His batting is all about big shots

SANJAY RAJAN

EVER since Durban 2001, where he played his last limited-overs international for the country, in the Standard Bank Series in South Africa, Yuveraj Singh had been waiting for his time to come again.

Man of the Match Yuveraj Singh (left) shares his joy with Ajit Agarkar after accomplishing the task for India.-K. RAMESH BABU

It did, finally, in Hyderabad on March 16, under the lights at the Lal Bahadur Shastri Stadium and he was ready for it. The powerfully-built southpaw won at all levels - concentration, confidence and approach - as he swung the crucial fourth one-dayer of the five-match Pepsi Cup series India's way in an amazing manner that left Zimbabwe dazed and the series alive.

If Yuveraj was the battering ram, Md. Kaif's role was akin to the central pin of a clock mechanism - the essential core of the machinery - sending wheels to turn wheels, hammers to strike and needles to point the hour. Luckily for India, the pin slipped only after the side was assured of victory, in what turned out to be a fascinating encounter.

Two young friends, stars of the Junior World Cup triumph in Sri Lanka in 2000, had done it for India with their 94-run fifth-wicket stand in 91 balls: Yuveraj was the finisher while it was on Kaif's shoulders that the Indian innings rode. For, Kaif, who scored his second consecutive half century, was associated in a 76-run stand off 115 balls with Rahul Dravid for the earlier wicket.

Md. Kaif made a sparkling 68 and laid the foundation for India's run chase.-REUTERS

In limited-overs cricket, more matches are lost by poor batting than by poor bowling. And India, chasing for the first time in this series, almost contrived to lose this game after the bowlers, especially pacers Ajit Agarkar and Zaheer Khan (though expensive), had done a handsome job of restricting Zimbabwe to 240 for eight in the allotted 50 overs. This after Stuart Carlisle was for once lucky with the coin.

Zimbabwe pacer Douglas Hondo is turning out to be southpaw Sourav Ganguly's bugbear. If the Indian captain had fallen to a horrendous shot, that appeared premeditated, in the third contest at Kochi, he drove the bowler uppishly into the hands of covers this time around. He triggered a collapse, for the other opener, left-handed Dinesh Mongia, and V.V.S. Laxman (an unconvincing decision in what was his first international match in his home town) fell in quick succession to leave the home side at 56 for three.

One expected Rahul Dravid to rise to the occasion. The Indian vice-captain seems to have forgotten that he is capable of playing the lead role. Talented, but ambiguous as to what his task is in the shorter version of the game, he failed to pick up the gauntlet. Worse was when 'The Wall's' front foot defensive prod to left-arm spinner Grant Flower gave away, the ball, after hitting the bat, held course and rolled onto the stumps.

Andy Flower, who played an innings of character, punishes Harbhajan Singh.-K. RAMESH BABU

At that point, India's chances looked dim. No doubt, Yuveraj, who walked in at the score of 132 for four in 31.2 overs, was capable of turning a game on its head, but then he is also a touch temperamental, with the tendency to get carried away. And there wasn't much batting left after him either.

As it turned out, Yuveraj did what he did to Australia in the ICC Knock-Out in Nairobi, 2000: blasted the opposition attack to bits. He had all the answers to Carlisle, who mixed and matched his bowlers to no avail.

Earlier, Ajit Agarkar put Zimbabwe on the backfoot almost immediately when he sent back Alistair Campbell and Travis Friend in his very second over. On a wicket that provided bounce and along with it 'carry,' Agarkar and left-arm speedster Zaheer Khan bowled effective first spells.

Ajit Agarkar exults after getting rid of Travis Friend, caught by Ratra. Agarkar picked up four wickets.-AFP

It took an innings of character from the experienced southpaw Andy Flower to bail out Zimbabwe. Andy, at his efficient best, took risks, played his drives and reverse swept debutant left-arm spinner Murali Kartik a couple of times to ease the pressure as well as push the score in the company of Dion Ebrahim (66 for the third) and brother Grant (96 for the fourth) before Zaheer had him edge behind with a delivery that moved in a wee bit in the first over of his second spell at the team's score of 190 for five in 42.4 overs. While the rest of the attack displayed discipline, especially Ganguly with his medium pace, it was Carlisle who guided the side to the eventual total, in between strikes by Zaheer and Agarkar.

The scores:

Zimbabwe: A. Campbell c Dravid b Agarkar 3; D. Ebrahim c Dravid b Ganguly 38; T. Friend c Ratra b Agarkar 0; A. Flower c Ratra b Zaheer 89; G. Flower c Mongia b Harbhajan 44; S. Carlisle b Agarkar 40; H. Streak b Zaheer 10; D. Marillier c Laxman b Agarkar 1; T. Taibu (not out) 3; Extras (lb-3, w-7, nb-2) 12; Total (for eight wkts, 50 overs) 240.

Fall of wickets: 1-13, 2-13, 3-79, 4-175, 5-190, 6-220, 7-223, 8-240.

India bowling: Zaheer Khan 10-0-58-2; Ajit Agarkar 10-2-32-4; Harbhajan Singh 10-0-44-1; Sourav Ganguly 9-0-36-1; Murali Kartik 8-0-47-0; Dinesh Mongia 3-0-20-0.

India: D. Mongia c Campbell b Friend 30; S. Ganguly c G. Flower b Hondo 7; V.V.S. Laxman c Taibu b Friend 13; R. Dravid b G. Flower 32; Md. Kaif (run out) 68; Yuveraj Singh (not out) 80; A. Agarkar (not out) 5; Extras (b-1, lb-2, w-6) 9; Total (for five wkts, 48.1 overs) 244.

Fall of wickets: 1-30, 2-50, 3-56, 4-132, 5-226.

Zimbabwe bowling: H. Streak 8-0-36-0; D. Hondo 8-0-48-1; T. Friend 8.1-1-42-2; M. Mbangwa 8-1-27-0; D. Marillier 8-0-47-0; G. Flower 8-0-41-1.

SURELY, the past must have stood at his shoulder waiting to be acknowledged even as Yuveraj Singh walked in at that critical juncture to join his chum Md. Kaif.

He was the last recognised batsman, so to say, and the Indian innings was in a shambles at 132 for four in 31.2 overs.

One needs to visualise what would have gone through his mind. At 21, Yuveraj was 28 matches old in limited-overs international cricket and had just regained his place in the National squad on the weight of the double century in Duleep Trophy that he had smashed a couple of days earlier.

And then there is his track record to contend with, that of being unpredictable. For, there is no knowing when he can be brilliant or abysmal.

But then, winning matches, that too from hopeless positions, is not new to him either. Nor is being adjudged Man of the Match. He did it in his very first outing with the bat in limited-overs internationals, 84 against Australia in the ICC Knock-Out in Nairobi in 2000, and then with that unbeaten knock of 98 in the Coca-Cola Cup in Sri Lanka against the host in 2001.

But, it was his lack of consistency more than anything else that led to him being dropped from the side.

And so, here he was, back in top grade cricket after a forced break, facing an uphill task. Can he do it... can he reinvent himself?

He did, in style, as the screams from the hysterical crowd in the packed stadium reached a crescendo while the specially-erected speakers belted out, among other bytes, Queen's We Will Rock You and A.R. Rahman's Vande Mataram.

Yuveraj's batting has always been about big shots. This day was no different, just that he concentrated on showing the full face of the bat. He is blessed with timing, so when he hits the ball, it rockets away.

It is said that a bit of disappointment here and there does one good, for it makes him realise that life is stern and life is earnest. The exile seems to have had a positive effect.