Pathan lights up a billion hopes

K. C. VIJAYA KUMAR

Got you... Irfan Pathan's early burst with the new ball rocked South Africa. Here, he celebrates the prize wicket of Jacques Kallis with Rahul Dravid and Mohammed Kaif.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

IN a span of 24 hours, bombast was replaced by hope. One-day cricket can do that — forcing teams and players to constantly swap between being prince and pauper. On November 18, Jacques Kallis told the media: "After our Hyderabad victory, the momentum is with us." The next day, long after the sun had set and the floodlights were about to be switched off at the Chinnaswamy Stadium, a pensive looking South African captain Graeme Smith mumbled: "We will pick ourselves from here and go to Chennai and do our best, we just lost one game, that's it."

Smith's words, half an hour after Yuvraj Singh drove super-sub Justin Ontong for the winning boundary, signalled a turnaround in India's fortunes in the current five-match Pepsi ODI series. The winning strike helped Dravid's men sew up a six-wicket victory in the second one-dayer and draw level at 1-1 on a day when the Indians buzzed on the field with a seemingly extra dose of electricity coursing through their veins. The only thing missing was perhaps a dash of thunder and lightning to add to the surreal atmosphere.

The Saturday night clash also terminated South Africa's undefeated run in 20 matches. "You got to be a good team if you don't lose in 20 matches, I am sure they will fight hard," said Dravid. Smith stressed that it was time to move on. Earlier in the afternoon, Dravid won the toss and opted to field. It was a decision that was influenced by a dry pitch that promised aid to the spinners. Dravid was also wary of the dew factor that might dent his spinners' grip later in the evening. "I had a long hard think about it and when I saw that the pitch was dry and promised some help to my spinners in the afternoon, I opted to bowl. It is essential to bounce back after being 0-1 down in a five-match series and I am glad we did it," said Dravid.

His decision was vindicated immediately as a charged-up Irfan Pathan, keen to forget his insipid outing at Hyderabad, bowled an incisive opening spell. In the fifth delivery of the match, A. B. de Villiers flicked uppishly and straight to Harbhajan at square-leg. Irfan then trapped a shuffling Smith, lured Kallis into a futile drive and even before the spinners stepped in, the South Africans were on the defensive. Ajit Agarkar's tight spell also tightened the noose though Andrew Hall and Ashwell Prince flickered briefly before the tweakers stepped in and sounded the death rattle.

Harbhajan scalped Hall while Kaif exulted at short leg. Sehwag pressed Prince's exit button and Murali Kartik bowled a miserly spell, conceding 16 runs in ten overs. Kemp, the man who embodies the Klusener spirit, did not last long with R. P. Singh taking a stunner at the deep square leg fence. Singh ran in hard, dived low and scooped up the cherry with the delight of an infant who has just tasted an ice cream.

Shaun Pollock's six off Harbhajan was the lone defiant act but with Agarkar's reverse swing crashing through Ntini, the final nail was driven in and South Africa had finished at 169 for nine in 50 overs. The total proved inadequate but the weekend crowd was silent for a while as Pollock, the master of millimetres, and Ntini kept the Indian score blank for the first three overs. Tendulkar's single down fine-leg off Ntini eased the nerves. The roars and Mexican waves were back in the stands.

Gambhir (super-sub for R. P. Singh) stepped in as opener and slashed his way to a bristling 38 that had its share of fire-and-acid verbals with Andrew Nel and Mark Boucher and India was well on its way despite Tendulkar's fatal chip and charge against Pollock. The crowd greeted Tendulkar with a warm round of applause despite his early dismissal, which is an index of the love that the public have for him. And it was indeed a special day for the Little Master as he equalled Wasim Akram's record of being the most capped ODI player with 356 games.

It was back-to-form time for Virender Sehwag, who batted in the middle order. The `Delhi Dazzler' was at his best during an unbeaten knock of 77, which saw India home after Irfan Pathan's superb all-round contribution.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Meanwhile `Man of the Match' Irfan Pathan continued his steady march. The southpaw played with the assured air of a man who believes that he truly deserves the number three slot and class was also dished out in a champagne moment when he slammed a straight six off Nel. Ontong, super-sub for De Villiers, then rifled in some timber-rattling throws fielding square off the wicket to leave both Gambhir and Pathan stranded. And the stage was set for India to shed its nagging worry about Sehwag's meagre returns in recent times.

Sehwag (77 not out) struck a cautious note initially before gradually finding his feet and hands moving in sync. Meanwhile, Dravid spooned one back to Ontong but the alarm bells remained mute or rather was drowned in the steady sound of Sehwag's blows that dented the billboards like gunfire from a man venting his ire. Ntini was whipped and driven, off-spinner Botha was late cut and lofted and the fielders at cover and short-cover looked like fools who had stepped into the wrong arena.

Eventually Sehwag clenched his fist at the non-striker's end while Yuvraj clinched victory with a four and India had won with 14.2 overs to spare. Perhaps Kallis had a premonition because on the eve of the match he said, "We expect India to come back with all guns blazing!"

The match was also special for Dravid, his first as India captain at his home ground and though he continued with his poor batting form at a venue where he said he has spent more time than at his home, the fragrance of victory was a welcome relief. "I will take this victory and may be score runs in another match at another venue when may be India needs them the most. I agree I missed out today but it did not prove critical. May be I will save those runs here while playing for Karnataka. Hopefully one day I will score a Test century here," he said with an impish smile.

The milestones have been pegged back, the cricket caravan rolls and as Smith said, "the series is now finely in the balance." Meanwhile for Bangaloreans, sulking over India's recent indifferent run at the venue, it turned out to be a celebratory weekend.

The scores

2nd ODI, Bangalore, November 19, 2005. India won by six wickets. Man of the Match: Irfan Pathan.

South Africa: A. B. de Villiers c Harbhajan b Pathan 4, G. Smith lbw Pathan 3, A. Hall c Kaif b Harbhajan 32, J. Kallis c Dhoni b Pathan 2, A. Prince c Harbhajan b Sehwag 30, M. Boucher lbw Sehwag 14, J. Kemp c R. P. Singh b Harbhajan 28, S. Pollock b Yuvraj 29, J. Botha (not out) 15, M. Ntini b Agarkar 1; Extras: (b-1, lb-3, w-4, nb-3) 11; Total: (for nine wkts in 50 overs) 169.

Fall of wickets: 1-4, 2-14, 3-20, 4-57, 5-85, 6-96, 7-143, 8-158, 9-169.

India bowling: Pathan 6-1-23-3, Agarkar 7-0-25-1, R. P. Singh 5-0-22-0, Harbhajan 10-3-33-2, Kartik 10-4-16-0, Sehwag 8-0-29-2, Yuvraj 4-0-17-1.

India: G. Gambhir (run out) 38, S. Tendulkar c Peterson b Pollock 2, I. Pathan (run out) 37, V. Sehwag (not out) 77, R. Dravid c & b Ontong 10, Yuvraj (not out) 4; Extras (w-2, nb-1) 3. Total: (for four wkts in 35.4 overs) 171.

Fall of wickets: 1-13, 2-52, 3-105, 4-155.

South Africa bowling: Pollock 6-3-10-1, Ntini 8-1-32-0, Nel 5-0-31-0, Botha 8-1-47-0, Hall 6-0-23-0, Ontong 2.4-0-28-1.

India full substitute: G. Gambhir (R. P. Singh, Indian innings, 0.0 overs).

South Africa full substitute: J. Ontong (De Villiers, Indian innings, 0.0 overs).