GREEN TOP gives INDIANS the blues

S. SABANAYAKAN

Smashing India to smithereens... Graeme Smith celebrates his first century against the Indians.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

INDIA paid dearly for tinkering with the batting order too much in the fourth one-day International against South Africa at the Eden Gardens. Gifted with a seaming wicket and enjoying the luck of the coin, South Africa handed India a devastating 10-wicket defeat to take a firm 2-1 lead in the five-match Pepsi Cup series.

As the Indians were licking the wounds inflicted by the South Africans after the stunning defeat in front of spectators in excess of 80,000, the grand display of two South Africans could not be overlooked. First it was Shaun Pollock who rocked the Indian batting with three early wickets and later captain Graeme Smith took charge of the batting to return to the pavilion with an unbeaten 134, his career best ODI score.

Everything seemed to go right for the visiting team from the day it landed in Kolkata. The pitch looked hard and green. It was an invitation for the South Africans, whose forte was pace attack, to have a go at the Indians. As luck would have it, Smith called it correctly and invited India to make the first use of the pitch. The well rolled out and green wicket, despite pressures from the Indian team management to shave off all the grass, proved decisive in the end.

India's planning too seemed to go awry even before the first ball of the match was bowled. Instead of sending in the specialist openers on a pitch that looked certain to help the seamers, the Indian Think Tank chose to send Irfan Pathan to partner Gautam Gambhir.

Disaster struck immediately as Pollock removed Pathan in the first over bringing in Sachin Tendulkar next. That seemed the mistake No. 2. The little maestro, still searching for form and, more importantly, consistency, since returning to the Indian side, was a sitting duck to the disciplined South African attack. Having pinpointed Tendulkar's weakness outside the off stump, Pollock attacked him in the `corridor of uncertainty' to bag him for the third time in as many matches.

"Our plan to blunt the South African pace attack by sending in two left-handers did not pay off," admitted Indian skipper Rahul Dravid in the post match press conference. More than blunting the SA pacers, it appeared that the team management tried to shield the out-of-form Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag from the initial onslaught. The early departure of Pathan put a spanner in the team's strategy.

Bete noir... Shaun Pollock celebrates on getting the prize wicket of Sachin Tendulkar.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

By the seventh over, India was reduced to 23 for three with Gambhir failing to hang on to support the latter batsmen. Sehwag, endowed with tremendous eye-hand coordination, gathered a quick 30 but failed to realise the team's need. His departure in the 12th over at the total of 49 did not help India's cause. Dravid and Yuvraj Singh tried to repair the damage but the South Africans, backed by keen fielding and accurate attack, were right on top to exert pressure on the home side.

Dravid, surviving 32 balls for six runs in the company of Yuvraj, fell in the 19th over as India were reduced to a pathetic 71 for five and it seemed the team had lost the battle by then. Fortunately for India, two youngsters, Yuvraj and Mohammed Kaif, put their heads together to put up the lone fruitful partnership of 81 runs for the sixth wicket as the ball lost its hardness. This partnership was the saving grace of the Indian innings.

What looked like an Indian revival was stymied by off-break bowler Johan Botha who trapped Yuvraj leg before in the 36th over and triggered a second slide that brought a swift end to the Indian innings. The Indian innings lasted another 10 overs before folding up for 188.

Pollock's early inroads and Andrew Hall's three wickets in the middle overs brought the curtain down on the struggling Indian innings. "It was a true wicket. The Indian batting failed to click," said Dravid. "It was disappointing to see the top order not performing in this series. Some thing has to be done before the final game in Mumbai," he observed.

"Anything less than 280 on this pitch would be difficult to defend," pointed out Smith. Rightly so as he and his opening partner Andrew Hall did a commendable job of controlling the innings with some flawless batting.

The Indian bowling struggled to defend the very small total and with the ball coming onto the bat quite nicely, the South African opening pair went about its task rather easily. It helped that Smith played almost flawlessly. A captain's knock, his innings was a gem. Confident and concise, Smith made batting look ridiculously easy against an international attack. In his 124-ball knock, the big-built opener had 20 sweetly timed boundaries and a huge heave over the ropes off Harbhajan. The two also established the venue's best opening wicket partnership.

The chants from a section of the crowd, "bring back Sourav", and "go back Chappell" notwithstanding, Team India have a lot of thinking to do.

SCOREBOARD

Fourth ODI, Eden Gardens, Kolkata, November 25, 2005, South Africa won by 10 wickets. Man of the Match: G. C. Smith.

India: G. Gambhir c Smith b Pollock 11; I. K. Pathan b Pollock 0; S. R. Tendulkar c Boucher b Pollock 2; V. Sehwag c Boucher b Hall 30; R. Dravid b Langeveldt 6; Yuvraj Singh lbw b Botha 53; M. Kaif c Smith b Nel 46; M. S. Dhoni c Botha b Hall 14; A. B. Agarkar b Kallis 11; Harbhajan Singh lbw b Hall 0; R. P. Singh (not out) 1; Extras (lb-5, w-8, nb-1) 14. Total (in 45.5 overs) 188.

Fall of wickets: 1-2, 2-14, 3-23, 4-49, 5-71, 6-152, 7-167, 8-187, 9-187.

South Africa bowling: Pollock 10-4-25-3; Nel 10-1-35-1; Hall 6.5-0-36-3; Langeveldt 8-1-33-1; Kallis 4-0-20-1; Botha 5-0-21-1; Morkel 2-0-13-0.

South Africa innings: G. C. Smith (not out) 134; A. J. Hall (not out) 48; Extras (w-4, nb-3) 7. Total (in 35.5 overs) 189.

India bowling: Agarkar 5-0-41-0; Pathan 6-0-28-0; Singh 4-0-18-0; Harbhajan Singh 10-0-37-0; Kartik 8-1-52-0; Sehwag 2.5-0-13-0.

India full substitute: M. Kartik (G. Gambhir, South Africa innings, 11.0 ov).

South Africa full substitute: R. J. Peterson (A. Nel, South Africa innings, 0.0 ov).