When the unexpected ruled!

Marlon Samuels struck a fine hundred.-PICS: K. PICHUMANI

The West Indies put paid to the theory that it comes to India only to lose. By Arun Venugopal.

Most of us would have been happy to dismiss as dreamers or conspiracy-theorists the ones revealing expectations of high-drama to precede the start of THIS series.

After all, it was at best the first step in the final leg of preparatory exercises ahead of the World Cup next year. At worst, it would have been the not-so unfamiliar proposition of yet another India-West Indies series.

They have had quite a few these jousts lately — the Islanders have made three trips to India in as many years, the most recent instance being the hastily-arranged Sachin Tendulkar farewell series last year.

So, all this could have only meant a low-key approach to a bilateral engagement that was expected to swing India’s way, right? Surely, the Windies, after losing even their two tour games against India ‘A’, wouldn’t best the defending world champs? Wrong.

On the eve of the first ODI in Kochi, there appeared the first whiff of a controversy when the visitor didn’t turn up for practice. While that mightn’t be altogether unusual, skipper Dwayne Bravo, too, gave the pre-match captains’ press-conference a miss. The West Indies media manager, Philip Spooner, would give away no more than “internal meetings” as the reason for the absence of the team at the Nehru Stadium.

Eventually, with hours to go for the game to begin, there appeared a distinct possibility of the match being boycotted by the West Indies.

The reason? One of the team’s persistent irritants — disenchantment over pay-agreements. A brace of letters were fired away by Dwayne Bravo to the West Indies Players Association chief, Wavell Hinds, threatening a possible strike while not expressly stating it. The Board of Control for Cricket in India, then, did its bit as well by stepping in with an assurance to the players that it would talk to the West Indies Cricket Board, and straighten out the issue.

KIERON POLLARD IS CASTLED by Mohammed Shami. The Indian paceman picked up four wickets.-

The match went ahead as scheduled, and in a delicious twist, the men from the Caribbean emerged winners. By a distance. The margin was a handsome 124 runs after India had made the West Indies bat first. Such an emphatic triumph for the West Indies wasn’t anticipated even though India skipper M. S. Dhoni labelled it a “fantastic ODI side” after the match.

The Nehru Stadium, as many writers like to describe it, is a cauldron, in every sense of the word. Right from the manner in which the atmospheric heat gets stored to the heaving, throbbing mass of 50,000-plus people screaming their vocal chords out. And, to think that the match was a doubtful starter for a reason other than the pay-dispute — the likelihood of rain.

Mercifully for the crowd, neither of the factors was a kill-joy.

Dwayne Bravo was the surprise package in the opening slot after Lendl Simmons was ruled out with an injury. As he walked out to bat with Dwayne Smith, it was hard not to wonder what his state of mind was like. After a mildly-assured beginning, the batsmen started to unpack their wares. Even as they were dismissed, comeback-man Marlon Samuels and the in-form Denesh Ramdin took charge, amassing 165 runs for the fourth wicket to help their side post 321, the highest total at the venue.

Their approach was marked by a definite awareness of the state of the game. There were many of those surreptitious singles stolen, and when the opportunity arose, boundaries were secured with nonchalance. Samuels could, at will, take his front leg out of the equation and launch those thunderous drives down the ground from a dead-still set-up.

He celebrated his sixth hundred with a relieved roar. Ramdin was the habitual slasher, knifing through the fielders square of the wicket. India’s death-bowling, as Dhoni later said, hadn’t been too bad, especially on a small ground with an incredibly-quick outfield.

India might have still fancied chasing this down, and its pursuit, despite the stifling opening overs, wasn’t fraught with dangers. But, a disastrous mix-up between Ajinkya Rahane and Shikhar Dhawan led to the former’s exit. India’s famed batting order couldn’t punch to its weight for once, and Dhawan remained the lone ranger. After Ravindra Jadeja lent some crowd-pleasing moments in the end with a few merry hits, India was eventually bowled out for 197. It wasn’t as much sustained bad batting as it was the fall of wickets in clusters that thwarted India’s momentum. For that reason primarily, it would be unwise to read too much into this defeat at this juncture.

The Windies seamers bowled with remarkable discipline, Jerome Taylor and Ravi Rampaul setting the tone for the others to follow. The tall left-arm spinner, Suleiman Benn, proved to be a handful, especially for Dhoni, who could barely get him off the square.