Faith in core group pays

HONOURS EVEN. Rahul Dravid and Inzamam-ul-Haq with the DLF Cup.-AP

There is a contrast in styles when Sehwag and Dravid bat together. Sehwag is all flair, Dravid, solidity and substance. Given their approaches, the pacemen need to bowl DIFFERENT LENGTHS. It is not easy.

In the build up to the World Cup, every game has its own significance. It provides the sides a chance to unearth the right kind of players, try out different strategies, and discover the chinks before it becomes too late. Every side also has a core group of players whom the team-management believes will play a key role in the big event.

When asked a question about Virender Sehwag and Mohammad Kaif — two cricketers struggling for form — before the second game in Abu Dhabi, India captain Rahul Dravid said, "the pieces are falling in place and Sehwag and Kaif are very important in our plans going into the future."

The skipper was backing his men. Sehwag, who received an opportunity in the second match, did not let Dravid down. There were glimpses of the Sehwag of old during his 83-ball 73 at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium.

The scintillating strokes from Sehwag's blade must have left Rahul Dravid — they shared a virtually match-winning opening stand — pleased. For Sehwag is an `impact' player. The dasher at the top of the order has this knack of taking the game away from the opposition irrespective of the nature of the pitch. Indeed, Sehwag played some shots which the others would have struggled to execute on a similar wicket lacking in pace.

When he comes good, Sehwag provides his side with the cushion of at least 30 to 40 runs extra — in relation to the runs scored by the others — which also puts the opposition under severe stress.

"Sehwag batted beautifully. He took a lot of pressure off me," said Dravid. When Sehwag gets runs at a fast clip, he makes it easier for the man at the other end. He also provides momentum to the innings. India has won a high percentage of matches when Sehwag has boomed.

Dravid, lucky with the toss on both occasions, himself made a fine 92 off 116 balls and was named the Man of the Match. He could offer more to the side in the role of an opener and seems to be relishing the responsibility that comes with the job. Dravid also gets a possible 50 overs to plan and construct his innings, and could hold on to the ODI opener's slot longer than most expect. There is a nice contrast in styles when Sehwag and Dravid bat together. Sehwag is all flair, Dravid, solidity and substance. Given their approaches, the pacemen need to bowl different lengths at the two. It is not easy.

India eventually emerged a comfortable 51-run winner to square the two-match series. Before the series, Dravid had said, "Two performances cannot take away anything. Our performances in the season still stand, even if we lose both these matches." He was taking nothing for granted. "It is a one-day competition at a new venue. We start afresh."

While Dravid was optimistic of India building on the momentum, he was taking nothing for granted. The 4-1 series victory in Pakistan was past.

However, India faced a must-win situation in the second game, having lost the first match by six wickets. Dravid realised that the Indian batting had to pick itself up after a disappointing display in the first ODI.

India did just that although, from the position it was in, the side should have done better than score 269 for five, which was at least 25 runs short of the total expected.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni came up with a valuable 59 off 72 balls, his ability to innovate reflected in those fine flick-sweeps off the spinners. Yuvraj Singh raced to 24 off only 10 deliveries, and Pakistan faced a challenging target.

Mohammad Asif was off-colour, but Rana Naved-ul-Hasan bowled with purpose, operating to a fullish length and swinging the ball. Shahid Afridi's assorted spin also helped check the Indian run-rate.

Pakistan faced a tough chase, since the ball does dart around during evenings in these parts. S. Sreesanth and Irfan Pathan were bound to test the Pakistanis.

Sreesanth sent down his away swingers at a brisk pace. Pathan had disappointed in the first game by providing width to the left-handed opener Imran Farhat. This time around he zeroed in around Farhat's off-stump, harrying the Pakistani opener with his movement.

Farhat, caught in two minds, fell to a marginal leg-before verdict that lighted up Pathan's face. It was the left-armer's 100th ODI scalp.

Shahid Afridi, sent in as pinch hitter, had little clue about a Pathan delivery that swung into him to rearrange woodwork. Afridi has dismissed Pathan disdainfully in the past. This, however, was Irfan's night in the Pathan vs Pathan duel.

Opener Shoaib Malik (46) promised much with captain Inzamam-ul-Haq before falling to a sensational catch by Yuvraj Singh at square-leg after attempting to sweep Ramesh Powar.

The off-spinner continued to operate in a wily fashion, flighting and turning the ball, and bowling to his field.

This unassuming cricketer has grown in confidence and the selectors and the team-management deserve to be congratulated for providing him with opportunities despite the presence of Harbhajan Singh in the side. In fact, Powar is bowling better than Harbhajan these days and hugely enjoying his contests in the arena.

Harbhajan gave a better account of himself in the second game though. And Ajit Agarkar once again bowled zestfully, hitting the right areas and cramping the batsmen.

Inzamam-ul-Haq kept Pakistan in the hunt with some judicious strokeplay. He might be a tentative starter, but once he settles, the Pakistan captain is decisive in his footwork. He drove pleasingly through covers off his front foot, moved back to crash the ball past point, and flicked with typical finesse. Inzamam is such a wonderful timer of the ball and was named the Player of the Series.

When Dravid — in a skipper-to-skipper face off — ran out Inzamam for 79 late in the innings, he could hardly hold back his joy or hide his sense of relief. Inzamam has scripted several sensational turnarounds for Pakistan with the tail, and till he was around, Pakistan was always in with a chance.

Soon Sreesanth hurried one past the inadequate defence of Rao Ifthikar Anjum and the series was squared. An appreciative audience cheered both teams.

THE SCORES

DLF Cup, Second ODI, India v Pakistan, Abu Dhabi, April 19, 2006.

India: V. Sehwag b Afridi 73; R. Dravid b Asif 92; M. Dhoni b Naved 59; Yuvraj c Asif b Naved 24; S. Raina (run out) 6; I. Pathan (not out) 7; Extras (lb-7, w-1) 8. Total (for five wkts., in 50 overs) 269.

Fall of wkts: 1-138, 2-228, 3-234, 4-255, 5-269.

Pakistan bowling: Asif 10-2-57-1; Naved 10-2-45-2; Iftikhar 10-1-51-0; Razzaq 5-0-39-0; Afridi 10-0-39-1; Malik 5-0-31-0.

Pakistan: S. Malik c Yuvraj b Powar 45; I. Farhat lbw b Pathan 8; S. Afridi b Pathan 0; Y. Khan c Dhoni b Agarkar 5; Inzamam (run out) 79; M. Yousuf c Raina b Powar 5; K. Akmal c Dravid b Harbhajan 18; A. Razzaq c (sub) b Powar 1; Naved c Venugopal Rao b Pathan 27; Iftikhar b Sreesanth 11; M. Asif (not out) 1; Extras (b-4, lb-1, w-11, nb-2) 18. Total (in 45.2 overs) 218.

Fall of wkts: 1-22, 2-23, 3-45, 4-91, 5-108, 6-147, 7-148, 8-198, 9-209.

India bowling: Pathan 10-0-35-3; Sreesanth 7.2-0-30-1; Agarkar 8-1-30-1; Harbhajan 10-0-57-1; Powar 10-0-61-3.

A Special Correspondent