The thrilling Mumbai chase

S. DINAKAR

Rahul Dravid and Graeme Smith share the Pepsi Cup. With them is the Chief Guest, the Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

THE arena was a sea of emotions when India finished at the right end of a tense chase under lights at the Wankhede Stadium. Skipper Rahul Dravid raised his arms in triumph and the crowd roared. India had levelled the Pepsi ODI series 2-2.

South Africa had a glimpse of a maiden ODI series triumph in India, but Dravid held firm with an unbeaten 78 that oozed character.

The visitors paid the price for some tame batting after Dravid rightly inserted them. A total of 221 was never likely to be enough, even if the surface had an element of pace and bounce. Then, when the Indians pursued, Graeme Smith's men could not latch on to chances.

India has now climbed from the seventh to the fourth spot in the ICC ODI ratings. The South Africans are still second, behind Australia. Against a competent pace attack, the Indians did their reputation no harm; the Chappell-Dravid chemistry is working.

The series followed a pattern. The side winning the toss put the opposition in and reaped the rewards. In the day game in Hyderabad, a fresh pitch and the morning moisture meant the Indians stumbled to 35 for five. South Africa won the game at that point.

The day games in India are often loaded in favour of the side bowling first. Pollock & Co. certainly did not miss out on an opportunity in Hyderabad. The pitch eased out as the South Africans pursued.

In the three day-night games — the Chennai ODI was washed out — the evening dew became a huge factor. While there was a measure of assistance for the pacemen when play commenced in these games, the conditions got increasingly harder for the side that defended under the lights.

The dew meant the bowlers, the spinners in particular, had trouble gripping the ball. Fielding was not the easiest of tasks as well. The captain getting the spin of the coin right had little hesitation in opting to field.

The early strikes by the pacemen proved decisive in all these matches. Irfan Pathan dented the South African top-order in Bangalore, and the side could not recover from 20 for three.

The South African pacemen then made major inroads at the Eden Gardens. India, on a rapid downward spiral, tottered at 49 for four and there was no stopping the visitors.

The boot was on the other foot at the Wankhede Stadium when Pathan bamboozled the South African top-order and India had the momentum in its favour. It duly squared the series.

The Super Substitute rule too clearly favours the team bowling first. The side can afford to play five bowlers and still have an additional batsman on the chase. It was the extra batsman in Gautam Gambhir who enabled India carry out a critical switch in the batting order in Bangalore.

For the side having to bat first, the going was hard. India, in a batting mess in Hyderabad, was forced to induct Gambhir as a Super Sub for left-arm spinner Murali Kartik and ended up a bowler short when South Africa chased. A useful all-rounder will reduce the imbalance but there are not many of them around at the moment.

India was strategically brilliant in Bangalore, but it was also lucky with the toss. Gautam Gambhir, the Super Sub, opened with Tendulkar, and Virender Sehwag, searching for runs, was shifted to the No. 4 slot. The move worked like magic.

The Indians continued to experiment, but carried things a bit too far in Kolkata when Sachin Tendulkar, in his ODI record 357th match, walked in at No. 3, while Irfan Pathan opened with Gambhir.

Pathan played a punishing innings in Bangalore at one drop, but then the experiments should retain their surprise value. The danger of instability creeping into the batting order lurks.

Fiesta time for joint-Player of the Series Yuvraj Singh as he is the proud winner of a Ford Fiesta. Giving him company is Irfan Pathan, another star player in the series.-

Yuvraj Singh shared the Man of the Series award with Graeme Smith. The Punjab left-hander's batting was a definite gain for India. The southpaw batted beautifully in Hyderabad on a seaming wicket where his 103 was made in an adverse situation. Importantly, Yuvraj played close to his body and stroked in the `V'; on surfaces where the ball seamed around, with only the deliveries lacking in length dismissed with horizontal bat strokes.

The left-hander's 53 in Kolkata and 49 in Mumbai were vital efforts in conditions assisting pacemen. His stroke-selection and footwork have taken a turn for the better.

On the flip side, Tendulkar had an ordinary time with the willow, and Sehwag needs to make runs in the top order. Dravid's resilience and Yuvraj's flair bailed the side out in Mumbai, but the line-up tends to collapse in conditions favourable to the pacemen. Mahendra Singh Dhoni discovered that he could not be dismissive of the pacy South African attack. These are early days yet in his journey and he will learn.

Pathan controlled the extent of his swing well and was sharp and incisive; his incoming delivery was coated with venom and he brought in subtle changes in speed. Harbhajan Singh was described as the unsung hero of India's ODI campaign by Dravid, and rightly so. The off-spinner kept the pressure on the opposition in the middle overs and operated to a good rhythm and a lovely off-stump line. Left-arm spinner Murali Kartik supported Harbhajan well, although the quality of his bowling was not always reflected in his figures.

The bowlers were brilliantly supported in the field, where Yuvraj, Mohammed Kaif and Suresh Raina were outstanding in the circle. Harbhajan was brilliant in the deep and the Indians buzzed with energy and enthusiasm, swooping on the ball and hitting the stumps.

The South Africans will look at the series ruefully. They lost momentum in the middle overs in Mumbai and found themselves at least 20 runs short of a series-winning total.

Smith's side arrived in India with a batting line-up weakened by the absence of the influential Herschelle Gibbs. The injury to Boeta Dippenaar and Jacques Rudolph's loss of form meant South Africa had a hole in its middle order.

In the event, the side paid the price for dishing out cautious cricket. The South Africans did not display enough flexibility and a feared hitter of the ball like Justin Kemp was not properly utilised. Smith struck the ball with power and his blistering 128-ball 134 in Kolkata lighted up the night. But Kallis was solid without being able to seize the initiative, which was surprising given his stature and ability.

On the brighter side, the South African pace attack appears to be coming together again. Pollock bowled with great skill, keeping it straight and moving the ball both ways at a lively pace; he is a yard quicker than last season. Makhaya Ntini and Andre Nel were fiery in spells, but the latter needs to put a lid on his mouth. Charl Langeveldt, a genuine swing bowler, castled Dravid with a beautiful delivery at the Eden Gardens. The ball, delivered wide of the crease, swung in and then straightened to find its way past the Indian captain's willow.

Dravid had the final say though. India gained more than South Africa from the series.

The scores

Fifth One-dayer. Wankhede Stadium, Mumbai. November 28, 2005. India won by five wickets. Man of the Match: R. Dravid. Players of the Series: G. C. Smith and Yuvraj Singh.

South Africa: G. C. Smith c Harbhajan Singh b Pathan 24; A. J. Hall b Pathan 4; J. H. Kallis c Kaif b Pathan 91; A. G. Prince c Yuvraj Singh b Harbhajan Singh 9; M. V. Boucher c Harbhajan Singh b Sehwag 35; J. M. Kemp c Yuvraj Singh b Harbhajan Singh 11; S. M. Pollock (not out) 30; J. Botha (not out) 3; Extras (lb-4, w-8, nb-2) 14;Total (for six wickets, 50 overs) 221.

Fall of wickets: 1-6, 2-36,3-77, 4-158,5-178, 6-209.

India bowling: Pathan 8-1-20-3; Agarkar 7-1-33-0; R. P. Singh 6-0-27-0; Kartik 10-0-58-0; Harbhajan Singh 10-0-32-2; Sehwag 5-0-24-1; Yuvraj Singh 4-0-23-0.

India innings: G. Gambhir c Kemp b Ntini 0; S. R. Tendulkar c Prince b Nel 30; V. Sehwag lbw b Pollock 27; R. Dravid (not out) 78; Yuvraj Singh c Boucher b Nel 49; M. S. Dhoni c Boucher b Langeveldt 12; M. Kaif (not out) 16; Extras (lb-6, w-5, nb-1) 12; Total (for five wickets, 47.3 overs) 224.

Fall of wickets: 1-1, 2-46, 3-83, 4-162, 5-201.

South Africa bowling: Pollock 9-1-49-1; Ntini 10-0-53-1; Nel 10-2-35-2; Langeveldt 8.3-1-38-1; Botha 6-0-24-0; Hall 4-0-19-0.

South Africa full substitute: R. J. Peterson (J. M. Kemp, India innings, 8.0 ov).

India full substitute: G. Gambhir (R. P. Singh, India innings, 0.0 ov).