It was a Ďmust winí situation for India to make the last match the one to die for and as we have seen, the toss was going to be a crucial factor. The team doing the chasing had won all the games so far, and it was no surprise when stand-in captain Rahul Dravid won the toss and asked Hooper to take first strike.
The opening combination was the one that had given Indian bowlers the heeby-jeebies in previous matches but this pitch looked a bit different and the ball definitely was not coming onto the bat. That Hinds was allowed to score just a single in 28 deliveries indicates how slow the pitch was and how well the bowlers bowled.
Srinath did not give any width to the batsmen and Agarkar bowled well within himself ó with greater control and thus with more effectiveness than when he tries to extract pace and bounce from placid pitches.
With the West Indians not getting off to their usual blistering start and Dravid making clever use of the slower bowlers, the batsmen were just not allowed to settle. The heavy-scoring earlier games also meant that the West Indies batsmen were playing shots to try and put up a big total, even though they were losing wickets regularly.
It was this lack of a big partnership which was the difference between the previous matches and this one. In all those games there was at least one three-figure or near enough partnership that gave body and muscle to the score but without a substantial one here, the total looked pretty thin.
The West Indians may also have erred in not using the experience of Hooper up the order, for the number seven slot is too low for the captain. Perhaps itís the knee injury, that will need surgery after the last game, that has forced the change in the order. But for his effort, the West Indians would not have reached 200. They also wasted three and half overs being all out in the 47th over and that meant missing out on a few more runs.
Kartik once again was the pick of the spinners but Sodhi not being given a single over and slotted to bat at number seven makes one wonder why he was picked in the side. Without Ganguly and Tendulkar the batting does look a little vulnerable, especially at the top. With Mongia departing early and Sehwag throwing it away again, the pressure was on the Indians.
Thankfully in Dravid, India not only have a man in form, but one who has the coolest head in the business. He had the responsibility of captaining the side in this game, besides the burden of keeping wickets and batting in a crisis. He had already dealt with captaincy before, judiciously handling the bowlers and, importantly, having the right men at right places in the field.
Realising that he needed to build and repair the innings, especially after Laxmanís departure, and nurse the youngsters Yuvraj and Kaif and make them play sensibly, he was constantly talking to the impetuous Yuvraj. That helped, for the left-hander played patiently and had a stabilising partnership with the captain that gave India some breathing space.
Still when three wickets fell in quick succession, including that of the duo, there must have been some tension in the Indian dressing-room. They were lucky that they had another cool head, Sanjay Bangar at number eight, and it was the underrated, underestimated all-rounder who played the shots that took India to a victory-levelling the series.
India were also helped by some truly ordinary captaincy from Hooper who did not protect the boundaries especially after five good balls in an over and allowed India to ease the pressure with a boundary off the last ball of the over. Bangar even outscored Kaif which should tell the doubters that he has a good cricketing head on his shoulders and needs to be given more responsibility. Still, before he gets carried away, he should have a look at where he was holding the bat during that close shave he had while taking a run.
Once again the team batting second won the match but with the series level, the side that keeps its head will win the decider in Vijaywada.