Down to the wire

The chase, though, wasn't as smooth as those in the last nine months. There was an air of INEVITABILITY — the result of 16 successive successful chases. Yet, India almost botched it up, writes S. RAM MAHESH.

The only thing certain on the morning of the first ODI was there would be no play. "It looks bad, very bad," Colin Croft, the former West Indies fast bowler, had said the previous day, pointing to the coal-black clouds that had draped the Blue Mountain in the backdrop. "The rain comes from there." The thundering tattoo of the rain on the roof of the George Headley Stand had sounded ominous.

Croft's words proved right for it rained almost incessantly through the night preceding the match and let up only an hour and a half before the scheduled start. Some journalists wrote their match-abandoned-due-to-rain copy and searched for an Internet connection to send it off (which, by the way, is next to impossible). Almost as an afterthought one writer called Imran Khan, West Indies media manager, to confirm the calling off. Only to be served the chastening words that only an hour's play would be lost if the rain stayed away.

Team India seemed to labour under the same illusion — almost fatally. "The real surprise was that the match started," said coach Greg Chappell. "This morning we thought the chances of play were zero. We were caught out a bit there and weren't as ready for it. That probably reflected in our start."

Irfan Pathan began with three wides, two no-balls, and four boundary balls of which two were converted. Chris Gayle, who had last made a limited-overs century in May 2005, decided to find his roots. "If you saw my innings against Zimbabwe, I was starting slow," said the 26-year-old. "That's not Chris Gayle. So, I thought I'll start quickly here." And he did just that. Using his height and his arm-length to negate the absence of a meaningful forward stride, he lashed the bowlers to all parts. Cuts, pulls, hooks, straight hits — all were fair game.

Some, Gayle struck so hard, the crowd let out a collective gasp. Brian Lara played an almost apologetic late cut, and to charge things up, upper cut Pathan viciously. The skipper looked like he was setting his stall out, but fell to Munaf Patel, who bowled with good pace. The standouts in the Indian bowling line up were Ajit Agarkar and Harbhajan Singh. Agarkar displayed rare consistency — his mix of lengths was deliberate, his control admirable. Harbhajan involved himself in a fascinating duel with Lara, and seemed to win brownie points if nothing else.

Gayle went to his 12th hundred, but West Indies lost the plot, making just 29 runs in the last five overs. The Indians had reined their opponents in, and had given themselves a target — 252 in 45 — they could chase. In any case, most targets are chaseable for a side that owns the world record. Rahul Dravid, who averages 55.88 as skipper in ODIs since October 2005, chose to unveil a master-class. There were several things worthy of emulation in his 12th hundred: his placement, except for one over, where he found three fielders in the inner circle; his ability to pace the innings as illustrated in his strike rate of over a run-a-ball; his ability — which came as a surprise to some — to find the boundary at will.

Mohammad Kaif, prior to this innings, had scored 37 runs in nine matches. Whispers that the team was `carrying' him did the rounds. The truth was the team could afford to do it when it was winning, and Kaif had earned those extra opportunities because of what he had done in the past. Chappell made the same point after the match — after Kaif had struck the penultimate ball for four through the covers to take India home.

The youngster from Allahabad was lucky. He was reprieved twice. Had any of those chances been taken, India would have been in strife. As would have Kaif's career. But, fate, fortune, what-have-you had taken side with the gritty trier, and he made full use.

The chase, though, wasn't as smooth as those in the last nine months. There was an air of inevitability — the result of 16 successive successful chases. Yet, India almost botched it up. If at all fault can be found with Dravid's innings — petty-minded perhaps — it is the timing of his dismissal.

He left when India needed the final push. He was tiring though: the humidity had taken its toll. The skipper loses body fluids quicker than most and has a tendency to cramp — a problem the team management is researching so things can be set right before the 2007 World Cup comes along.

Kaif hung on and dashed between wickets, Dhoni struck crucial blows before departing, and Raina got an all-important chop down to the third man boundary to take India closer. In between, Jerome Taylor bowled a maiden. It came down to four off six balls. Two dots and the pressure was back on. Until Kaif found a hole in the off-side field. Thus India, world number three, beat West Indies, world number eight, to go up 1-0 in the five-match series.