Victory in the Caribbean, at last

DRAVID'S GREAT MOMENT... India's success in the West Indies after 35 years.-AP

Two men who have seen a fair bit of life, and a lot of cricket — Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble — helped break India's 35-YEAR series drought in the Caribbean, writes S. RAM MAHESH.

India's 35-year series drought in the Caribbean was broken by two men, who have seen a fair bit of life, and a lot of cricket. If Rahul Dravid isn't the greatest Indian Test batsman ever, the world is flat. Perhaps the recency of his efforts contribute to that assessment, but few men in the history of Test cricket have scored as often under the most trying circumstances in a such a variety of conditions.

And if Anil Kumble isn't the greatest ever Indian Test bowler, the flat word just grew a spike. This magnificent bowler has won his side more matches than can be kept track of. At 35, he has a few years left in him!

After the Indian captain won a tricky toss, and chose to bat, the combination of a clammy, capricious playing strip, and disciplined lines and lengths from the West Indies bowlers proved a formidable foe. Dravid responded with a master-class on how to play on difficult tracks. A master-class that was bettered in the second innings.

On day one, he had struggled with timing: an airtight technique and the strongest mind in cricket helped him through. The second day saw him more positive, and in greater control. From the time he walked his precise walk to the middle, replete with the routine of three crisp shadow defensive strokes, not a single delivery could do anything to discomfit him — and this was a strip the ball both kicked off and shot through on. And, oh, there was cut and swing; the stiff winds that bent flag-poles — not merely fluttered cloth on them — aided the latter.

Dravid kept his head as others around him lost wickets. The 33-year-old played some of the finest straight drives — leant-into conceptions that derived timing both from the wrists, and the leading elbow assuming a position parallel to the ground on stroke completion. Anything short was ruthlessly cut or brutally pulled depending on the line.

"You probably needed to have a lot of luck to play on this wicket," he said after the match. "The key was to get fully forward or fully back. Play as late as possible, play with soft hands. You've got to trust yourself, trust your defence, and try to bat a period of time."

The Indian skipper has the technique and skill to survive. His old comrade Anil Kumble doesn't; what he does have is an unbending will, and a knowledge of his limitations as a batsman. He hung on to add a crucial 93 for the seventh wicket on day one. "How crucial was that in the context of a low-scoring game?" Dravid later rhetorically asked. The answer would have to be: very.

Kumble — the only member of the Indian team born when Ajit Wadekar beat Gary Sobers's West Indies in 1971 — then returned on the last day of the Test, the third!, to finish with six for 78 at a time when panic could have set in. Wicketkeeper Denesh Ramdin backed himself, and went after India's experienced, world-class spinners. The 21-year-old thought little of exposing his stumps and cutting behind point, or sweeping on length from bent knee. The short ones that came as a consequence of the attack were pulled, as Harbhajan went for 41 off six overs.

Ramdin on-drove Kumble to bring up his 50, and deposited the venerable leg-spinner over long-on. This was getting dangerous. Fortunately, India had, in Anil Kumble, the very man it needed. Where the callow would have tried too hard, the 35-year-old pegged away at the stumps. He trapped Collins in front, and a ball later, had Collymore caught at the wicket to trigger celebrations.

"I'm really, really happy for the team," said Dravid. "It's nice that the hard work we've put in — we came very close to winning earlier in this series — came through on a difficult wicket.

"We've played the better cricket — we came within a wicket at Antigua, and had we got 90 overs at St. Lucia, we would have won. I'm proud of the boys for what they achieved — when I look around a dressing room I see so many happy faces. Sometimes on long tours, we've needed support from the coaching staff. This time we had it." What Dravid also had was a pair of seamers with potential. Munaf Patel was the standout of the series, but it was Sreesanth who did the bulk of the early damage at Sabina Park. "I'll say that in the ten years since 1996 when I saw Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad bowl consistently well through a series — I've seen some good spells but not through an entire series — this is the first time two seamers have done it. Despite being young and inexperienced, Munaf and Sreesanth gave us a consistent seam attack."

For West Indies skipper Brian Lara, it was a disappointing end — a defeat that had him contemplating his future as skipper. Though thoroughly outclassed by India, West Indies showed lots of promise. "We played 14 games over the Caribbean summer and we won nine games, drew a few and lost this one," said Lara. "I think it is unfortunate that it turned out that it was spoiled at the last. But I am still very proud of the guys, I thought we played hard and good cricket. Unfortunately, we were undone by a team that played better, applied better. But I thought the pitch was not ready for such an important match."