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Harbhajan turns it India's way

By Prem Panicker
Last updated on: March 28, 2006 17:58 IST
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Wheels have come off carts before, but rarely as spectacularly as they did during the England chase.

After 19.4 overs, England was 117/3; Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff had put on a 52-run partnership off just 41 balls, and looked to be cruising to a win well inside the distance.

In a game marred by indiscriminate strokeplay, it took two rushes of the blood to turn the game on its axis, and permit India -- powered by an adrenalin-fuelled bowling and fielding performance -- to mount a great escape from an untenable position.

- India innings

The shift in tempo was all the more dramatic for what had preceded it. Sreeshanth had just come back for a second spell, in the 19th over -- and Flintoff, in a display of silken power-hitting, carved him for 16 in the over; an effortless lofted off drive for six, a lovely straight drive for four, and a waltz down the wicket to flick off the pads over midwicket for six having done the damage.

Running out of options, Rahul Dravid brought on Yuvraj Singh for the 20th -- and Pietersen went down on one knee to hoist a full toss to midwicket, where Gautam Gambhir merely had to make sure he stayed on the right side of the line (117/4).

Dravid immediately introduced the second power play, a seemingly dangerous move when confronted by a batsman then on 41 off just 33 balls. A slip was introduced, also a short square -- and Flintoff, who till that point had merely to choose where to slam the ball, lost the plot. An enormous sweep at Harbhajan accomplished nothing more than pad into the hand of the close fielder; another swipe superbly fielded at short square by Gambhir… the batsman was clearly fidgety, and the offie nailed him with a delivery quicker, fuller, flatter, beating the batsman with the pace and turning it just enough from off to middle to nail the England captain on the pads (117/5).

From that point on, it was all downhill.

England's problems had however started much earlier -- in the first over of its chase. Track back through the last nine ODIs, dating back to the first game against South Africa, and you find that Irfan Pathan has broken through in his first or second over on five different occasions. Here, he made it six in ten.

Every element of his bowling that was missing in the Tests came together in his very first over, the third ball of which swung in from outside to line of leg, lifted, and seamed away to force Andrew Strauss into the defensive jab, which found the edge through to Dhoni.

Owais Shah fancies his aggression -- and he started with a first ball four. A ball later, he was walking back -- to a dismissal Pathan has almost patented. The ball angled across the right hander with some shape through the air, hit off on a fullish length, then straightened into off and middle to beat the attempted flick and crash into the pads.

Kevin Pietersen and Mathew Prior were both lucky to survive very good shouts for LBW off Pathan and Sreeshanth respectively -- and celebrated their let off with a partnership that swept England back into the game. Prior played it just right, focusing on rotating strike while at the other end, Pietersen began to look like he could take the game away single handed. His technique was interesting -- taking stance a foot and a half outside the crease to negate swing and seam, the batsman added to it by taking a long preliminary stride forward.

Pathan bowled a controlled first spell (6-1-19-2), but Sreeshanth came under the hammer early against Pietersen, forcing Dravid to turn to Harbhajan Singh as early as the 12th over.

Prior greeted the offie with a flat sweep through midwicket for four; two deliveries later, he had a dash at duplicating the stroke, but this one had been held back just a bit, and tossed up more to force the mishit -- Gambhir, running in off the midwicket fence, held a good outfield catch as the ball was dropping in front of him (57/3).

From the moment Flintoff came out, he appeared hell bent on outdoing even his flamboyant partner -- runs flowed from his bat in a seemingly unstoppable stream as he shrugged off the odd mishit and kept going. And then Yuvraj put the skids under England with that full toss in the 19th over -- and the game swung around and faced the other way.

An over after he had done for Flintoff, Harbhajan produced his best ball in a long time -- a tantalizing arm ball, tossed up high with enormous overspin. The ball drifted into Geraint Jones, who first shaped to sweep, realized he had misread the length, and tried to dab down on the ball as it landed in his block hole. The bat, though, was a lifetime late as the ball hit the line of off and hit middle stump (120/6).

The offie then came up with a very good shout for LBW against Blackwell, nailing him in front of off, but didn't get the umpire to see it his way. The let off, however, merely lasted till the 28th over -- this time, Blackwell went for the sweep and Gambhir, with millimeters to spare on the midwicket boundary, tumbled to hold an amazing outfield catch.

In his final over of a magnificent spell, Harbhajan struck again -- this time, through another blinder of a catch. Collingwood paddled hard, the ball flew past square leg and Kaif, who like Yuvraj has in recent times had a miserable stint at that position, flung his right hand out to hold a blinder. 141/8 at that point -- and merely formalities remained, as Yuvraj nailed Kabir Ali in front, and Pathan closed out the game.

England had, in the space of 18.2 overs, lost 7 wickets for 47 runs -- about as dramatic a collapse as you could imagine, and as with India, a case of batsmen queuing up to commit hara kiri when confronting a chase that could have been taken home with singles.

In a sense, England gifted the game to India -- but credit where due, the home side attacked throughout, even when Pietersen and Flintoff were going berserk; the bowlers showed great discipline and in sharp contrast to the recent Test series, the fielders caught flies.

You've got to wonder what it is with this team -- it has been just about adequate in Tests, but in the shorter version of the game, the team has been playing as if it believes it just cannot lose.

India innings

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