The first India-West Indies Test Match was a cracker. Salil Benegal analyzes.
The momentum lasts… almost
Coming off a 4-1 win in the preceding ODI series, the West Indies would have backed themselves to continue their run of good form in the opening test at the Antigua Recreation Ground on a surface where they have enjoyed a good record. For two days of play, it seemed as if the momentum was going the same way as it had been in the one-dayers. The West Indians delivered in the field with some sharp throws and catches to support accurate and disciplined bowling on a surface offering a surprising amount of bounce and movement, and most of the Indian batsmen struggled to cope.
Only Rahul Dravid had showed a willingness to graft, grinding out a turgid 49 while most around him fell. Dwayne Bravo and Corey Collymore cashed in, simply putting the ball in the right areas of the pitch and letting the wicket and the batsmen do the rest for them.
Bowled out for 241 on the second morning, India were left to rely upon a pace trio boasting merely fifty-nine first class matches between them. It was their comeuppance for leaving out Irfan Pathan and Harbhajan Singh, with the latter’s exclusion coming as a shock to many after the good form he had displayed in the earlier one day matches. Munaf Patel shone in patches while Sreesanth and VRV Singh were erratic and often erred with no-balls and wides, but the West Indian batsmen failed to capitalise.
Several got off to starts but none went further than Chris Gayle in his 72, an innings filled with powerful slashes through the off side, and a lofted six off Sreesanth that cleared the roof. This meant that the West Indies could not stretch their lead beyond 130 by the time they were bowled out on the third morning with VRV Singh and Kumble removing the tail-enders.
Trailing by 130 runs on a wicket still offering some assistance to the bowlers, India needed a batsman or two to deliver a big innings. It was at this stage that Wasim Jaffer stood up. Jaffer had looked shaky in the first innings, edging an out-swinger from Edwards for one run. He began his second innings with more composure and assured leaves outside off stump, allowing Sehwag to dominate early on against the new ball attack of Edwards and Collymore. Things became easier when Edwards left the field in his sixth over citing a hamstring injury. With none of the other bowlers able to generate the same pace and movement, the openers flourished. Loose strokes cost both Sehwag and Laxman their wickets, but Jaffer motored on smoothly to a century, playing a risk-free game to take India to parity and then a small lead by stumps.India entered the fourth day leading by 85 with 8 wickets in hand, and it was here that Jaffer took charge and stamped his class over the proceedings. After nicking Bravo past slip in the second over of the day, Jaffer began to unfurl his repertoire of strokes. Anything too full was punished with elegant drives down the ground or through the covers, and bowlers straying on the pads were flicked through the on side time after time. Only during a brief spell from Bradshaw and Collymore did he look vulnerable, playing and missing a few times outside his off stump, but his progress was not halted for long. Despite Dravid struggling to turn strike over at the other end, Jaffer kept the run rate moving briskly as the lead increased. After lunch, facing his 379th ball, Jaffer turned a ball from Dave Mohammad through midwicket to reach his double century.
This was catharsis. Jaffer’s first stint in international cricket had seen him tagged as a player unable to convert starts and guilty of throwing his wicket away in key situations. It could not have been further from the truth; Jaffer has been one of the most productive batsmen to ever play for Mumbai, with a habit of piling up huge hundreds, particularly in big matches. That talent though had never shone at the highest level, and scores of 100 and 81 in a home test against England recently were the only glimpses of what he was capable of. Here, under the pressure of a large first innings deficit and with question marks still hanging over his place in the side, he had not just rescued his side from possible defeat, but had put them in such a position that by the time he was bowled for 212, victory seemed a probable outcome.
Mohammad Kaif and MS Dhoni built on the backbone that Jaffer’s innings had provided. India’s lead stretched rapidly as the West Indies tried to control the damage, but MS Dhoni could not be restrained. Dave Mohammad was belted for two sixes in an over, then three more in his next. Trying to reach four in a row, Dhoni swung to square leg but only found Daren Ganga waiting at the ropes.
Dhoni remained, unsure whether the catch had been taken on the ropes and with Ganga and the umpires unsure about the dismissal, chaos broke out. Play was held up as the umpires were unable to take control of the situation, while Brian Lara visibly became more and more frustrated, at one stage snatching the ball from umpire Asad Rauf. The players were left to sort out the matter, Dhoni eventually walking before Dravid declared, leaving the West Indians 392 runs to make.
With India fielding an inexperienced pace attack, Anil Kumble was expected to be the key figure in the attempt to seize 10 wickets on the final day. A good spell from him could have turned the game convincingly in India’s direction, but it wasn’t to be - Kumble only picked up a single wicket in the first two sessions, with Sreesanth dismissing Sarwan and Lara in a spirited burst before lunch. Seven wickets were left going into the final session, when Kumble struck twice, removing Gayle and Chanderpaul; the latter via a dubious call from Simon Taufel. Virender Sehwag struck twice more, dismissing Dwayne Bravo and Denesh Ramdin and suddenly an Indian win seemed possible once more. Another rough decision saw Ian Bradshaw fall, and when Dave Mohammad chanced his luck one time too many against Kumble, only a single wicket stood between India and victory with 19 balls remaining. Dravid gambled and gave Sreesanth the ball, but the rookie was ineffective, spraying the ball and not threatening the stumps often enough. Kumble at the other end was negotiated by Fidel Edwards, who with a runner and a dead bat snuffed out India’s hopes of going 1-0 up to the delight of the Antiguan crowd. It was a fitting farewell to the Antigua Recreation Ground; one that’s provided cricket with some highly memorable moments and even more draws.