Harbhajan & Chennai: made for each other

S. DINAKAR

THERE is a new buzz about this Indian team. There have been so many Indian sides over the last 10 years, but then Sourav Ganguly's bunch of warriors are different.

The best of Anil Kumble's five wickets on the opening day was that of Shivnarine Chanderpaul, brilliantly taken behind the wickets by Parthiv Patel.-N. BALAJI

You can feel it, and then see the transformation. Qualities that were believed to be lacking in an Indian side, such as aggression and killer instinct, can be seen in this outfit. It's not as if the other sides lacked in talent, but the present group of Indians, have loads of confidence, and not inconsiderable ability. Things do promise to get even better.

That Sourav Ganguly's men would take a winning 2-0 lead against the West Indies in the second Exide Test at the M.A. Chidambaram Stadium was predictable. This side just had too much firepower for the Caribbeans, especially at home.

Yet, more than the victory, it's the composition of the Indian side that inspires. And even little glimpses are heartening. For instance, wicket-keeper Parthiv Patel coming up with that wonderful low catch, diving to his left to dismiss Ridley Jacobs off Zaheer Khan on the fourth day.

For long, India had been yearning for a quality 'keeper, and the indications are that the young and precociously talented Parthiv, could eventually turn out to be India's best gloveman after Syed Kirmani. These are the positives the side takes from the Chennai Test match.

Importantly, Parthiv has provided the bowlers with a belief that such catches would be taken. Said Man of the Match Harbhajan Singh after playing a major role in India's eight-wicket victory, "He (Parthiv) has been brilliant, he has added to the side." Harbhajan, once again delivered with his off-spin, his turn and bounce bamboozling the West Indians. The team-management would have been equally pleased, too with his handy 37 down the order. It might have been a chancy effort, but, the Sardar did not flinch when Mervyn Dillon bombarded him with short pitched-stuff.

Harbhajan Singh issues the exit warrant for Gareth Breese, who is being snapped up by Sourav Ganguly at backward short-leg in the second innings.-N. BALAJI

Old soldier Javagal Srinath too collected a valuable 39 for his side, not to speak of Patel's compact 23, and the last four wickets had added 112 runs in the first innings. Looking back, these were the runs that put the Test beyond the West Indies.

Lower order resistance is a subject which coach John Wright has been stressing on - that the latter batsmen require to put mind over matter, chip in with their bit. They did that and this represented another gain for India from the Chennai Test.

The Indians have been crying out, too for an incisive left-arm paceman, who would give a cutting edge to the attack with his variety, and Zaheer Khan had an outstanding game in Chennai, delivering the crucial breakthroughs. It was Zaheer who removed Carl Hooper on Day One, drawing him into a miscued cover-drive and it was he who sent back a battling Ramnaresh Sarwan, early on the fourth day.

Not to forget the wonderful effort from Anil Kumble in the West Indian first innings; his five for 30 took the wind out of the Caribbeans' sails. The leg-spinner was under some fire for indifferent form before the Test series, but answered his critics in the best manner possible, striking with the ball.

The wickedly bouncing delivery that consumed Shivnarine Chanderpaul in the first essay, 'keeper Patel once again pouching a fine catch, revealed that the bite of old was still present in his bowling. To top it all, the Karnataka bowler's 20th five-wicket haul, came on his 32nd birthday. Kumble's post-tea spell of 8.3-2-10-4 from the Wallahjah Road end, when he got the ball to rear up disconcertingly, was particularly deadly, and he was well supported by Harbhajan whose final spell of 13-4-26-2, ensured that the pressure was maintained.

Zaheer Khan is overjoyed as 'keeper Patel comes up with a great catch to send back Ridley Jacobs in the second innings.-N. BALAJI

It is the gradual building up of the pressure, that causes panic in the opposition ranks. On the Indian tracks, both Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, assume attacking roles, and the West Indians had no answer really, as they slumped from 117 for three to 167 all out.

''I was never under any pressure. Having played cricket at this level for so many years, I know you got to take things as they come. My job is to go out there and take wickets. I'm not there to answer the critics. I feel I can still deliver with the ball," said Kumble, who should be past the 350-Test wickets mark soon.

From an Indian perspective, openers Virender Sehwag and Sanjay Bangar once again provided a sound start to the side, raising 93 in the first innings. The former launched into the bowling, while the latter took the sting off the attack.

The reputed middle-order could not get ticking for once with a pacy off-cutter from rookie paceman Jermaine Lawson ending Rahul Dravid's bid to equal Everton Weekes' record of five Test hundreds in successive innings. The committed Karnataka batsman was philosophical after his failed bid. "That's how it goes in life. Four out of four was more than what I ever expected." Tendulkar, too could not go on to register his fourth successive Test hundred in Chennai, his favourite hunting ground. He inner edged a Lawson delivery on to his stumps, late on the second day, after making 43. Tendulkar also became the first batsman to reach 20,000 runs in Tests and ODIs put together.

The young Lawson was able to generate pace, the thought of bowling to Tendulkar & co. did not intimidate him, and he may have a future ahead of him in big time cricket. The West Indians managed to claw their way back, when they had India struggling at 204 for six early on the third day. However, the visitors were let down by shocking catching. "We are grasping little," admitted a candid Roger Harper, the coach, later. Once India had gained a 149-run lead, the odds were loaded against the Caribbeans.

This much was clear after the second Test - the West Indian team sans Brian Lara is an outfit without a soul.

There was much speculation about the newly laid pitch; would it help the seamers, or would the spinners reap a rich harvest, as in Mumbai? Yet, the surface may not have mattered really in the end.

The old war-horse Javagal Srinath is still nippy as he proves in this dismissal of Ramnaresh Sarwan in the first innings.-N. BALAJI

Carl Hooper's men would have found life difficult on any surface, for a team without character is a side that is bound to come up short at the highest level. Test match cricket is all about putting a price on the wicket, making the opposition earn its success.

Perhaps the match would have concluded somewhere on the fifth day, instead of finishing just under an hour after lunch on the fourth. India was bound to clinch the series at the M.A. Chidambaram Stadium, given the holes in the opposition.

To compound the problems for the beleaguered West Indians, they were up against a resurgent Indian side, whose confidence is on a high, the team having the ideal blend of experience and youth.

True, it was not an ideal pitch for Test cricket; the newly laid surface that was not really given time to settle down, behaved unpredictably from day one. Yet, even Hooper refused to blame the wicket for the capitulation of his side; he knew his men had not really displayed the heart for the battle. ''It's a shame that a National team has come down to this level. There are no excuses, we played poor cricket," said Hooper during the post-match press conference, and the skipper was being brutally honest.

His team had an uphill battle on its hands, after being bundled out for 167 on the first day, and in the end, the first innings capitulation proved fatal for the Caribbeans. They had blown away a wonderful chance to put the Indians under pressure, by registering a 300-plus score.

On this tour, at least till the Chennai Test, the Windies have been unable to put together partnerships, consolidate on starts. And the approach of the first innings, where the West Indians were almost completely on the defensive, forsaking their natural shot-making ability, was baffling. The strategy should have been a blend of attack and defence.

In the second, the West Indians, thanks to some blazing strokeplay from opener Wavell Hinds (61), had the Indians rattled, but then the southpaw threw it away when he had the attack at his feet, choosing to clout Harbhajan against the spin and paying the price.

Mervyn Dillon gives vent to his feelings after trapping Ganguly leg before. There was a lot of controversy about this dismissal as the TV replays clearly showed the inside edge of the bat deflecting the ball on to the pads.-N. BALAJI

Hooper (46) stroked the ball majestically, no stroke more graceful than his six over extra-cover off Kumble, but the captain may have received a rough decision, when he was adjudged caught behind off Kumble for 46 in the last session of the third day. However, Ramnaresh Sarwan appeared lucky to survive a caught-behind shout off Zaheer when on one - the ball appeared to flick the glove as the batsman shaped to play on the on-side. A pleasing batsman, Sarwan went to a make a fine 78, but a century eluded this compact player once again.

In fact, there were quite a few contentious verdicts in the match, and Ganguly, who was adjudged leg before to Dillon first ball by Asoka de Silva when he clearly seemed to get an inside edge, did have a point when he said that technology should have more of a role in international matches.

The Test had a rather bizarre start on day two and three, with play commencing under lights. And when the game ended 46 minutes after lunch on the fourth afternoon, it was under a steady drizzle. Thankfully though rain and inclement weather did not really cut heavily into the match; apart from the first session of the second day.

There was some physical agony for Ganguly, when he and Kumble collided while going for a catch in the country late in the West Indian innings - the skipper needed pain-killing injections in his back - but yet another home series win should have gladdened him. Following the Chennai victory, Ganguly is just one short of Mohammed Azharuddin's Indian record of 14 Test victories. Indeed, he sported a smile as he met the press for the post-Test conference. These are good times for the captain and his team, and deservingly so.

The scores: West Indies 167 (S. Chanderpaul 27, C. Hooper 35, Harbhajan 3-56, Kumble 5-30) and 229 (W. Hinds 61, R. Sarwan 78, C. Hooper 46, Zaheer 3-23, Harbhajan 4-79) lost to India 316 (S. Bangar 40, V. Sehwag 61, S. Tendulkar 43, Harbhajan 37, Srinath 39, Dillon 3-44) and 81-2 (V. Sehwag 33).

THERE is something about Harbhajan Singh and Chennai, or rather him and the M. A. Chidambaram Stadium. The venue does bring out the best in the affable Sardar.

-N. SRIDHARAN

It was here in 2001 that he ambushed the formidable Australians in that dramatic, nerve-jangling decider and the 'final frontier' remained unconquered for Steve Waugh's men. He had spun a web with the ball, and got the runs, when it mattered.

''Yes, this ground has been lucky for me. When I got back here for this Test, it brought back happy memories," said Harbhajan after producing another match-winning performance.

He had ripped open the West Indians in the first Test at Mumbai, and was full of beans when he landed in Chennai. He knew that not too many from this bunch of West Indians could 'read' him.

When the West Indians opted to bat on the first day, Harbhajan was quite the perfect foil for Anil Kumble as the tourists, suffering a predictable collapse, were bowled out for 167. Harbhajan did bowl quite superbly in the post-tea session, achieving turn and bounce, and maintaining the heat on the West Indians, even as Kumble performed the demolition act.

The striking aspect of the Kumble-Harbhajan partnership is that both are invariably on the look-out for wickets, and the batsmen can ill-afford to relax against either of them. In other words, they cannot play out one bowler, and go after the other. After scalping three in the first innings, Harbhajan produced a cheeky, even if lucky 37 in the Indian innings, striking fearlessly against the new ball when Mervyn Dillon, who does possess a mean short ball, let 'em rip, singling out Harbhajan for special treatment.

Harbhajan had his share of luck, but then, he also displayed a resolve to stay out there and slug it out. Javagal Srinath too got the message and the last four Indian wickets added invaluable runs.

When the West Indians batted a second time, it was Harbhajan who ended the innings of Wavell Hinds, the West Indian, who had earlier meted out severe punishment to the Sikh, attempting to clout him over the mid-wicket ropes, against the spin, and losing his wicket.

Finally, on the fourth day, after Zaheer had handed India another vital breakthrough, trapping Sawan leg-before, Harbhajan ran through the West Indian lower order, in his 28th over. First, Ryan Hinds' ill-advised heave at Harbahajan only resulted in Kumble gobbling up a simple catch at covers. Off the very next ball, debutant Gareth Breese, watched helplessly as a vicious off-break forced him into giving Ganguly, a regulation catch at backward short-leg. Dillon denied Harbhajan the hat-trick. However, the over was not yet been completed, when Harbhajan won a debatable leg-before verdict against the West Indian. The off-spinner was within a whisker of a five-wicket haul, but 'Bhajji' failed to latch on to a high return catch offered by Pedro Collins, and soon saw Kumble and Ganguly colliding in the out-field and spilling yet another offering by Collins.

A five-wicket haul or not, it had been a weighty contribution by Harbhajan - figures of three for 56 and four for 79, apart from a frenetic 37 when India needed those runs. Harbhajan had done it again - in Chennai.