It is a stroll in the park for India 'A'

K. C. VIJAYA KUMAR

WHEN the Hero Honda N.K.P. Salve Trophy Challenger Series concluded at the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore on January 13, an old tale got its tenth episode. The losers were Sourav's men while Laxman's India 'A' basked in a perfect Sunday with an eight-wicket victory.

The India 'A' team which won the Hero Honda-N. K. P. Salve Trophy Challenger Series.-K. GOPINATHAN

The final turned lukewarm after India Seniors' were skittled out for 154. Hemang Badani (52 not out) was the lone rescuer cleaning up the batting debris after crowd favourite Virender Sehwag fell to Zaheer. The Baroda seamer often struggled with his line, either angling it far too across or slithering on and around leg-stump. But an inspired snorter left a hopping Sehwag cramped for space and Ajay Ratra felt much-needed warmth in his gloves.

Sometimes sport leaves a few sad shadows and when Sourav Ganguly - having demoted himself down the order - got run out, the Seniors' war-paint had run out. Sourav mustered 25 from three matches and is saddled with a heavy worry bag empty of runs.

Badani shouldered the innings while stepping out to the spinners and reiterated his good temperament while India A's Agarkar (two for 30) hinted that all talk about his 'potential' does have a factual base. He bowled sharp, swung well and earned respect.

Left to right: Sarandeep Singh (Player of the Series), Yuveraj Singh (Best Fielder), Ajit Agarkar (Best Bowler) and Hemang Badani (Best Batsman) displaying the prizes awarded to them.-K. GOPINATHAN

The chase was a Sunday stroll in the park as India 'A' openers Daniel Manohar (25) and Sangram Singh (75) notched 80 runs in 17.4 overs. Sangram breathed fire with hard-hits while southpaw Manohar gritted his teeth with singles and had a just dessert, punching Harbhajan Singh for four straight down the ground. The duo might always linger on the fringes of National selection but for their home teams - Hyderabad (Daniel) and Himachal (Sangram) - they are essential cogs which lend grease to domestic cricket.

V.V.S. Laxman whittled the winning runs with grace while a shaky Rohan Gavaskar used the long handle against Harbhajan and Joshi in the homestretch. The match finished well in advance and a decent crowd felt aggrieved on reading the wrong cues.

The brightest cue for an engrossing final was hinted by a Sehwag blitz in the run-up to the summit clash. A second often sifts luminous quality from a basket of talent. And a second is all that Sehwag needs to master the arcs and angles. Sehwag's 125 (93b, 17x4, 2x6) was the tournament's defining moment when a celebratory spirit moved people to stand up and applaud.

Dinesh Mongia's sparkling 131 was just not good enough for India 'B' to win.-K. GOPINATHAN

The setting tossed between hope and fear as India Seniors' final berth hinged on a victory against India 'B'. The Seniors' had beckoned a must-win situation after losing their opening match against India 'A'. Ganguly's dab at a Nehra express left the Indian skipper lonely in his grief.

Dark clouds couldn't have been more darker when Sehwag walked in as the fine-print read 'score: 37 for three, target: 289 from 47 overs,' a slow over-rate having robbed the Seniors of three overs.

Sehwag ran in, swung his bat in circles and after taking guard left Kumble's men in a tizzy. Good length balls were getting hasty burials as Sehwag made a mockery of the asking rate. And it also helped that a wilting attack donated some freebies. And when his partner-in-duress answers to the name 'Hemang Badani', the Seniors' could afford to mumble a refrigerator's jingle - 'its the coolest place.'

A duel's magic whetted Sehwag's royal blade. Anil Kumble twirled his fingers. The Stadium lapsed into silence. A second later, Kumble's leg-break left short third-man redundant as Sehwag's late-cut raced to the boundary. Rocking back to cut against Kumble is dangerous but when Sehwag coated flamboyance with an 'I-am-safe' veneer, the match's climax was a foregone conclusion.

A mid-innings spurt rode piggyback on a Sriram over as Sehwag plundered 20 runs with a stylish signature - a quick change of stance leaving the in-field gaping at a reverse sweep. It was a shot which helped India hold the whip briefly against Ashley Giles' wheelers-outside-the-leg-stump in the recent third Test here against England.

The Sehwag and Badani Company posted a yield of 191 runs and left Kumble's cerebral approach bereft of answers. Badani carved his own cozy corner, hoisting seamer Pandey for six. The duo's dismissals came late and the Seniors' victory braved last minute jitters.

It was sad that Dinesh Mongia's earlier century which set up India B's 288, was lost in the Sehwag-effect. The Punjab left-hander did his comeback plans a good turn with a 131 that left Kumble peg hopes on an upset. Mongia is a southpaw who prefers his on-side past-midwicket runs to the odd drives on the offside.

Virender Sehwag notched up a fine century to upset the dreams of India 'B'.-K. GOPINATHAN

He held the innings, laying a foundation in tandem with Mohammed Kaif, who ran hard, hooked fast bowlers and kept the scoreboard ticking. The Mongia-Kaif partnership of 136 for the second wicket served up enough nourishment for Kumble's dreams of an upset until Sehwag plastered the 'stop' sign.

Lost in the aura of Sehwag's assault was a detail that rang true in the final. India 'A' was the most consistent side in the tournament and a final triumph was a true index of the form book. Sehwag's efforts were typical of a malaise that dogs Indian cricket - the lone ranger act.

When hope sulks, a lone batsman turns things around but in a team game, individual furrows can baulk at the odd drought. Sehwag's failure in the summit clash left the job to his colleagues and with Badani being the lone player to pick up the gauntlet, the Seniors' were just one tumble away from defeat.

V.V.S. Laxman, still trapped in a post-281 flashback, however had the men who rose to the occasion while fashioning an all-win record (three out of three matches). India 'A' opened its fortunes with high-fives and an all-smiles ambush of the Seniors in the inaugural match.

The Senior XI has the word 'trouble' right up the order as Ganguly continued his waft outside the off-stump. The middle-order perhaps amused by part-time seamer Daniel Manohar's erratic line, left their guard down with audacious shots and Badani was trammeling familiar territory of the revival act. His 41 steered the Seniors past the 200 mark while Sarandeep Singh reaped just rewards with a nagging spell.

The Seniors eked 229 for nine in 50 overs and India 'A', smirking at a 4.5 asking rate, was helmed by a sedate Yuveraj Singh (55) in a head-down-no-frills knock. Yuveraj and Ratra chipped in an 88-run fifth-wicket stand which steered their team past the early despair of losing Daniel Manohar, Connor Williams and Laxman. Ganguly turned his arm over in a full spell, grabbed four wickets but still had a lost look mulling over his batting drought. Tinu Yohannan bowled with poise while Harbhajan had trouble in sighting the right line and Ganguly's lack of belief in Sunil Joshi, left an attack bursting in self-pity. India 'A' won the match by two wickets.

India 'A's good run had another feather when Connor Williams' steady 73 and Sarandeep's guiles (five for 57) set base for a 59-run victory against India 'B'. Williams preferred runs to flamboyance and his play-the-ball-on-merit approach might have bored a few spectators but the knock's intrinsic value shown through as India 'A' posted 289.

Cricket historians may have sulked when an expectant battle between Laxman and Kumble turned lopsided. Laxman fired the opening round, whipping Kumble past square but the ace-leggie varied his pace and left the India 'A' skipper courting disaster with an airy drive. "I played for the quicker one while he flighted and I got bowled," Laxman said after another sparkler left his fans yearning for more.

India 'B's pursuit was lost early as openers Dinesh Mongia and Sriram's cheap dismissals flipped pressure back. The middle order - Kaif (69), Kanitkar (47) and Vijay Bharadwaj (43) - etched some resistance but in the search for quick runs, lost their bastions to Sarandeep's flattish off-stump trajectory.

The tournament would have forced coach John Wright whip his lads back to the drawing boards. A bloated sundries list (174) indicated that the bowlers had forgotten Wright's dictum 'stick to the basics' and butter-fingered fielders only worsened the bowlers' plight.

The odd fielding grace did seep some adrenaline as Dinesh Mongia's throw from long-off ripped out the non-strikers stumps leaving Ratra stranded and Yuveraj Singh's cat-on-hot-tin-roof approach in the inner circle also had a distinct charm.

A domestic tournament may not fare well in comparison to International jousts. But steel-nerves and a rage-for-perfection are the bulwarks of all sporting triumphs and Indian cricket's last-minute blues as evident in the Seniors' emerging second-best, hints at a blind spot in luring arclights with Cup triumphs.

The special awards: Sarandeep Singh, India 'A' - player of the series; Hemang Badani, India Seniors - best batsman; A. Agarkar, India 'A' - best bowler; Yuveraj Singh, India 'A' - best fielder.

The scores. Jan. 10

India Seniors: S.S. Das lbw Manohar 34, Sourav Ganguly c Laxman b Agarkar 2, Deep Dasgupta c Rohan Gavaskar b Manohar 10, Virender Sehwag c Gavaskar b Manohar 4, Hemang Badani c Laxman b Sarandeep 41, Jacob Martin lbw Sarandeep 23, Sanjay Bangar c Murali Karthik b Sarandeep 17, Sunil Joshi c Ratra b Agarkar 25, Harbhajan Singh b Murali Kartik 36, Iqbal Siddiqui (not out) 8, Tinu Yohannan (not out) 11. Extras (b-2, lb-1, nb-11, w-4) 18. Total: (for nine wickets in 50 overs) 229.

Fall of wickets: 1-13, 2-48, 3-55, 4-64, 5-126, 6-127, 7-155, 8-197, 9-211.

India 'A' bowling: A. Agarkar 10-0-32-2, Zaheer Khan 10-0-56-0, R.S. Sodhi 7-0-30-0, Daniel Manohar 4-0-26-3, Murali Kartik 10-1-46-1, Sarandeep Singh 9-1-36-3.

India 'A': Daniel Manohar b Bangar 36, Connor Williams b Bangar 19, V.V.S. Laxman c Dasgupta b Ganguly 13, Rohan Gavaskar c Dasgupta b Ganguly 4, Yuveraj Singh c Dasgupta b Yohannan 55, Ajay Ratra c Siddiqui b Ganguly 36, R.S. Sodhi c Dasgupta b Ganguly 14, Ajit Agarkar c Yohannan b Bangar 11, Sarandeep Singh (not out) 12, Murali Kartik (not out) 8. Extras (lb-4, nb-2, w-21) 27. Total: (for eight wickets in 48.1 overs) 235.

Fall of wickets: 1-43, 2-83, 3-91, 4-91, 5-179, 6-196, 7-209, 8-220.

India Seniors bowling: T. Yohannan 10-1-35-1, I. Siddiqui 5.1-0-44-0, S. Bangar 10-2-42-3, S. Ganguly 10-1-40-4, Harbhajan Singh 10-0-44-0, Sunil Joshi 3-0-26-0. India 'A' won by two wickets.

Jan. 11

India 'B': S. Sriram c Deep Dasgupta b Tinu Yohannan 5, Dinesh Mongia c S.S. Das b Harbhajan Singh 131, Mohd. Kaif c Sanjay Bangar b Sourav Ganguly 61, H. Kanitkar c S.S. Das b Virender Sehwag 9, Vijay Bharadwaj c Joshi b Harbhajan Singh 24, Pankaj Dharmani (run out) 27, Arjun Yadav (run out) 1, Anil Kumble (not out) 13, Ashish Nehra (not out) 0. Extras (b-1, lb-4, nb-5, w-7) 17. Total: (for seven wickets in 50 overs) 288.

Fall of wickets: 1-12, 2-148, 3-186, 4-229, 5-261, 6-271, 7-287.

India Seniors bowling: T. Yohannan 10-1-49-1, Debashish Mohanty 10-1-47-0, Sanjay Bangar 9-0-47-0, Sourav Ganguly 6-0-49-1, Harbhajan Singh 10-0-53-2, Virender Sehwag 4-0-29-1, S. Joshi 1-0-9-0.

India Seniors: S.S. Das c Kaif b A. Nehra 9, S. Ganguly c P. Dharmani b Nehra 1, S. Joshi b Amit Bhandari 5, V. Sehwag c Dharmani b S. Pandey 125, H. Badani c A. Bhandari b Anil Kumble 77, Jacob Martin (not out) 28, S. Bangar (not out) 8. Extras (b-8, lb-2, nb-6, w-20) 36. Total: (for five wickets in 39.5 overs) 289 for five.

Fall of wickets: 1-5, 2-15, 3-37, 4-228, 5-255.

India 'B' bowling: A. Nehra 10-2-66-2, A. Bhandari 8-0-43-1, S. Pandey 6.5-0-61-1, A. Kumble 10-0-55-1, V. Bharadwaj 4-0-35-0, S. Sriram 1-0-20-0. India Seniors won by five wickets.

Jan. 12

India 'A': C. Williams c D. Bundela b Kanitkar 73, Sangram Singh c Kumble b Pandey 39, Laxman b Kumble 28, R. Gavaskar c Dinesh Mongia b Arjun Yadav 45, Yuveraj Singh c Arjun Yadav b Kumble 48, S. Kotak (run out) 19, Ajay Ratra (run out) 13, Ajit Agarkar (not out) 5, Sarandeep Singh (not out) 1. Extras (lb-8, nb-8, w-2) 18. Total: (for seven wickets in 50 overs) 289.

Fall of wickets: 1-63, 2-106, 3-181, 4-221, 5-251, 6-282, 7-283.

India 'B' bowling: A. Nehra 10-2-55-0, S. Pandey 9-0-64-1, Anil Kumble 10-0-47-2, D. Bundela 7-0-38-0, A. Yadav 10-0-48-1, H. Kanitkar 4-0-29-1.

India 'B': Sriram c Laxman b Agarkar 2, D. Mongia (run out) 2, Md. Kaif c Kotak b Sarandeep 69, Kanitkar b Sarandeep 47, V. Bharadwaj c R. Gavaskar b Sarandeep 43, Arjun Yadav c Ratra b Sarandeep 2, D. Bundela c & b Sarandeep 3, P. Dharmani b Agarkar 13, Anil Kumble b Agarkar 2, A. Nehra (run out) 23, S. Pandey (not out) 3. Extras (b-4, lb-4, nb-4, w-9) 21. Total: (in 38.4 overs) 230.

Fall of wickets: 1-2, 2-12, 3-125, 4-143, 5-149, 6-166, 7-191, 8-196, 9-212.

India 'A' bowling: A. Agarkar 9-0-55-3, Zaheer Khan 8.4-0-33-0, M. Kartik 6-0-33-0, Sarandeep Singh 10-0-57-5, Yuveraj Singh 5-0-44-0. India 'A' won by 59 runs.

Jan. 13 - FINAL

India Seniors: Das c Ratra b Agarkar 4, Dasgupta b Manohar 12, Martin c Sarandeep b Agarkar 1, V. Sehwag c Ratra b Zaheer 22, S. Ganguly (run out) 22, H. Badani (not out) 52, S. Bangar lbw b Sarandeep 0, Joshi (run out) 16, Harbhajan lbw b Kartik 4, Siddiqui c Ratra b Kartik 0. Extras (b-4, lb-7, nb-2, w-4) 17. Total: (in 35.5 overs) 154.

Fall of wickets: 1-4, 2-6, 3-38, 4-62, 5-81, 6-82, 7-116, 8-142, 9-154.

India 'A' bowling: Agarkar 8-0-30-2, Zaheer 8-2-27-1, Sarandeep 8-1-28-1, Manohar 7-0-30-1, Kartik 4.5-0-28-3.

India 'A': D. Manohar c Joshi b Harbhajan 25, Sangram Singh c Yohannan b Harbhajan 75, Laxman (not out) 29, R. Gavaskar (not out) 18. Extras (b-4, w-6) 10. Total: (for two in 32 overs) 157.

Fall of wickets: 1-80, 2-126.

India Seniors bowling: T. Yohannan 8-1-31-0, Siddiqui 1-0-12-0, Bangar 4-0-22-0, Harbhajan 9-1-30-2, Ganguly 2-0-19-0, Joshi 8-1-39-0. India 'A' won by eight wickets.