'Men in Blue' on a roll

Md. Kaif (left) and Dinesh Mongia were involved in a rollicking partnership raising 110 runs in just 70 balls. Later in the day, Kaif was named the Man of the Match, while Mongia took the `Freshmaker of the Day' award. — Pic. N. BALAJI-Md. Kaif (left) and Dinesh Mongia were involved in a rollicking partnership raising 110 runs in just 70 balls. Later in the day, Kaif was named the Man of the Match, while Mongia took the `Freshmaker of the Day' award. — Pic. N. BALAJI

THERE was much heartburning in South Africa following the debacle in the World Cup. The expectations were high from the major host but the side fell flat.

THERE was much heartburning in South Africa following the debacle in the World Cup. The expectations were high from the major host but the side fell flat.

Cricket in South Africa faced its big test and challenging days lay ahead. Given the sense of disappointment and hurt in the country following the World Cup disaster, heads were bound to roll.

Greame Smith, a rather brash, but confident young left-hander, was the new choice to lead the Proteas. There had been reports of much discontent in the South African side during the World Cup campaign, and Smith had been among those who had raised his voice against Pollock's methods as skipper.

Now he faces the task of rebuilding the side. The South Africans chose to skip the limited-overs tournament in Sharjah, owing to the war in Iraq. They are now in Dhaka for the TVS one-day series, involving the host nation and India, before meeting Bangladesh in the Test series.

The South African side sported several new faces and Smith indeed was looking forward to the Proteas' first match of the competition — a day/night clash against the Indians at the Bangabandhu Stadium on April 13. It ended in a nightmare for the South Africans, swamped by 153 runs, after being bundled out for 154. When Parthiv Patel pulled off a smart stumping to signal the end of Charl Willoughby and with it the South African innings, the Indian score of 307 seemed hundreds of miles away.

It was Man of the Match Mohammed Kaif's strokeful unbeaten 95 (103b, 7x4, 3x6) that had been chiefly responsible for the daunting Indian score on a slow pitch. He also went past 1000 ODI runs during the knock. Coming into this game, Kaif needed a big knock under his belt, and he did just that taking his time to get used to the lack of pace and bounce in the pitch and then launching into several booming strokes.

The advantage of having someone like Kaif around in the finishing stages is that he runs so well between the wickets, apart from coming up with more productive blows. The pressure on the opposition is seldom eased.

Kaif had a mixed time in the World Cup. There was a wonderful knock from his blade in the Super Sixes clash against New Zealand, but he also had his share of disappointments, not really being able to consolidate on starts.

The move to promote him to the No. 4 slot, however, was a well thought out one by the team management. Apart from being able to rotate the strike, Kaif would also get some more time to build an innings.

If Kaif's effort was a sparkling one, Dinesh Mongia's 38-ball 55 (six fours) could not have surfaced at a better moment for the Punjab left-hander.

Mongia had been under a fair share of media fire, and he had only himself to blame for that, unable to justify the team management's unshakable faith in him.

It was a different Mongia that one witnessed this time after he joined Kaif with the Indian score at 197 for four. And Mongia appeared in an inspired mood, making room to slam Shaun Pollock through the covers, and driving and flicking with panache.

It was indeed a rollicking partnership between the two, Kaif and Mongia raising 110 in just 70 balls, the last five overs fetching India 67 runs with both batsmen cutting loose. Earlier in the Indian innings, skipper Sourav Ganguly, who won a good toss, struck the ball with effortless ease, racing to 75 in only 79 deliveries (seven fours, two sixes), and promised a lot more before a lapse in concentration cost his wicket.

Smith's ways as skipper were puzzling and the move to hold back Shaun Pollock, a redoubtable swing and seam bowler, till the 20th over, defied logic. And Willoughby, the left-armer, who shared the new ball with Mkhaya Ntini, appeared very pedestrian indeed.

Only Allan Dawson, who got the ball to skid off the surface, managed to check the Indian batsmen. The present South African attack, without a formidable strike bowler such as Allan Donald, can ill afford to waste Pollock's abilities.

When the Proteas chased under the lights, Smith, who had to lead by example, dragged an Ajit Agarkar delivery on to the stumps, and when off-spinner Harbhajan Singh had the other opener Herschelle Gibbs, the key man, caught and bowled, deceiving him in the air, the contest was virtually decided.

Zaheer Khan, the No. 1 paceman, hurt his hamstring forcing him to leave the field, but skipper Ganguly chipped in with a useful spell and with Harbhajan Singh getting the ball to grip and bounce off the surface, the South Africans were clearly under the gun.

Debutant leg-spinner Amit Mishra gained some valuable experience, while Sehwag, with his off-spin, was among the wickets towards the end. Mark Boucher made a fighting 48, but this was a game where the South Africans were outplayed. Mr. Smith had got off to a bumpy start.

The scores:

India: G. Gambhir c Boucher b Ntini 18; V. Sehwag c Rudolph b Dawson 37; S. Ganguly c McKenzie b Dawson 75; M. Kaif (not out) 95; Yuvraj Singh (run out) 11; D. Mongia (not out) 55; Extras (lb-3, w-8, nb-5) 16. Total (for four wkts. in 50 overs) 307.

Fall of wickets: 1-45, 2-89, 3-175, 4-197.

South Africa bowling: Willoughby 10-0-77-0, Ntini 10-0-51-1, Dawson 10-2-46-2, Peterson 8-0-56-0, Pollock 9-0-54-0, Smith 3-0-20-0.

South Africa: G. Smith b Agarkar 1; H. Gibbs c & b Harbhajan Singh 26; J. Rudolph c Sehwag b Agarkar 4; H. Dippenaar c Yuvraj Singh b Ganguly 22; N. McKenzie c Patel b Mishra 12; M. Boucher c Kaif b Sehwag 48; S. Pollock c Mongia b Harbhajan Singh 2; R. Peterson lbw b Ganguly 12; A. Dawson (not out) 7; M. Ntini b Sehwag 5; C. Willoughby st. Patel b Sehwag 0; Extras (b-7, lb-3, w-2, nb-3) 15. Total (in 34.5 overs) 154.

Fall of wickets: 1-5, 2-13, 3-55, 4-57, 5-86, 6-89, 7-129, 8-148, 9-154.

India bowling: Zaheer Khan 4.5-1-8-0, Agarkar 6-0-27-2, Ganguly 8.1-0-30-2, Harbhajan Singh 7-0-22-2, Mishra 5-0-29-1, Sehwag 3.5-0-28-3.