Ganguly, Pathan get it right

The Indians muzzled the critics to some extent by beating the Rest of South Africa. S. Dinakar reports.

The Indians celebrated even as the light dwindled. The downpour that followed the win also rained hope for the visitors. The 96-run win over a promising Rest of South Africa side on the third-day of a four-day game brought much comfort to an Indian side harried by injuries and loss of form.

Yet, the Indian victory should not mask the top-order worries of the side. As India vice-captain V. V. S. Laxman, who skippered the team in the game, conceded, "We have to get starts. Our top-order has not performed so far. Once they settle on pitches such as in Australia and South Africa, the batsmen have to consolidate."

Laxman was willing to back his out-of-form openers, Virender Sehwag and Wasim Jaffer, though. "They are class players. They should come good soon."

At the Sedgars Park in Potchefstroom, they were struggling to put bat to ball. They were not the only batsmen who seemed to be playing from memory.

Sachin Tendulkar struggled as well. The maestro has not quite found his feet on this tour. And Laxman flattered to deceive.

The side found itself in a mess only to be bailed out by two men lower down the order — one given up by some in Indian cricket not so long ago, and the other searching for his true identity.

Handed a lifeline by the selectors, Sourav Ganguly made a statement when the Indians lost five wickets for very little on day one after yet another toss had been lost.

Under pressure to perform, Ganguly played one of his finest innings in recent times. His stance is more upright and balanced and he has shortened his backlift. His body weight better distributed, his footwork against the pacemen has improved. Ganguly was either getting to the pitch of the ball or moving right back depending on the length. He also showed sound judgment to deliveries outside the off-stump. The southpaw batted with typical fluency, often piercing a packed field. When the pacemen erred in line, he flicked. Ganguly also showed character. He was struck a nasty blow above the ear by a lifter from Nantie Hayward, but Ganguly battled on, even pulling the pacemen.

He had just 90 minutes of practice in South Africa before beginning his innings. Yet, he adjusted quickly to the pace and the bounce of the surface here. It just goes to show that much of the game is played in the mind.

The former India captain had a slice of luck at 41 when he was put down in the slip cordon, but Ganguly will remember this effort for long. His 83 was worth more than a hundred.

"It was just the kind of innings the Indians needed on the tour," Greg Chappell told Sportstar later.

Chappell also said, "Pathan batted like a batsman." This was a rare compliment from one of the acknowledged masters of the game.

Pathan did stroke with confidence during his unbeaten efforts of 117 and 40. He was assured and composed, playing every ball on its merit. The left-hander seems to have time while playing the quicker bowlers, which is a good sign.

He is learning the art of constructing an innings brick by brick and playing with the mindset of someone taking his batting seriously.

The Indians were up against a capable pace attack. The lean and tall Morne Morkel is rated high by pace great Allan Donald. And, not without reason. The young man with a fluent run-up and a high-arm action, extracted lift and achieved movement at a healthy pace. Alphonso Thomas is slower in comparison, but moved the ball both ways around the off-stump. He is a genuine swing bowler.

Pathan too is a swing bowler, but did precious little with the ball. The left-armer is down on confidence, lacking in rhythm.

But another left-armer, a more experienced one at that, is bowling beautifully. Zaheer Khan has found the right length for the South African pitches — about eight yards from the stumps at the batsman's end. He is seaming the ball both ways and picking up crucial wickets.

S. Sreesanth bowled with pace and aggression in the first innings, but tended to experiment too much with his action in the second. V. R.V. Singh was outstanding, swinging and seaming the ball at appreciable speeds. He struck vital blows and could take wing on this campaign. Harbhajan's off-spin proved handy when India was searching for a win in fading light on the third day.

The Rest of South Africa batting lacked application. Skipper Jacques Rudolph's lethargic footwork in the initial stages of his innings let him down. The left-handed Vaughn van Jaarsveld essayed some crisp strokes in both the innings. Justin Kemp gave glimpses of his shot-making ability in the second. Otherwise, there was little substance in the home batting. The Indians made big gains at Sedgars Park.

THE SCORES

Indian XI 316 for seven decl. (S. Ganguly 83, I. Pathan 111 not out, Harbhajan Singh 47, M. Morkel four for 74) and 142 (V. V. S. Laxman 31, Pathan 40 not out, A. Thomas seven for 56) bt Rest of South Africa 138 (V. B. van Jaarsveld 52, S. Sreesanth four for 53, V. R. V. Singh three for 35) and 224 (Van Jaarsveld 66, J. Kemp 53, Morkel 26, Zaheer Khan three for 36, Harbhajan three for 39).