Pulsating opening salvo

S. DINAKAR

THE India-England match was one of the keenly awaited duels of the ICC Champions Trophy. For good reasons too.

Most cricket followers in Lanka had watched the titanic clash between the two countries in the NatWest final at Lord's, and the sheer intensity of that battle, the swings in the fortunes, the changes in the script, had captured their imagination.

Virender Sehwag gets stuck into Ronnie Irani during his whirlwind knock.-N. BALAJI

"After Sachin got out that day, I went to sleep thinking India would lose. The next morning I see the papers, India has won!" said the young man at the coffee shop.

There is a lot of passion for the game in Sri Lanka and the moment they see your media badge they are only too eager to pick up a conversation. It was clear that most fans had the India-England match high on their priority list.

Sourav Ganguly, who gave Sehwag fine company, finishes off the match by pulling Dominic Cork to the fence.-N. BALAJI

Would this be a replay of that summit clash at Lord's? In their pre-match statements, the rival skippers were firm the game was not a sequel to that eventful final. "It's a new game, under different conditions," asserted Ganguly.

"It's not a grudge match," remarked Hussain. Despite the similar statements of the skippers, there was no denying that there was that 'extra something' about this Group 2 climactic contest.

Came the match, and during the break between the innings, the talk veered as to how India had let a wonderful opportunity slip.

India had knocked over two in-form batsmen, the free-stroking opener Marcus Trescothick and the captain Nasser Hussain for next to nothing, yet England with a wobbly middle-order had got to 269.

Ashish Nehra celebrates after sending England's sparkling opener Marcus Trescothick to the pavilion cheaply.-N. BALAJI

There was a feeling that the evening dew on the pitch might help the seamers. The pressures of chasing a challenging total under the lights might also prove too much for a side in a big game.

And the talk during the break certainly wasn't far from the truth. The Indians had, from a position of strength, put themselves in a situation from where they would have to work hard for a win.

Virender Sehwag had other ideas though. He made it a no-contest, with the kind of strokeplay that had been rarely witnessed even in the land of Sanath Jayasuriya. And it had a packed Sunday crowd on its feet.

The Delhi opener shut England out of the contest in the first 15 overs, with some exhilarating strokeplay as India crossed 100 in just 15.1 overs. There was only going to be one winner after this start.

Andrew Caddick and Matthew Hoggard were treated like club bowlers as Sehwag drove, cut and pulled them, finding boundaries with ridiculous ease. It was a wonderful exhibition of batting.

Skipper Ganguly was a touch rash at the beginning of the innings, and struggled to find his timing. However, once he saw Sehwag (126 - 21x4, 1x6) taking the bowling apart, he wisely played the second fiddle.

It was only after Sehwag's dismissal at 192 that Ganguly, driving, pulling and lofting the pacemen and treating the spinners with contempt, exploded into a barrage of strokes.

Ian Blackwell, who gave England a fighting total, drives Zaheer Khan.-N. BALAJI

And when he lofted Ian Blackwell over mid-wicket for a six, the skipper had reached a scintillating hundred off only 103 balls (10x4, 2x6). Fittingly, the captain ended the match, pulling Dominic Cork to the boundary. India had trounced England by eight wickets, 10.3 overs still remaining in the contest.

The toss was going to be vital, or so it was felt. The side batting first could apply pressure on the opposition under the lights at the Premadasa Stadium. In the event, England won the toss and batted first. For India Trescothick's wicket was going to be vital. He was the man at the top of the order who could provide the thrust to the innings.

The left-hander was the one who invariably took on the bowling, making it easier for the others. Trescothick had a particular liking for the Indian bowling too.

It was indeed a significant moment of the match when left-arm paceman Ashish Nehra had Trescothick edging to a diving V. V. S. Laxman in the slips. Not long afterwards, Hussain miscued a pull off Nehra to be caught behind for one and the two century makers in the NatWest final had flopped horribly.

The other left-handed opener Nick Knight got to a solid 50 and Ronnie Irani and Owais Shah contributed useful runs. Yet, when Shah was fifth out, with the score at 153, nicking Kumble into Dravid's gloves, England was not yet out of the woods.

It was here that India let the game slip. Ganguly got into a tangle with his non-regular bowlers, Kumble and Harbhajan Singh did not exactly bowl to their fields and England found an unexpected hero in Ian Blackwell.

The left-hander had only made it to the side as a late replacement for the injured Andrew Flintoff, and in only his second ODI innings, played an innings of quality.

The 23-year-old Somerset cricketer struck six fours and three sixes in his 68-ball 82, found an invaluable partner in the experienced Alec Stewart, and the England scoring rate shot up in the end overs, even as the Indian bowling and fielding wilted under the unexpected onslaught. However, this was a game where India got way with mistakes, thanks principally to Sehwag.

The scores:

England: M. Trescothick c Laxman b Nehra 0; N. Knight c Harbhajan b Yuveraj 50; N. Hussain c Dravid b Nehra 1; R. Irani lbw b Kumble 37; O. Shah c Dravid b Kumble 34; I. Blackwell (run out) 82; A. Stewart c Ganguly b Tendulkar 35; D. Cork (not out) 6; A. Giles (not out) 2. Extras (nb-3, w-5, b-5, lb-9) 22. Total (for seven wkts. in 50 overs) 269.

Fall of wickets: 1-2, 2-7, 3-80, 4-127, 5-153, 6-257, 7-264.

India bowling: Zaheer 10-2-40-0, Nehra 10-0-49-2, Kumble 9-0-58-2, Harbhajan 10-0-42-0, Ganguly 1-0-10-0, Tendulkar 2-0-13-1, Yuveraj 3-0-18-1, Sehwag 5-0-25-0.

India: V. Sehwag c & b Blackwell 126; S. Ganguly (not out) 117; V. V. S. Laxman (run out) 4; S. Tendulkar (not out) 9. Extras (b-1, lb-1, nb-4, w-9) 15. Total (for two wkts. in 39.3 overs) 271.

Fall of wickets: 1-192, 2-200.

England bowling: Caddick 7-0-59-0, Hoggard 10-0-54-0, Cork 5.3-0-45-0, Irani 5-0-34-0, Giles 4-0-31-0, Blackwell 8-0-46-1.

Inspired by Colombo

PERHAPS there is something in the air of Colombo that inspires and stimulates Virender Sehwag. Or is it the sea breeze?

It was here in July 2001 that he destroyed the Kiwi attack in the final league match of the triangular ODI series with a knock of stunning brilliance, an effort that really was the launching pad of his international career.

And it was here 14 months later that he produced one of the finest innings seen by an Indian for a long time. An innings with strokes of thunder and lightning.

There was power, there was timing, and there was placement, as Sehwag plundered the English bowling. "Caddick and Hoggard are good bowlers, but it was a good wicket for batting and I just played my normal game," said Sehwag. He was extremely self-effacing in his description of the knock.

The English bowlers were brushed aside by the man they call 'Veeru.' He was a man on a mission alright.

He just gave a hint of a chance at three off Caddick, when Nick Knight diving to his right at second slip could not latch on to the speeding ball, and after that it was all Sehwag.

In fact, the Delhi batsman took a heavy toll of Caddick, flicking him over a leaping square-leg, slamming him through the covers, striking him through point. It was only the beginning.

The scenario turned from bad to worse for England as Sehwag continued his onslaught. Matthew Hoggard was driven straight to the fence, and when Sehwag lofted Caddick over mid-on, he had reached his 50 off just 37 balls.

When left-arm spinner Ashley Giles was introduced into the attack, Sehwag was quick to sweep him to the fence. There was no stopping Sehwag now and when he lofted medium pacer Ronnie Irani over mid-wicket, he had reached a truly remarkable hundred in just 77 balls.

He unleashed a few more sparkling strokes before knocking one back to Ian Blackwell bowling left-arm spin. The entire stadium stood up to applaud as Sehwag returned to the pavilion. Among them was his idol Sachin Tendulkar.