New Delhi: That India would win once Zimbabwe had frittered away the golden opportunity of posting a healthy score on the initially placid Nagpur pitch, not many doubted.That the pitch would deteriorate so drastically fourth day onwards did, though, come as a surprise. It became so bad in fact that one wonders whether any team in the world would have survived very long on it let alone score enough runs to cause India concern about having to bat a second time. Zimbabwe was unlucky to some extent. Skipper Stuart Carlisle's run out was a blow and Alistair Campbell found a field positioned perfectly to intercept an excellently executed cover drive. Then Travis Friend ran out of partners when playing the Indian spinners with considerable ease.
And once the die had been cast, there was no way Sachin Tendulkar was going to let the opportunity slip and he made sure that the usual dreaded Indian collapse did not occur. Shiv Sunder Das of course, was his usual solid self taking full toll of a missed chance offered early on the innings. The revelation though was young Sanjay Bangar who showed immense maturity and good sense for someone playing in only his second Test match. He provided Tendulkar the support he needed, rotated strike admirably and when an opportunity came his way, punished anything slightly loose.
Indeed, for someone whose reputation was one of a solid opening batsman given to playing sedate innings in local cricket, his transformation to a marauding executioner was not only welcome, but also mind boggling. His lofted shots took one's breath away particularly those hit with the spin over the bowler's head. It is a pity that his all-round ability was not fully put to the test as he was made to bowl only a few overs (and these too in a single innings), but he did impress with his excellent reverse swing. He certainly looks like being a real find and must be encouraged to fill the all- rounder's slot.
Zaheer Khan looks good though not the same could be said of Javagal Srinath, who once again confirmed his annoying inability to run through the tail. The issue of a partner for Das remains contentious and the selectors have taken the soft option of carrying on with Deep Dasgupta explaining that his keeping has shown improvement. Who are we kidding? Dasgupta is an admirable young man and it would perhaps have been cruel to drop him as an opener after his good or gutsy showing against England after many others had declined to fill that role. However, the problem of finding the right person behind the stumps still looms large on the horizon and must be settled sooner than later. You cannot simply keep shoving it under the carpet.
The batting looks settled although sadly, V V S Laxman's axing appears imminent. Poor chap has had his chances, largely blown them through a combination of momentary lapses of concentration and bad luck. At Nagpur, had he been sent in at number three, in place of Dravid, perhaps he would have regained the silken touch that has so mysteriously deserted him. Coming in when he did, with the spinners in full flow on a wearing pitch was hardly the ideal platform for regaining of lost form. However, if he does go, in will come Virender Sehwag who himself should not have been left out in the first place. However, he too will be wasted (like Laxman was) if he is sent in at number six or seven.
His rightful place is high up in the order when the ball is new and hard and will suit his style of play. The scoreboard too will be ticking over more briskly and Dravid could come in at six to take charge in the event of any unexpected panic. Captain Saurav Ganguly happily appears to be regaining his form and composure although his movements on the field still give the impression of not-too-complete fitness. One hopes what one saw in the match was an optical illusion and if our sights are on the World Cup in 2003 we need a much more mobile leader. The pitch was of course tailor made for Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh but however suitable the conditions are, you still have to deliver the goods.
Harbhajan took his early second innings disappointment in his stride and bowled beautifully in the final morning, displaying both maturity and character. It must be admitted that the Zimbabwe attack on this pitch did not look overtly impressive though Ray Price bowled manfully and not without excellent skill. The case of Travis Friend having to be taken off for a breach committed unwittingly was sad and the Law pertaining to this needs to be clarified and modified. Having said that, I doubt if his non-suspension would have made any material difference to the ultimate scenario. It is a shame that Zimbabwe cannot now win the series even if it wins at Delhi. And if it has learnt its lessons well, Delhi, despite being Kumble's happy hunting ground, could provide an exciting fare.