Rest is the best

CRICKET is a lot about timing. Not just strokes, but performances. Mumbai dominated for three days but Rest of India packed a punch at the decisive moment.

S. DINAKAR

CRICKET is a lot about timing. Not just strokes, but performances. Mumbai dominated for three days but Rest of India packed a punch at the decisive moment. In sports you got to deliver when it matters.

The Rest of India team, which won the TVS-Irani Trophy in Chennai. — Pic. V. GANESAN-

The shots from the blades of Rahul Dravid and V. V. S. Laxman were sweetly timed. Their innings were timed even better. Dravid's 121 was a beautifully constructed effort and Laxman's 99 a dazzling one. A rather daunting target of 340 was reached even if the Rest of India won the contest by just three wickets on the fourth day.

The star-studded TVS-Irani Trophy match at the M. A. Chidambaram Stadium was not lacking in drama. Pride and passion were very much on display.

Surely, no quarters given. When Sourav Ganguly walked in during a tense stage on the fourth day, Ajit Agarkar fired short-pitched balls at his Indian skipper.

Though the deliveries were handled well by Ganguly, it reflected on the intensity of the proceedings out in the middle. Mumbai was not lacking in effort. The Sachin Tendulkar-led side fought till the end. However, the sheer quality of the batsmanship of Dravid and Laxman carried the day for the Rest, which retained the title.

The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) got it right when the Irani Trophy was scheduled at the beginning of the season when the stars would be taking part. Two key factors were taken care of. The Irani Trophy, neglected and diluted over the last few years, would receive adequate attention with Sourav Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar leading the sides, and the tournament would also provide excellent match practice for the Indian cricketers in the two sides ahead of the Test series against New Zealand.

It had been nine months since several of the Indian cricketers had played their last first class match — the second Test in Hamilton against New Zealand in December, 2002. After that, limited-overs cricket occupied the centrestage.

Apart from having to change their mind-set and approach to suit the demands of the longer version of the game, the players had to shake off the early-season blues. And the Irani Trophy would be an ideal stage to do that. The pitch chosen for the match, with plenty of grass-covering, proved a key ingredient in the contest. There was good bounce and carry for the pacemen for most part, and purchase for the spinners.

The odd delivery might have kept low and there might have been a hint of double pace. However, batting was not impossible. It called for application. It was a better scenario than meaningless runs being piled up on placid tracks, providing a false sense of security to the batsmen. The surface at the M. A. Chidambaram Stadium paved the way for some engrossing cricket.

Rahul Dravid (left) acknowledges the cheers of the crowd after reaching his hundred in the second innings. Dravid and V. V. S. Laxman, who was unlucky to miss a century by just one run, came together on the fourth morning and put any hopes of a Mumbai victory to rest.-

In terms of preparation, Mumbai was better off. It had two solid days of training under the Chennai sun, while the Rest of India cricketers, several of whom had made short visits to their homes after the Challenger Trophy, arrived in batches and could only squeeze one training session through.

The selectors were in Chennai, so was the Indian coach John Wright, who said, "opening the innings" was an area under scrutiny. The match presented a fine opportunity for someone like Mumbai's Wasim Jaffer to strengthen his case.

With Javagal Srinath and Aashish Nehra on the injured list, youngsters such as Avishkar Salvi and L. Balaji could utilise the game to earn the nod from the men who matter. There was plenty at stake in the game.

Ace off-spinner Harbhajan Singh would be operating in a first-class match, after recovering from a strained spinning finger. His performance would be watched with keen interest.

There were quite a few performances and performers after Ganguly inserted the opposition. And there were some wonderful match-ups that can only add lustre to domestic cricket.

On day one sparks did fly when Sachin Tendulkar and Zaheer Khan duelled it out. Zaheer was a doubtful starter for the match after being hampered by a sore back during the TVS-Challenger Series. The Baroda paceman passed a fitness test and after a rather tentative opening spell, when he was probably unwilling to stretch himself fully, Zaheer seamed the ball both ways, achieved bounce and used the short-pitched deliveries judiciously.

Zaheer Khan is ecstatic after trapping Mumbai's Vinayak Samant in front. The left-arm paceman bagged five wickets in the first essay. -- Pic. V. GANESAN-

Zaheer also operated to the right three-quarter length on the surface, allowing the ball that much more leeway to seam around. The signs from the left-armer ahead of the Test series were good.

Tendulkar was equal to the challenge even if the leg-before shout against him by Zaheer was a near thing. This was a day when Tendulkar restrained himself, aware of Mumbai's dependence on him and his own responsibility as captain.

The M. A. Chidambaram Stadium is his favourite hunting ground. His bond with Chennai is an enduring one and Tendulkar (94, 197b, 14x4) built an innings once more; periods of defence broken by some booming straight drives and pulls.

Eventually it was Zaheer who snared the maestro with a delivery that had both seam movement and bounce although Tendulkar was guilty of a lapse in concentration. Tendulkar's knock and a battling effort from Sairaj Bahutule (58) were primarily responsible for Mumbai finishing with a respectable first innings score of 297.

Given its powerful line-up, the Rest was expected to surpass Mumbai's total but the opposite happened. The team fell away with a display bereft of character, the batsmen selecting the wrong shots, hardly waiting to settle down.

Wasim Jaffer has no clue to this one from L. Balaji. The Mumbai opener wasted a fine opportunity to strengthen his case for the opener's slot in the national team. -- Pic. V. GANESAN-

It was Ramesh Powar, the unsung off-spinning all-rounder, who made the inroads, undaunted by reputations, flighting the ball and getting it to turn and bounce. Powar, who bowled to a nice line, consumed a well-set Dravid on the flick with Tendulkar picking up a smart catch at mid-wicket. He then nailed the left-handed Ganguly, drawing him into a drive and flummoxed Yuvraj with a delivery that was straightened into him from round the wicket. The Rest innings was in a shambles. But for some brave blows from Zaheer towards the end, Ganguly's men could have finished way below 200. Apart from Powar, paceman Ajit Agarkar — who was lively from the Wallajah Road end — impressed in the Mumbai attack, although luck appeared to have deserted him.

Ahead by 95, Mumbai was off to a bumpy start in the second innings as Zaheer and Balaji struck early blows. On the third morning, V. V. S. Laxman put a skier down at mid-wicket as Tendulkar, on seven then, miscued a stroke off Harbhajan. The Rest must have felt that sinking feeling.

Tendulkar departed for 50, but these were vital runs in what was till that point a low scoring game. In the process the Mumbai captain had prevented his team from a collapse.

There was some sting in the Mumbai lower-order with Powar (57) striking the ball true and hard and the handy Bahutule (36) once again making a valuable contribution.

But then, Powar, Bahutule, Agarkar and Samant, all fell to injudicious strokes when a little more application from them could have put the match beyond the opposition. Harbhajan, feeling his way back, scalped four batsmen without being at his best, while Kumble did get a few to bounce and turn wickedly.

A target of 340 meant that the Rest, given its batting might, had hope. The journey, however, would be littered with traps. Mumbai appeared in control when Bangar and Sehwag, who sparkled during his 36, fell late on day three.

Sourav Ganguly goes cheaply, caught by Nishit Shetty off Ramesh Powar in the first innings. Powar, who was chiefly responsible in restricting Rest of India, took four for 61. -- Pics. V. GANESAN-

The fourth day saw Dravid holding firm with rock-like defence and some positive strokeplay that included two lovely sixes on the onside — the batsman using his feet against Powar. At the other end Balaji, who had castled Wasim Jaffer in both the innings with off-cutters, displayed fine temperament for a night-watchman with a cool head and an effective defence.

Mumbai needed to strike early. However Balaji's dogged ways — he gobbled up 126 balls for his 26 — pegged the Ranji champion back, earning praise for him from coach Wright later in the day. The 68-run partnership between Dravid and Balaji in 36.1 overs was worth more than the runs.

Laxman joined Dravid in the middle after Balaji departed. The two have been remarkably successful in the past. The situation was demanding, but here were two high quality batsmen.

And the duo, Laxman being the more dominant, dismantled the Mumbai attack in the post-lunch session. Dravid drove imperiously through the covers and Laxman stood tall and whipped the ball through mid-wicket.

Sairaj Bahutule has Parthiv Patel caught by Vinayak Mane in the second innings. The Mumbai allrounder had a good time with the bat, too, involving in a fine partnership with skipper Sachin Tendulkar in the first innings. -- Pics. V. GANESAN-

Laxman (99, 125b, 14x4, 1x6) might have missed out on a well-deserved hundred, taken at short-leg off Bahutule, but then this was a glorious innings under pressure.

Dravid (121, 251b, 12x4, 4x6) performed what was expected of him and more, sealing up one end and not missing the scoring opportunities.

Bahutule's final spell of 6-1-22-3 put the Rest under some pressure towards the end. However, Ganguly and Kumble survived to guide the side home. A competitive match this surely was and played in the right spirit too.

The scores:

Mumbai 297 (Vinayak Mane 26, Wasim Jaffer 43, Sachin Tendulkar 94, Sairaj Bahutule 58, Robin Morris 31, Zaheer Khan five for 77) and 244 (Mane 36, Tendulkar 50, Bahutule 36, Ramesh Powar 57, Harbhajan Singh four for 79) lost to Rest of India 202 (Sanjay Bangar 29, Rahul Dravid 41, Yuvraj Singh 27, Parthiv Patel 26, Zaheer Khan 34, Powar four for 61) and 340 for seven (Virender Sehwag 36, Dravid 121, L. Balaji 26, V. V. S. Laxman 99, Sourav Ganguly 27 not out, Sairaj Bahutule three for 61).