Munaf turns on heat

MUNAF PATEL emerged the spearhead with a 10-wicket haul in the match.-VIVEK BENDRE

The psychological blow of an eight-wicket loss to a bunch of Indian youngsters should keep the Englishmen on the backfoot, writes Nandakumar Marar.

The Indian selectors in consultation with captain Rahul Dravid and coach Greg Chappell used the Board President XI youngsters to soften up England in a tour game, ahead of the Test series. Munaf Patel, bowling on home turf at the IPCL stadium in Vadodara, emerged the spearhead with a 10-wicket haul in the match. He rattled the English batsmen with seam movement, raw pace and a sprinkling of bouncers. Wasim Jaffer, Gautam Gambhir and Suresh Raina exposed the chinks in the visitors' bowling attack with some explosive strokeplay.

England's resolve crumbled in the searing Vadodara heat by the third day. The psychological blow of an eight-wicket defeat to a bunch of Indian youngsters should keep the Englishmen on the backfoot, wary of the shocks in store for them on the tour. The team is already grappling with injuries to some of its key players. Team India, now a side in transition and looking to transfer the positive vibes of the recent one-day success to Test cricket, will start off with an advantage even before the first ball is bowled in the Nagpur Test. England was given a grassy wicket to play on. The Indian team management held back S. Sreesanth, who sweated it out in the nets under the watchful eyes of coach Chappell and his assistant Ian Fraser. Ramesh Powar was the sole spinner used despite England's vulnerability against quality spin bowling. The BP XI declared its first innings at 342 for 8 after making the visitors chase the ball on a heavy outfield for 103.4 overs. Later, Munaf's hostile pace and Powar's guile pushed England over the edge.

"We didn't want the English batsmen to get familiar with the wickets here before the Nagpur Test. So the IPCL track had grass on it, like the wickets the visitors are used to playing back home. If their batsmen got runs here, we wanted to make it difficult for them in the Tests where the wickets will be different. Basically, the idea is to make use of the home advantage. The selectors sat with Chappell and Fraser to use this tour game as the first step towards Test preparations," observed BP XI coach Kiran More, the point man for the IPCL game as the Baroda Cricket Association secretary.

More, also the chairman of selectors, waited for four senior selectors to assemble at Vadodara before deciding on the composition of the BP XI team. "Dravid and Chappell agreed that with Sreesanth a certainty for the first Test, there was no point in playing him here and giving the rival batsmen a chance to get batting practice. He was called here because the coach and Fraser wanted to work on a few niggles in his bowling and get him ready for his Test debut," said More.

"India's strength is spin, we had two others besides Powar (left-arm Pragyan Ojha and leg-spinner Amit Mishra). We opted for only one in the BP XI squad in order to deny England the chance of getting into a rhythm against our slow bowlers. Instead we played three fast bowlers, Munaf, V. R. V. Singh and S. S. Paul, and bowled them out twice. Paul bowled a tight line and length, while Munaf did more than what was expected of him as a Test hopeful. He will be called to Mohali when the Indian team prepares for the second Test. Chappell and Fraser want to have a look at him, in case any of the regular fast bowlers get injured."

Munaf found his bearing after lunch on the first day. From then on, he proved unplayable. The lanky paceman, who plays for Maharashtra in the Ranji Trophy and was amongst the wickets this season, claimed Andrew Strauss and Andrew Flintoff in both innings. Six out of the 10 England batsmen dismissed by him were clean bowled. "I focussed on bowling the right line and putting the ball in the right place," said Munaf.

Munaf said that his decision to opt for Maharashtra, where Darren Holder and Chandrakant Pandit are coaches, and Dennis Lillee's advice at the MRF Pace Foundation helped him in his rehabilitation after injury. "Munaf is a disciplined bowler this season, more accurate and patient than before. I have always encouraged him to perform. There is no better way than taking wickets and catching the selectors' attention. Now after performing in the Ranji Trophy and at a higher level, Munaf's time has come," Pandit pointed out.

Gautam Gambhir was another BP XI player to come good. Initially watchful and correct against Hoggard, Harmison and Flintoff, he quickly switched to the attack mode. The left-hander's knock stood out for his timing and anticipation against the English pace attack. His century (108 off 221 balls) contained 15 flowing drives to the fence.

"Gambhir showed strength of character because he played after being dropped from the Indian team. As a selector, I am relieved that he is an opening batsmen we can fall back on, in case Sehwag or Jaffer are not available for some reason," More said. Raina, selected for the Indian team for the first Test, came up with enterprising knocks in both innings. He showed no problems in making the switch from one-day to Test cricket. Talking of Raina's selection, More said, "The idea is to retain the one-day players for a long period. Players like Raina have played Ranji Trophy and so should be able to adjust between one-day and Tests. Mohd. Kaif started out with the one-day tag, but is at home now in the five-day version. We are looking at `plus players', cricketers who can field apart from specialising in batting, bowling or wicketkeeping. Powar, for example, is a `plus player' in our list, he contributes with bat or ball, apart from fielding."

England went into the tour game expecting to build on the victory over the CCI youngsters in Mumbai. But at the end of the third day in Vadodara, the team was left with benumbed minds and exhausted bodies. Kevin Pietersen, England's best player of spin, limped off in the first innings and did not bat in the second. Marcus Trescothick, the stand-in skipper, was embarrassed on being run out in the first innings, then broke down in the dressing room after his second innings dismissal, before flying back to England citing personal reasons.

England have called up James Anderson and Alistair Cook as reinforcements for injured captain Michael Vaughan (knee) and Paul Collingwood (back).

Result: Indian Board President's XI won by 8 wickets. England XI 238 (K. P.Pietersen retd. hurt 47, G. O. Jones 46, I. D. Blackwell 33, L. E. Plunkett 37, Munaf Patel 5-59) and 158 (M. E. Trescothick 32, M. J. Hoggard 42, I. R. Bell 29, Munaf Patel 5-32) lost to Indian Board President's XI 342 for 8 decl. (W. Jaffer 48, G. Gambhir 108, S. K. Raina 62, Y.Venugopala Rao 25, Harmison 3-72, Flintoff 3-74) and 58 for 2.