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So near, yet so far for Kenya

By Peter Roebuck
March 08, 2003 21:30 IST
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Kenya came within a whisker of upsetting the second favourites on a noisy evening in Cape Town. Those sleeping through the night and relying upon the scorecard and margin of victory for their appraisal of the match are getting an inaccurate picture of a contest as tense and full of alarmed faces as a Hitchcock movie.

India were down and almost out. Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar and Mohammad Kaif had fallen for a handful of runs and the Kenyans were swarming all over the field. Sourav Ganguly could not have looked more worried had his mother-in-law arrived unannounced. Fieldsmen were diving around like desperate goalkeepers and the bowlers were keeping such a line and length that the Indians felt they were undergoing a slow torture, bound to lead to a miserable ending. They were on the rack and the bonds were tightening.

Unfortunately, the Kenyans allowed the match to drift away. Although Ganguly and Yuvraj Singh did bat calmly and capably, they were immeasurably helped by the tactics of their opponents. Kenya's unheralded seamers had pinned down the celebrated batsmen of India. Once again Sehwag had driven stiff-legged and been held in an alert slip cordon. Sehwag, Inzamam and Jayawardena are vying for the position of 'bunny of the tournament'. Worse followed as Tendulkar mistimed the leg glide that has been so productive and was taken behind square, whereupon the Africans went into a frenzy of rejoicing. These fellows do not need a psychologist to tell them to get into a huddle. They need umpires to tell them the next willow wielder has arrived and its time to resume the game.

Even Kaif could not resist the power of the moment as India subsided. At the crease his successor, Rahul Dravid, who is almost as intelligent as Sangakarra and he reads Oscar Wilde and curses South Africans, resembled a chicken in a freezer as the appalling thought dawned that India might not escape. The Kenyans had been bowling line and length. Steve Tikolo's team does not give much away and has bowled fewer no-balls and wides than any senior opponent. His pacemen kept landing the ball on the proverbial saucer and the Indians scrambled for runs with the air of surprised hosts searching the larder.

Kenyan teamHereabouts it seemed easier for Kenya to win than lose. Those anticipating a dull second round were scratching their heads and tearing up their first drafts. Perhaps it should have been foreseen. These teams have been the most volatile in the competition. India has been as erratic as a mad leader and Kenya had beaten the Lankans but been thrashed more often than a mischievous schoolboy. Ganguly's team has dropped five catches and had sent down more tripe than can be found in a butcher's during a depression. Kenya had batted sensibly, surged towards the end and followed the script written for underdogs by putting runs on the board and letting nerves take care of the rest.

At 3/23 the Vindaloos were in serious trouble. At 4/108 things were bleak. Had an edge been heard by the English umpire the game might have been up. Kenya were running amok; its pace bowlers imposing the tightest blockade since Cuba in 1961 and Collins Obuya, the lofty and youthful leg-spinner, mesmerising his opponents with dropping deliveries. India were transfixed, hardly daring to move a muscle let alone play a risky stroke. Ganguly resembled the boy on the burning deck.

Kenya simply need to retain its hold. Instead, India were reprieved. Tikolo tossed the ball to his spinners, pushed the field back and allowed the batsmen to collect runs at will. At the critical juncture, Tikolo and Maurice Odumbe, the most experienced players in the side, sent down nine overs of moderate off-spin at a cost of 51 runs. As the match slipped, the head cried out for the seamers to be recalled as all except Martin Suji had overs left to bowl. Incredibly Kenya kept the spinners going and drifted to a defeat its captain seemed to regard as inevitable.

Till that last hour, Kenya played the better cricket and were the better side. India were as loose as a shirt kurta several sizes too large. Kenya showed that it deserved its place in the last six and then, on the brink of the semis, and scarcely able to believe the scoreline, it stepped back. The Indians must have been mightily relieved. Ganguly did play a captain's innings and Yuvraj impressed again. But if the Indian leaders did not kick a few backsides in the aftermath then they are not made of the right stuff.

At the critical hour, Kenya suffered a collapse in confidence. With the semi-finals looming they stopped playing. No other explanation is possible for the self-destructive tactics seen on that heady evening on the southern tip of their vast continent. More than in previous victories, at home or against distracted opponents, Kenya had struck a blow for Africa. The match was won and then it was lost again. Tikolo's team showed the value of getting the basics right even in the upper echelons of the game. It seized the day and then lost its nerve. Next time the Kenyans bat sensibly, bowl straight and field like demons, they will win because by then they will truly believe in their cause.

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Peter Roebuck