Providing pure joy

G. VISWANATH

NOT long ago, many batsmen, who did not have the technique to counter the spinners, looked upon them as imposters.

Harbhajan Singh foxes Wavell Hinds with a superb delivery. The off-spinner had a seven-wicket haul in the second innings.-VIVEK BENDRE

The West Indies skipper Carl Hooper, whose team was defeated by an innings and 112 runs by the wiles and guiles of Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble in the first Test at Mumbai's Wankhede Stadium, did not blame the pitch, nor call Harbhajan and Kumble imposters.

Hooper, one of the better players of spin bowling, said in as many words that it was his batsmen's follies and foibles that led to his team's drubbing well inside four days. Hooper might have been severe on his fellow-batsmen, but on a pitch that had demon in it on the fourth morning, even experienced and skilful batsmen would have found it difficult to dominate quality spinners such as Kumble and Harbhajan. It was a horror of a pitch, to say the least, and one may wonder if it was the same surface on which Virender Sehwag and Rahul Dravid made centuries in contrasting styles.

For many years, nay decades, spin has been India's forte. Many mediocre spinners have earned a big reputation on doctored pitches. At the same time there have also been some really good and world class spinners who have plied their trade on slow turners and featherbeds.

Virender Sehwag punishes Mervyn Dillon on way to his century.-VIVEK BENDRE

After a lacklustre start against Mark Taylor's Australia in 1998, Harbhajan Singh made a big impact against Steve Waugh's team two years later. In between he was on caution for 'throwing', but after undergoing a corrective session with Fred Titmus, the offspinner's action has not really raised eyebrows.

Harbhajan is a different bowler these days because he is able to rout sides on helpful pitches. He is a class act. Taking 32 wickets in a three-Test series against a strong Australian line-up in 2001 has boosted his confidence to bowl on Indian pitches.

There have been times when India's captains have felt let down by their spinners. In the previous home Test series against the West Indies in 1994, the spinners did not deliver at Nagpur.

They were short on ideas while bowling to Jimmy Adams who used his pad as the first line of defence. The West Indies managed to salvage a draw after which they went on to level the series on a seaming track at Mohali.

Rahul Dravid, in divine form, sweeps Mahendra Nagamootoo. Dravid scored a hundred and then had to retire because of cramps and dehydration.-VIVEK BENDRE

On another occasion, Sachin Tendulkar had to rely on Javagal Srinath to capture South African wickets when the spinners failed to exploit an underprepared pitch at Motera in Ahmedabad.

But the events at the Wankhede on a hot and muggy day in October were a far cry from the disappointing events of Nagpur. Harbhajan took charge of the proceedings the moment his captain relieved left arm seamer Zaheer Khan from duty after Chris Gayle and Ramnaresh Sarwan picked up a four each. Harbhajan had bowled 21 tight overs in the first innings for the wicket of Wavell Hinds. His partner, Kumble, who had a fine series against England picking 14 wickets in three Tests, applied enough pressure in his near 25-over spell to pick up four.

Anil Kumble traps Pedro Collins leg before in the first innings.-VIVEK BENDRE

Harbhajan had a more successful story to tell in the second innings, especially on the fourth day. The pitch had looked like a slow turner even in the third session on the third day. Wavell Hinds had had a better outing in the middle and Chris Gayle seemed composed. With Sarwan giving Gayle company for more than an hour after Wavell Hinds' departure, one expected a fierce tussle to take place when play resumed on the morning of the fourth day. But the first overs bowled by Kumble and Harbhajan, when he replaced Zaheer Khan, predicted if anything, an ominous turn of events for the West Indies batsmen.

Gayle made the first error playing across the line to Harbhajan and thereafter the West Indies second innings declined rapidly. Even as the Caribbeans were bowled out for 188, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, who had made a half century in the first innings, showed the technique and the nerve to tackle the spinners. Harbhajan was helped by some superb catches taken in the close-in positions by Ganguly and Dravid. Kumble sustained the pressure and took the important wickets of Sarwan, Ryan Hinds and Ridley Jacobs. The two spinners took 15 wickets in the match, four went to Zaheer Khan and one to Javagal Srinath.

It was hard to believe that the Test match had ended with nearly five sessions left. The pitch played the devil, but the surface, a brand new one prepared for the Test match, was not as bad when the match actually started. Sehwag's strokeplay and his 201-run partnership for the opening wicket with Sanjay Bangar was central to India building a first innings total of 457. Bangar (55, 262m, 187b, 4x4, 1x6) played a typical innings, not taking risks. But Sehwag's exhibition of strokes in his first Test at the Wankhede once again spoke a lot about the natural ability of the Delhi right-hander. The heat and humidity was affecting everybody in the stadium even as Sehwag and Bangar were forging their partnership. Dillon, who dismissed both the openers, was the pick of the West Indies bowlers and India required "The Wall" like performance from Dravid and a risk-free innings of 45 made in 198 minutes from Venkatsai Laxman to consolidate the fine start given by Sehwag and Bangar.

Zaheer Khan is being congratulated by team-mates for getting rid of Ryan Hinds in the first essay.-VIVEK BENDRE

Sound forward play is the bedrock of batting and there is no one better than Dravid in the Indian team to demonstrate this technique. Dravid walked in to bat when Bangar flicked a catch off Dillon to Sarwan at square leg and left the scene only after being afflicted with muscular cramps and dehydration. Fortunately, he had by then, made an exact hundred, (100 not out, 350m, 242b, 12x4) his fourth in as many Test match innings. He returned on the fourth day and made his presence felt by taking two catches.

Though the Mumbai Test was Tendulkar's 101st and Hooper's 100th, it did not prove to be a memorable one for either of them. Tendulkar, reprieved twice before he reached 35 on the first day, played a poor shot on the second day. Hooper made 23 and 1 as Harbhajan's seven for 48 from 28.3 overs expedited India's win with time to spare.

India's captain Ganguly said Zaheer Khan's spell on the third afternoon (three for 20 from seven overs) was the key to India's success. "We got them out for 157 on a flat pitch. It was then I thought that we can force a win on the fourth day itself."

The scores: India 457 (S. Bangar 55, V. Sehwag 147, R. Dravid 100 retd. hurt, S. Tendulkar 35, V.V.S. Laxman 45, J. Srinath 31, Dillon 3-54, Nagamootoo 3-132) beat West Indies 157 (S. Chanderpaul 54, Zaheer 4-41, Kumble 4-51) and 188 (C. Gayle 42, W. Hinds 40, S. Chanderpaul 36 n.o., Harbhajan 7-48, Kumble 3-50).

VIRENDER SEHWAG has a new look about him. He is not anymore a man of ample measure. He has shed his chubby cheeks and appears trim and fit. Thanks to the wonderful work done by physical trainer Adrian Le Roux, all the Indian cricket team members look lean and mean and sharper on the field. Keeping oneself fit contributes to half the success and Sehwag comes across as a classic example of having improved by the day.

VIVEK BENDRE

Sehwag was the batting star of the first Test against the West Indies at Mumbai's Wankhede Stadium. His senior, Rahul Dravid, once again appeared like a rock and was responsible for consuming time and making runs in the India first innings. Not as much a senior, offspinner Harbhajan Singh exploited the dubious pitch and took seven wickets to bowl India to victory by an innings and 112 runs. But it was the dashing right-hander from Delhi, who began India's victory march with big blows from his bat that fetched him a 10-Test high of 147 in less than five hours. Sehwag faced 207 balls and struck 24 fours and three sixes.

His enterprising knock came on the first day of the Test match when even the persons involved in preparing the pitch were clueless as to how the surface would behave. Everyone kept his fingers crossed. But the pitch played well and Sehwag revelled. After being extremely cautious for almost an hour he steadly unfolded his repertoire, playing a majority of his shots on the off-side.

After Sehwag had made his second Test century - against England at Nottingham - batting maestro Sunil Gavaskar said that he (Sehwag) should play his natural game, even if the team management was looking at him as a long-term prospect as an opener. On his part, Sehwag, has not gambled on any other mode of batting. He has been aggressive right through. He showed his shot-making ability against Shaun Pollock & Co. in Bloemfontein, meeting the ball on the up and driving through the covers and improvising further, by playing square of the wicket as he scored a century on debut.

Experts were keen to see how he would shape against Matthew Hoggard, Dominic Cork, Andrew Flintoff and Craig White under a cloud cover and on a seaming pitch at Nottingham. They watched with eagle eyes as Sehwag made a superb century. Several batsmen have failed to break the hoodoo after scoring a hundred in their first Test. It was important Sehwag got his second hundred in quick time. Now he has three in 10 Tests.

People will fault his technique and his bad habit of playing away from the body. Many times, he played the off-side shots, under his face or eyes, meaning he was in control and not hitting the ball in the air. But there were times when his leading hand was far in front and away from the body.

On a flat first day wicket, Sehwag got away with some luck. But Sehwag is also trying to find a solution for the short ball from a fast bowler; he is practising and developing a shot that Sachin Tendulkar played many times against Pollock and Ntini at Bloemfontein. He has given evidence of going for the slash, or under cut or tap shot, with the intention of sending the ball over the slip cordon and beating third man, quite a few times now. Sir Geoffrey Boycott and Sunil Gavaskar never played this shot. But then times have changed and brighter cricket is being played.

In England, Sourav Ganguly likened Sehwag to Sanath Jayasuriya and Shahid Afridi. Well, Sehwag is not the first batsman to defy the rules of the game and define new ones. As, Learie Constantine, the first of the Caribbean greats wrote: "Coaching is important to a young player who wishes to improve his game. But this must be limited to a deep knowledge of the basic principles of each department of the game. Thereafter the player should be left on his own to reproduce his own interpretation and individual character, so adding variety and spice to the general enjoyment of this great game."

At present, Sehwag is providing pure joy. There is no reason why he should not continue doing so for a long time.