Tension towards the end


WHEN Virender Sehwag, opening the innings, cracked that astonishing hundred against New Zealand in a death or glory One-Day International (ODI) at the Sinhalese Sports Club ground in Colombo last July, what pleased this Delhi dynamite most was a little congratulatory note from Sachin Tendulkar, nursing an injured heel in Mumbai.

Ajay Ratra exults after scoring the winning runs.-N. SRIDHARAN

The message read - "Great knock, keep up the good work." Words that meant so much to Sehwag, for whom Tendulkar has remained an inspiration.

In the event, when Tendulkar and Sehwag walked out as openers in the third India-England LG Cup ODI series at a packed M.A. Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai, sparks were bound to fly.

Indeed, the rollicking 107-run partnership between Tendulkar and Sehwag was the most entertaining phase of the match. The stand provided India with the cushion to take a now familiar middle-order collapse in its stride.

Jeremy Snape gets the vital wicket of Sachin Tendulkar. The batsman is being adjudged leg before.-N. BALAJI

Considering that India was chasing just 218, the sizzling strokes from Tendulkar and Sehwag catapulted the team to a position from where it was very difficult to lose.

This is not to forget the heroic little knock from 'keeper Ajay Ratra, who, apart from his cheeky strokeplay, revealed admirable temperament in a big game. Yet, England always had a mountain to climb, after Tendulkar and Sehwag had so dramatically shrunk the run-rate.

The four-wicket victory gave India a 2-1 lead in the six-match series. It also meant, Anil Kumble, the new skipper had begun on a winning note.

Kumble was standing in for Sourav Ganguly, who aggravated a hamstring injury during a routine fielding session on the eve of the match. And when Kumble received the nod for the top job - albeit on a temporary basis - it was a well-deserved honour for a committed cricketer, who has seldom looked away from a challenge.

Kumble, relishing the responsibility, led the side shrewdly too, and his men responded. England, opting to bat, was dismissed for 217 in the 48th over, and the bowlers and fielders had done their job. Would the batsmen grab the chance?

The nippy Agarkar, re-discovering old fire, took the ball away from the right-handers, made a few deliveries climb wickedly, and kept it straight during the end overs. He was the pick among the Indian bowlers.

Matthew Hoggard dismisses Dinesh Mongia, who was caught behind by James Foster.-N. BALAJI

For England, left-handed opener Marcus Trescothick (36), was stroking the ball with panache, when he was consumed by a well-directed short delivery from Agarkar. The bowler raised his arms in triumph and it indeed was a complete victory for the bowler, on a pitch favouring the batsmen.

Skipper Nasser Hussain, back in the city of his birth, perished to a reckless pull shot, to provide debutant all-rounder Sanjay Bangar with a wicket... it was only his second delivery in ODIs. And Michael Vaughan (43), technically competent, essayed a few pleasing drives and cuts, before falling to the persistent Kumble.

England, tottering at 125 for six at one stage, recovered to a competitive total, thanks to some sting in the lower order, where Ben Hollioake (37) and Jeremy Snape (38), batting positively in a pressure situation, raised 70 for the seventh wicket in 15.1 overs, before both were consumed by the fiery Agarkar.

Apart from Agarkar, leg-spinner Kumble, giving the batsmen little width or length to launch into aggressive strokes, and off-spinner Harbhajan Singh, operating to an ideal off-stump line, and bowling slower through the air - a welcome sign - impressed.

Four-wicket man Ajit Agarkar makes a mess of Darren Gough's stumps.-N. BALAJI

However, the Indian middle-order was anything but impressive, V.V.S. Laxman, Dinesh Mongia and Hemang Badani, succumbing to the pressure, perishing to ill-advised strokes. The lack of substance and character in this vital area of the batting line-up should concern the team-management, with the World Cup hardly a year away.

It was a sad sight when Laxman, fighting for a place, swung across the line to be castled by paceman Matthew Hoggard. So much talent coming to nothing. Not surprisingly, Laxman was replaced by Mohammed Kaif for the remainder of the series.

For England, Hoggard and Flintoff, achieving bounce from short of a good length, making it difficult for the batsmen to either drive or pull them, bowled lion-heartedly when the door was being shut on England. Flintoff, whose strong shoulder enables him to extract lift out of barren pitches, also showed flashes of anger and frustration on a dramatic night, and was lucky to be left unpunished by match referee Denis Lindsay.

Well, India slumped from 165 for two to 201 for six, before Ratra's heroics carried the night for India, in front of a huge Chennai crowd.

Hussain brought the field in to choke the singles and build the pressure, yet Ratra, pushing, nudging and driving, into the little gaps, managed to find a way through for India. The lad has character.

Anil Kumble catches Andrew Flintoff off his own bowling.-N. BALAJI

England: Nick Knight c Mongia b Srinath 10; Marcus Trescothick c Ratra b Agarkar 36; Nasser Hussain c Harbhajan b Bangar 1; Michael Vaughan c Tendulkar b Kumble 43; Paul Collingwood c Laxman b Harbhajan 13; Andrew Flintoff c & b Kumble 8; Ben Hollioake c Kumble b Agarkar 37; Jeremy Snape b Agarkar 38; James Foster (not out) 9; Darren Gough b Agarkar 7; Matthew Hoggard (run out) 1; Extras (w-7, nb-4, lb-3) 14. Total (in 48 overs) 217.

Fall of wickets: 1-42, 2-53, 3-61, 4-90, 5-104, 6-125, 7-195, 8-202, 9-216.

India bowling: Srinath 8-0-50-1; Agarkar 9-0-34-4; Bangar 7-0-40-1; Harbhajan 10-1-34-1; Kumble 10-1-37-2; Tendulkar 1-0-8-0; Badani 3-0-11-0.

India: Virender Sehwag c Trescothick b Snape 51; Sachin Tendulkar lbw b Snape 68; V. V. S. Laxman b Hoggard 26; Dinesh Mongia c Foster b Hoggard 21; Hemang Badani c Foster b Gough 11; Sanjay Bangar c Trescothick b Hoggard 1; Ajay Ratra (not out) 29; Ajit Agarkar (not out) 6; Extras (lb-5, nb-1, w-2) 8. Total (for six wkts. in 46.4 overs) 221.

Fall of wickets: 1-107, 2-130, 3-165, 4-172, 5-174, 6-201.

England bowling: Gough 10-0-55-1; Hoggard 10-1-52-3; Flintoff 10-0-27-0; Ben Hollioake 4-0-17-0; Snape 10-0-46-2; Collingwood 2-0-12-0; Vaughan 0.4-0-7-0.

His happy hunting ground

THE bond between Sachin Tendulkar and the Chennai crowd is a rather special one. The Mumbai maestro has invariably dazzled with his rich repertoire of strokes at the M.A. Chidambaram Stadium.

It was no different this time around, when Tendulkar dismissed the English attack ruthlessly, along with the exciting Sehwag. He seized the initiative from England, that was desperate for early breakthroughs, defending a rather inadequate score of 217.

Tendulkar pulled Darren Gough to set the ball rolling and the spectators roared with delight. He was in a mean mood alright, and his bold strokes appeared even bolder on the giant video screen.

The feature of Tendulkar's batting has always been the quickness with which he gets into position before unleashing those booming blows, often creating strokes out of perfectly good deliveries. The mark of a genius.

And Gough and Hoggard had to bear the brunt this time as first Tendulkar and then his similar-looking opening partner Virender Sehwag, who shares a similar passion for dominating attacks, went on over-drive.

The runs came in a cascade as Tendulkar went after Gough, crashing him through the covers and then flicking the Yorkshireman. He then turned his attention to Hoggard. Not to be left behind, Sehwag whacked Hoggard over his head. This was exhilarating stuff.

The Englishmen were being blown away by the Tendulkar-Sehwag blitz, with the 100 arriving in just 103 balls. The contest appeared destined to a quick end.

But then, Sehwag (51, 58b, 8x4) got carried away after swinging off-spinner Jeremy Snape to the mid-wicket fence to reach a hectic half-century, and was picked by at deep mid-wicket off the very next delivery.

Tendulkar arrived at the half-century mark in a quieter manner - an on-driven single off Ben Hollioake - but appeared determined to notch up his 32nd ODI hundred, piloting India to victory in the process.

The great cricketer consciously slowed down and it was a clear sign that he intended to consolidate on the early gains.

In the event, it was a very disappointing moment for the crowd when Tendulkar (68, 79b, 10x4) was adjudged leg-before, attempting to turn a straight delivery from off-spinner Snape.

There was a hush when Tendulkar began the walk back. It soon turned to cheers as he neared the pavilion gate. Tendulkar had once again conjured a breath-taking performance in Chennai even if a hundred eluded him this time. Man of the Match, he certainly was.

The collapse following Tendulkar's dismissal once again underlined his value to this Indian side. The little-big man is both peerless and priceless.