside the subcontinent, ended with nine in the game, a half century and the man of the match award.

V.V.S. Laxman made a century after Sydney 2004 and became the 10th Indian to go past 4000 runs; the skipper clawed his way to a painstaking hundred — his first after Brisbane 2003 — and got in line after seven Indians to 5000 Test runs.

Harbhajan Singh, in pursuit of the Indian record for the fastest 200 wickets, waited interminably and almost broke a batting record in between. And India won a Test abroad, setting itself up for a historic series win — the first in 19 years outside the sub-continent. But the match will be remembered more for wrong reasons.

Mohammad Kaif — India's best batsman in the Videocon tri-series — was strangely not picked in the XI. Yuvraj Singh played. Ganguly didn't take part in the early team warm-up on the eve of the match, engaging instead in discussion with coach Greg Chappell. Initial speculation centered around whether the tennis elbow that played up in the Mutare three-day game would sideline the skipper.

The press conference on the evening of the third day was high on drama. Ganguly said he was asked to step down on the eve of the match. Laxman had spoken of "negative vibes in the team" the previous day. A picture of dissent, chaos and disharmony began to be painted.

The cricket itself was largely insipid. Tatenda Taibu chose to bat on an easy-paced track. Brendan Taylor and Terrence Duffin are as comical a pair of openers as you will find in world cricket.

Taylor wouldn't distinguish himself in a disco — his feet seem stuck in a giant wad of chewing gum. Duffin is the kind of man who epitomises the quirks of cricket. An athlete of such girth can choose just one other sport — Sumo wrestling. But the odd couple didn't give Pathan and Zaheer Khan a look in for three-quarters of an hour on the first morning.

The Indian medium pacers squared up the left-handed Duffin; they bowled too short and did little else. They lacked the dimension of pace that can blow a hole through the opposition. Duffin, meanwhile, wobbled towards a half-century on Test debut and reached it with an elegant off-drive.

Pathan returned for a double strike in two overs. The portly opening batsman was beaten by movement and Dion Ebrahim by lack of pace.

Heath Streak — relieved of a troublesome blood clot — gave his captain sound support as the pair frustrated the Indians with a 69-run partnership. Anil Kumble struck twice and India was in position to wrap up Zimbabwe's first innings. But Keith Dabengwa brought an uncluttered mind and an unfettered swing to the fray and took his side into the second day.

Pathan utilised the wind that bent trees around the ground and the nip that chapped finger tips to swing the shiny cherry and round up Zimbabwe just 28 minutes into day two.

India's openers began in a hurry. Gautam Gambhir tucked off his hip and explored the tract between point and long-off.

Sehwag did as Sehwag must. Both failed to convert starts, falling on either side of lunch for pretty but paltry forties.

Like a top-performance machine, calibrated to the minutest detail, Rahul Dravid delivered.

Laxman began slowly. In his soul mate's company, he gained in confidence. The two had put on seven century partnerships before their 130-run effort became the eighth. Laxman considered every delivery with such circumspection that it seemed inconceivable that the same man had reduced the powerful Aussie attack to mortality.

The artist had temporarily lost his vision. The first few strokes were mere blurry images — hallucinations that didn't take shape. The fielder was found rather than missed. But it slowly came back. Bat cut through air with more conviction as the sound that emanated improved timbre.

Laxman wrapped his wrists around a full toss to reach 4000 at the stroke of Tea.

A loving brush through cover brought up Laxman's eighth century, the first by an Indian in Bulawayo. A clenched fist as if trying to hold on to the moment was all he allowed himself by way of celebration. Even that seemed a little out of character.

Laxman was done in by Ganguly within the first half hour of the third morning. The man from Bengal had just had a word with Heath Streak and turned to see the big Zimbabwean swoop. Laxman was half way down before realising Ganguly wasn't coming.

Meanwhile, the skipper slipped into manacles from which he refused to be freed. He needed a hundred and proceeded to do whatever it took. The worst international bowling attack was made to look special. Harbhajan's onslaught put both the attack and the pitch in perspective. Jacques Kallis's record for the fastest Test fifty looked in trouble as the Sardar swung cleanly.

But it was more about Ganguly the man than the batsman. Through his career, he's been forced to the wall and has responded like a cornered tiger. Usually, he's put the team's interests ahead. He batted for his future though on day three. He also became the eighth Indian to go past 5000 Test runs.

And then he dropped the bombshell in the press conference. Before the quote that caused the controversy, Pathan ripped through the Zimbabwean top order in the second innings. He mixed insidious in-nippers with the sucker ball that held its line. The sharp bouncer to ensure the batsman remained on his back heel was thrown in.

Harbhajan finally got to 200. Five wickets fell with eighteen on board. The Indians wrapped things up 10 minutes before lunch on the fourth day.