Lop-sided, to say the least

S. RAM MAHESH

M. S. Dhoni (right) and Yuvraj Singh steadied the Indian innings with a century partnership for the fifth wicket.-V.V. KRISHNAN

FOR some time now, world cricket has been saddled with the dicey question of how far to spread, when it's already spread itself out thin. Cricket in Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and West Indies has not been up to international standard, and India's recent performances have seen it slip to number seven in the ICC ODI ratings.

But Zimbabwe's descent has been so vertiginous it made India look like the world-beater it once laid claim to. Humiliated in the Test series against New Zealand and again in the first ODI, it's been a horrendous season even by its modest standards.

The cheers that greeted Heath Streak's last few strokes in the third match of the Videocon tri-series were as sepulchral as they were ironic and Zimbabwe cricket made the necessary phone calls to the undertakers.

After India struggled on a wicket coach Greg Chappell described as "spongy", Irfan Pathan and Ajit Agarkar helped their side destroy Zimbabwe by 161 runs at the Harare Sports Club, winkling out the Zimbabwe batsmen for 65.

"Very disappointing," said Zimbabwe coach Kevin Curran, "the plan was to have wickets in the first 10 overs and launch from there. If we had been 35 for one after 10, it would have been a good game."

Chasing 227 for victory, Zimbabwe went into a tailspin within the first 15 overs. Pathan curled one into Brendan Taylor who misjudged the line, shouldered arms and heard the death rattle. Ajit Agarkar then caught Vusimuzi Sibanda off his own bowling and rapped Hamilton Masakadza in front to leave Zimbabwe reeling at 17 for three. "The wickets to Agarkar were soft dismissals, poor shots," said Curran. "It changed the game."

Thereafter, all the action shifted to the Golf Course End from where Pathan marked out his run-up. Carlisle was trapped in front and Sourav Ganguly sprawled forward to wrap his fingers around a checked shot from Tatenda Taibu. Charles Coventry, Zimbabwe's Super Sub in the match against the Kiwis, played on to Pathan, who tickled Gavin Ewing's timber soon after.

"We knew Pathan would swing the ball. We practised with left-arm swing bowlers, the batsmen knew what they were up against," said the Zimbabwe coach.

In between, Agarkar caught Andy Blignaut shuffling. Thirty-six for eight. Agarkar (four for 18) and Harbhajan Singh mopped up the tail after Prosper Utseya made a strong case for a promotion.

Earlier Virender Sehwag pulled out unwell on the morning of the match, Suresh Raina replacing him in the XII as the Super Sub. Venugopal Rao moved to the top of the order with Ganguly.

Taibu won the toss and chose to bowl on a lively track. Rao left in the first over, undone by a Streak corker. The Andhra youngster has made a habit of collecting unplayable deliveries, having received a devastating yorker from Shane Bond in the last match. Rao was squared up by the delivery, which shaped towards leg stump before taking the edge near off. Taibu flung himself in front of first slip with an outstretched right glove.

Mohammad Kaif, promoted to number three, and Ganguly steadied the innings, playing themselves in. Except for a stunning Kaif straight drive, runs came square and off the backfoot — pulls and forcing shots on tiptoe. But neither rotated the strike enough.

The pair brought up the fifty of the innings and the half-century partnership in the 15th over before Ganguly helped Anthony Ireland to short-fine leg.

Power Plays 1, 2 and 3 were a monolith, choked of singles; 16 in 20 overs. Rahul Dravid was not himself, often off balance, and it was no surprise when off-spinner Utseya knocked his stumps back.

The little Zimbabwean bowled with skill, flighting the ball and varying his pace. And he hasn't a kink in his action.

Kaif got to his 13th ODI half-century off 97 balls and needed to accelerate to catch up with a strike rate of 100. But Ewing flummoxed him in the air and leapt near non-striker Yuvraj's feet to accept the miscue. The 23-year-old from Uttar Pradesh left the field for 65 off 122 balls (7x4), his job half-done.

M. S. Dhoni shook off some of the grog, belting Utseya's last over for a six and a four. A couple of steps down the wicket to Ireland and a steepling heave over square leg followed. The 45th over marked the second time after the first over that the run-rate crept over four.

More biffing and bashing, and Dhoni was past 50 in 39 balls, his first ODI half-century to go with his century against Pakistan. Blignaut suffered, conceding 18 runs in the 48th over courtesy two Dhoni sixes, one of which cleared the ground.

Yuvraj (53 not out, 71b, 3x4, 1x6) found his hitting rhythm as well, teeing off against Ireland with a sand wedge. Dhoni departed for 56 (46b, 2x4, 4x6) in the final over, ending a 103-run partnership off 87 balls with Yuvraj. More final over chaos: Agarkar came and went, a scrambled single and India reached 226.

"Each day it's getting better. The conditions were tough, it wasn't easy and you've got to remember we've been here for only a few days," said Chappell. "If hard work counts for anything we'll do well."

The scores

India: S. Ganguly c Ewing b Ireland 20; Y. Venugopal Rao c Taibu b Streak 0; M. Kaif c & b Ewing 65; R. Dravid b Utseya 14; Yuvraj Singh (not out) 53; M. Dhoni c Mahwire b Ireland 56; A. Agarkar c Streak b Ireland 0; Jai P. Yadav (not out) 0; Extras (lb-6, w-11, nb-1) 18. Total (for six wickets) 226.

Fall of wickets: 1-3, 2-55, 3-95, 4-121, 5-224, 6-225.

Zimbabwe bowling: Streak 10-1-32-1; Mahwire 4-0-19-0; Ireland 10-0-54-3; Blignaut 8-1-46-0; Utseya 10-0-44-1; Ewing 8-0-25-1.

Zimbabwe: B. Taylor b Pathan 3; S. Carlisle lbw b Pathan 9; V. Sibanda c & b Agarkar 7; H. Masakadza lbw b Agarkar 0; T. Taibu c Ganguly b Pathan 4; H. Streak (not out) 18; C. Coventry b Pathan 0; A. Blignaut lbw b Agarkar 0; G. Ewing b Pathan 0; N. Mahwire b Agarkar 4; P. Utseya c Dravid b Harbhajan 11; Extras (w-8, nb-1) 9. Total (in 24.3 overs) 65.

Fall of wickets: 1-7, 2-17, 3-17, 4-29, 5-30, 6-30, 7-35, 8-36, 9-43.

India bowling: Pathan 10-3-27-5; Nehra 3-0-11-0; Agarkar 9-2-18-4; Harbhajan 2.3-0-9-1.

India full substitute: S. Raina (unused).

Zimbabwe full substitute: V. Sibanda (A. Ireland, Zimbabwe innings, 1.0 ov).