New Delhi: There were quite a few twists and turns in the Kotla plot, but the lead role clearly belonged to Harbhajan Singh.
Criticised from all quarters for having lost his wicket-taking skill, Harbhajan was, perhaps, destined to win the first ODI of the seven-match series for the TVS Cup single-handedly for India. He top-scored with 37 in a dismal batting effort which saw his illustrious teammates struggle in the middle. And then, in a devastating spell, he bagged five for 31 to push England to a 39-run defeat.
No wonder Rahul Dravid termed it a ‘great’ spell. “(Kevin) Pietersen and (Andrew) Flintoff were going really well. First Yuvraj (Singh) removed Pietersen and then Bhajji simply ran through them in the second spell. It definitely brought us back into the match.”
Flintoff was more profuse in praising the off-spinner. “Ya, Harbhajan created all the trouble. We hoped to restrict India to less than 200, but Harbhajan stuck around for those 30-odd runs. It proved crucial.”
The England captain was spot on. Without Harbhajan, India would have been 0-1 down at the end of the day.
Having put on 203 on the board after being asked to bat first, the only way India could have remained in the hunt was by picking early wickets. Irfan Pathan did get two in the opening over but that looked a matter of distant past as Pietersen and Flintoff got together in what looked like a match-winning partnership.
The Indian captain was literally scratching his head when the idea of introducing Yuvraj to the attack and bringing on Harbhajan from the Delhi Gate end struck him.
It was a magical move, though Dravid later said he had no “magic formula.” Yuvraj broke the fourth-wicket partnership when Pietersen sent him straight into Gautam Gambir’s hands at mid-wicket.
Thereafter, Harbhajan took over. The English batsmen did play some poor shots, but that can’t take the credit away from Harbhajan. He picked up wickets at such regular intervals that the Englishmen were confused how to go about their job.
Flintoff played across the line to be trapped leg-before and Geraint Jones had his timber disturbed as he didn’t read the turn. And when Gambhir held a well-judged catch on the boundary line to send back Ian Blackwell with the total on 137, it virtually was all over. Harbhajan’s second spell read an amazing 6-2-9-4. It turned the match on its head.
Things were not so smooth for India the rest of the day. On a wicket that had some movement in the morning but slowed down a bit later, India batted poorly.
The focus was on Virender Sehwag, but even on his home turf, he failed to end the run of poor scores. He survived six balls, made seven runs, before once again falling to the short ball. Dravid, though, was still optimistic. “Sehwag wants to score more runs' We want him to score more runs' We are confident he will score more runs.”
Gambhir, Pathan, Suresh Raina and Mahendra Singh Dhoni threw their wickets. Only Dravid got a good ball from Plunkett that beat him to uproot his middle stump.
The skipper began shakily and was lucky when Owais Shah dropped him at first slip off Kabir Ali. Dravid then launched a counter-attack, James Anderson and Ali bearing the brunt. England were rocked in their pursuit of 204 as Pathan sent back Andrew Strauss and Shah in next to no time to leave the visitors reeling at four for two. Matt Prior tried to get into the damage control act, but didn’t last too long.
Pietersen and Flintoff then threatened to run away with the game. Both treated the Indian bowlers with disdain. When Sreesanth was brought back from the Delhi Gate end, the England captain hit him for two sixes and one four in an over.
Unfortunately, both fell when they were firmly entrenched.