Rain decides the issue

VENUGOPALA RAO AND RAHUL DRAVID, the captains of India Red and Blue, pose with the trophy after their teams were declared joint-winners.-S.R. RAGHUNATHAN

India Red was the team of the competition, downing the star-studded Blue in the league phase, but rain played SPOILSPORT as these teams met again in the final. A report by S. DINAKAR.

A rather dramatic and eventful N. K. P. Salve Challenger Trophy Series edition met with a watery end. It once again rained in Chennai and cricket at the M. A. Chidambaram Stadium suffered.

Denied a fitting climax, the competition concluded with India Blue skipper Rahul Dravid and his India Red counterpart, Venugopala Rao, sharing the trophy.

India Red was the team of the competition, ambushing the fancied Blue in the first game, and then sweeping past Green. Blue, virtually the first Indian side, recovered to pulverise Green. The final was interestingly poised with Blue 210 for four in 31.2 overs when the downpour started and had the final say.

Predictably, there was much focus on Sourav Ganguly, who turned out for Green. The former India captain bowled his seamers with typical control, but could not fire as an opener. Comebacks call for resolve and determination, and Ganguly needs to keep the fire burning.

The tournament was the first event to be telecast by Neo Sports Channel, which plans to show more domestic games live over the season. It is a pity that stars like Sachin Tendulkar will not be seen in action in most of those matches due to international commitments.

The relationship between Tendulkar and Chepauk is a symbiotic one. Tendulkar's batting is all about quality that is timeless. Even during those occasions when he innovated, the maestro was rarely off balance.

Watching the great batsman sizzle — his 100-ball 139 against Green was a high-octane effort — selection panel chairman Dilip Vengsarkar marvelled at how Tendulkar retained his motivational levels and hunger.

Whether stepping down the wicket to strike the pacemen — his six over long-on off the pacy Sreesanth after dancing down the track was quite the shot of the tournament — or essaying the delicate cut, or playing the reverse sweep, Tendulkar appeared in great touch. And the goodly crowd roared.

Tendulkar may have left without troubling the scorers in the final, unable to keep a drive off Zaheer Khan down, but he had provided enough indication of his form ahead of the ICC Champions Trophy.

There was some more heartening news from an Indian perspective. Virender Sehwag's unbeaten, rollicking 81-ball 90 in the rain-affected final would have lifted the dashing batsman's confidence levels.

Sachin Tendulkar of Blue cracked a century against Green.-V. GANESAN

Significantly, Sehwag's effort came at the top of the order. It is no secret that he wants to walk in as an opener as much of his game revolves around using the pace of the ball. The new, harder ball and the speed of the pacemen are his definite allies.

Vengsarkar, too, would have been pleased with Sehwag's entertaining innings. The selection panel chief had said that he, personally, would like to see the batsman from Delhi opening the innings.

Sehwag recovered quickly from a twisted ankle, the injury sustained in the first game. After a rather cautious beginning, he opened out with a few scorching strokes between point and cover, creating the width even if the ball was not lacking in direction. And he picked the length in a jiffy.

The drives, the flicks, and the pulls, all made an appearance, as Sehwag launched into the bowling. Apart from providing momentum, Sehwag can dent the bowlers psychologically, make the job easier for the men following him; even if wickets fall, the run-rate is unlikely to drop if Sehwag had blazed away in the Power Play overs.

However, he still has to regain his aggressive ways at the international level. His form over the last year, has been, putting it mildly, inconsistent. But then, his chances of recapturing the form of old are better as an opener. Dravid batted fluently at No. 4, which is the ideal slot for him, and Mahendra Singh Dhoni boomed in the game against Green.

There were some disappointments as well. Suresh Raina's ability is not in question, but the young left-hander has to be more focussed at the crease, pick the right balls to strike. He needs to tighten up his game without compromising on flair. It is possible.

Yuvraj Singh struck the ball well, but there is still scope for improvement in his feet movement.

Yuvraj and Dinesh Mongia should have, as experienced batsmen, stayed till the end after settling in against Red in the opener. Both attempted ambitious shots against left-arm spinner Murali Kartik, and were beaten in the air by the crafty bowler.

There is an interesting race for the opener's slot, just in case there is an opening. Gautam Gambhir struck a strokeful century (110 in 119 balls) at the expense of the Blue attack. The left-hander looks so much better when he plays closer to his body, and strokes the ball straighter than squarer. He is an exciting talent, and has this habit of finding the gaps effortlessly. Gambhir has frittered away opportunities for India in the past with some ill-advised and impulsive shot-making, but he appears to have learnt his lessons.

Robin Uthappa, who was Gambhir's opening partner in Red, looked good at the crease. His innings building skills have improved, so has his technique. Uthappa definitely made an impact in the competition.

Venugopala Rao led Red with imagination and showed crisp footwork in the middle-order. Here is an under-rated cricketer, who has not been given the kind of run in the Indian team that the more fortunate cricketers have received.

There was enough indication in the competition that India has some good options in the pace bowling department. There was a measure of bounce in the Chepauk pitch and the big-built V. R. V. Singh hit the deck to extract the most out of the surface.

The bowler from Punjab generated good pace and moved the ball off the seam. He bowled splendidly against Blue, bringing a delivery back to win a leg-before appeal against Dravid, and getting one to leave to find the edge of Mahendra Singh Dhoni's blade.

He had an off-day in the final — the paceman does need to work on his consistency — but V. R. V. Singh is a bowler with a definite future. There was some reward for him in Chennai — he walked away with the Man of the Series award and a cheque for Rs. 1 lakh.

S. Sreesanth operated zestfully, swinging the ball at a good pace. So did Munaf Patel, who is using his pace and movement judiciously. Ajit Agarkar achieved reverse-swing. Irfan Pathan was more accurate without appearing to be penetrative; his bowling still lacks the sting of old.

The tournament also witnessed Zaheer Khan, back from a successful stint in the English county circuit, and Aashish Nehra and Lakshmipathy Balaji, both returning from injuries.

Zaheer brought his experience into play, prising out batsmen with variations of speed and swing; he needs to pick up his pace though. Nehra struggled for rhythm and Balaji went for runs in his second spells.

It would only be prudent to wait for the season to progress before arriving at a judgment on Nehra and Balaji since both are scripting their way back from major fitness concerns. They need to be given more time to regain rhythm.

Sadly, similar depth could not be witnessed in the spin bowling department, a definite area of concern. Harbhajan Singh bowled cleverly, and Ramesh Powar, another exponent of off-spin, had his moments. Left-armer Murali Kartik, leaving his fitness problems behind, bowled beautifully against Blue — his bowling had the key elements, flight, turn, loop and bounce. He also used the crease well.

However, the young leggie Piyush Chawla still has to develop his leg-spinner. The idea of fielding him in the one-dayers at this stage of his career is not really a wise one. In the shorter version of the game, he is bound to rely on his googly more.

Coming to wicketkeeper-batsmen, the bludgeoning blows from Dhoni's blade lit up the Blue innings against Green. Dhoni's 'keeping has improved, but then Dinesh Karthik and Parthiv Patel have kept their hopes alive.

Karthik's 85 for Red against Green was a brilliant effort; he left the bowling scattered without chancing his arm. The little man 'kept well too, coming up with some acrobatic efforts. Patel stroked crisply, often waging a lone battle for Green, and his work with the gloves has taken a turn for the better. The days ahead promise to be interesting.

Though there were a few lapses, the quality of fielding and catching was generally high. Youngsters like Uthappa and Ravindra Jadeja were buzzing on the arena with their energy and enthusiasm.

* * * Losing their cool

Temperamental flare-ups were witnessed during the Challenger Series. India teammates exchanged glares and angry words, sending the wrong message.

Sparks flew between S. Sreesanth and Harbhajan Singh in the first game, and Yuvraj Singh and Murali Kartik, during the final. On both the occasions, there was a body contact between the cricketers in question at the non-striker's end, leading to the showdown.

Sreesanth had earlier glared at both Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag. Subsequently, Tendulkar struck the paceman over long-on for a six. Sreesanth was charged up on that night.

BCCI secretary Niranjan Shah was not amused. "They have played for India together. They are prominent cricketers and should be setting an example. They should restrain their emotions on the field of play," he told Sportstar.

Asked whether the BCCI was contemplating action against these cricketers, Mr. Shah replied, "I don't think the matter is that serious yet. But I definitely plan to have a talk with the boys. They should be role models. It could be a `heat-of-the-moment' thing, but they should realise that there are millions of young viewers watching these games."

* * * Still learning

V. GANESAN

Mahendra Singh Dhoni is an entertainer. He also pays the price for being one.

The belligerent wicketkeeper-batsman was caught on the line at a vital stage of India's do-or-die league game against Australia in the DLF tri-series.

"A couple of inches either side or higher it would have been a six. That's the way it goes," mulls Dhoni. India lost its way from that point.

There is enormous burden on Dhoni. Apart from performing a physically draining job with the big gloves, he has to don the role of an entertainer and a match-winner with the willow.

Given the risk factor involved, does he plan to change his style? Replies Dhoni, speaking to Sportstar, "Not really. I have achieved all my success with the way I bat. I like to hit the ball. But then, there are times when you return to the pavilion and wonder whether a particular shot was the right option in a particular situation. You evolve as a batsman, you learn."

He is also unconcerned about his batting order as long as it suits the team. "If Irfan Pathan goes in at No. 3, it is because he can ulitise the field restrictions in the Power Play overs. The team also wants someone at No 6 or 7, who can clear the field when the ball becomes soft, when the field restrictions are no longer there. I can do that."

Dhoni prefers contribution to numbers. "Probably, I can get a bigger score at No. 3, but down the order too, I can play a crucial role for the side. I can win games in the end overs."

The wicketkeeper-batsman is not too worried at runs drying up at the international level, for India and him.

"It's just a phase. Actually, we had virtually no cricket in Sri Lanka due to rain and myself and the other batsmen could not really settle into a rhythm in Kuala Lumpur. I am sure we will get cracking soon. There is so much ability in the side."

On the question of shuffling the batting order, he defends the captain Rahul Dravid and the coach Greg Chappell. "We were winning so many matches before too long. Actually, both Dravid and Chappell believe in consensus. The views of Sachin Tendulkar, who has so much experience and years behind him, and Virender Sehwag, are taken. As youngsters, we have always been encouraged."

Given his popularity, the expectations from him have increased. Is there, subsequently, more pressure on him to perform too? "I would not say that. But there is certainly more responsibility."

Queried about his `keeping, Dhoni answers, "I have definitely improved. But there is a lot more to learn."

* * * THE SCORES

Final: India Blue 210 for four in 31.2 overs (V. Sehwag 90 not out, R. Dravid 43) vs India Red. Match abandoned due to rain. Teams declared joint winners. League matches: India Red 280 in 50 overs (G. Gambhir 110, Y. Venugopala Rao 67, R. Sharma 33, I. Pathan three for 55, M. Patel three for 49) bt India Blue 259 in 47.3 overs (S. Tendulkar 61, Y. Singh 57, V. R. V. Singh three for 49). India Blue 381 for six in 50 overs (Tendulkar 139, Pathan 54, R. Dravid 62, M. S. Dhoni 79 not out) bt India Green 115 in 26.4 overs (P. Patel 43, Harbhajan Singh four for 10).

India Red 317 for four in 50 overs (R. Uthappa 92, Gambhir 74, D. Karthik 85) bt India Green 278 in 48.4 overs (P. Patel 69, M. Kaif 34, M. Minhas 34, P. Chawla 55, V. R. V. Singh four for 54, R. Powar three for 36).