Central Districts has the better of the proceedings

S. DINAKAR

The itinerary can be cruel these days, but with cricketing schedules becoming increasingly hectic, the cricketers have to swallow the bitter pill.

Bevan Griggs, who made an unbeaten 100, punishes Harbhajan Singh.

The conditions in New Zealand are vastly different from what the Indians encounter at home, but all that the visitors received in terms of serious cricket before two back-to-back Tests was a first class game in Napier against Central Districts, a rather unglamorous outfit.

Yet, it was against the Central Districts in '98, that the Indians had stumbled, and they went on to lose the first Test at Wellington, the decisive match of the series.

The Indians had collapsed on the first day on a green, seaming pitch, and despite a brilliant hundred by Sachin Tendulkar in the second innings, had suffered a rather humiliating defeat.

And the two pacemen who caused much havoc on that occasion, Michael Mason and Lance Hamilton, were present this time around too. At least in the Central Districts camp, some old memories were flooding back.

Andrew Schwass exults after trapping Ajit Agarkar leg before in India's first innings. The paceman picked up three wickets in India's first innings.

``The boys are waiting to have a go at the Indians. They remember the last match well,'' said Blair Furlong, CEO, Central Districts side.

John Wright recalled that game on the eve of the fixture against the Central Districts at the pretty McLean Park. ''We will play tough, hard cricket. We will approach it like a Test.''

Meanwhile, Ganguly is realistic about the itinerary. ''We have to accept what is given to us, can't really complain. We have played a lot of cricket this year, I think we can adjust before the first Test.''

The knee injury to Zaheer Khan, sustained during the Max game in Christchurch, was worrying for the Indians. The left-arm paceman was out of the Napier game.

Sourav Ganguly is caught by wicket-keeper Martyn Sigley off Michael Mason. The Indian skipper narrowly missed a half century in the first essay.

A two-Test series with just one first class game is a nightmare scenario to the fringe players in the squad who are most likely to miss out with the think-tank inclined to play the first XI before the opening Test.

Even in the event of the regulars failing in the Test, the team-management will always be tempted to give them a second chance since the others in the squad had not received a game on the tour.

Spare a thought for the young, hungry and promising cricketers like Mohammed Kaif and Murali Kartik, who hardly receive a fair chance in this kind of an itinerary. If Tinu Yohannan, the fourth paceman in the team, received an opportunity in Napier, it was only due to injury to Zaheer.

Central Districts had an injury problem too. Skipper and all-rounder Jacob Oram pulled out because of a hamstring injury that had not yet healed fully and paceman Brent Hefford received an opportunity to play.

Sachin Tendulkar and Sanjay Bangar came up with half-centuries in the second essay. Bangar made 70 and Tendulkar remained unbeaten on 52.

On a pitch definitely aiding the pacemen, the Indians were put in by stand-in captain Craig Spearman. The former New Zealand opener is now an overseas player with Central Districts, after turning out for Gloucestershire in the English county as a domestic cricketer.

The Indians were found wanting in application on the first day, being dismissed for 209, pacemen Mason, Hamilton and Andrew Schwass making major inroads.

Openers Sanjay Bangar and Virender Sehwag, and V.V.S. Laxman fell to injudicious strokes on a seaming pitch, while Rahul Dravid nicked a well-directed outswinger from Mason. Tendulkar and Ganguly played some attractive strokes before falling for 44 and 48, the former driving over a full length delivery from left-armer Hamilton and the latter edging an attempted cut into 'keeper Sigley's gloves.

It is a disappointing display by the Indians, but Ganguly is unfazed. ''There is no reason to panic,'' the skipper reassured the doubters.

When Central Districts replied, Craig Spearman, opening the innings, and Mathew Sinclair, batting at No 3, made strokeful half-centuries, with the former, in particular, dishing out some spanking cover-drives.

Ajit Agarkar celebrates after taking the wicket of Andrew Schwass.

However, Agarkar bowled the right three-quarters length on the seaming pitch, and took the ball away, or skidded it into the right-hander, picked up three quick wickets in a fine post-lunch spell on the second day, but Central Districts discovered an unexpected hero in the young Bevan Griggs, a wicket-keeper playing as a pure batsman, who cut and drove well to reach his maiden first class hundred (100 not out, 150b, 11x4, 1x6).

And worse, from an Indian perspective, he added 142 for the last three wickets with tailenders Mason, Hefford and Hamilton, before Spearman's ended Indians' agony by declaring the innings at 295 for nine, a lead of 86.

Left-arm paceman Ashish Nehra and Tinu Yohannan could not make an impact, striving for too much, and not being consistent enough in length or direction.

Ganguly provided the two every chance, even removing Agarkar from the attack when he was in the midst of a good spell, but Nehra and Yohannan failed to strike a rhythm. Off-spinner Harbhajan Singh was not the same threat on the McLean Park pitch and the Central Districts tail wagged.

On a rain-hit final day, Bangar and Sehwag made contrasting half-centuries at the top of the order, with the latter striking the ball particularly well square off the wicket, Dravid suffered a rare second failure in the match, castled by a Schwass beauty, and Tendulkar had one more useful stint in the middle.

The Indians did not lose this time, but Central Districts had the better of the proceedings. The practice match could have gone better for Ganguly's men.

The scores:

India 209 (S. Tendulkar 44, S. Ganguly 48, Harbhajan Singh 29, Michael Mason three for 46, Andrew Schwass three for 46) and 191 for three (S. Bangar 70, S. Sehwag 61, S. Tendulkar 52 not out) drew with Central Districts 295 for nine decl. ( C. Spearman 58, M. Sinclair 52, B. Griggs 100 not out, A. Agarkar four for 50).