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Slow poison

MS Dhoni invited the opposition to a game of patience, showed he had several plans in place and his team executed them expertly to smother Australia's chances of winning a match they must, reports Atreyo Mukhopadhyay.

cricket Updated: Nov 08, 2008 23:13 IST
Atreyo Mukhopadhyay

On a day the balance of the final Test could have tilted to either side, India stayed away from direct confrontation. Mahendra Singh Dhoni invited the opposition to a game of patience, showed he had several plans in place and his team executed them expertly to smother Australia's chances of winning a match they must.

The skipper employed what under the circumstances can be called the cricketing equivalent of Queen's Indian Defence. Australia were out to score at a fast clip and it was imperative for India to check this or take wickets. Dhoni saw the risk of conceding quick runs involved with the second and blocked almost all possible ways of scoring.

Coming into the third day with a run rate of 3.85, Australia managed 42 in 24 overs before lunch and 49 in 29 before tea. Even though things changed later, 166 in 85.4 overs was what they got. Their bid to march towards India's total -- or go further -- slow-poisoned, they went back plotting one final assault on India who have a lead of 86 runs.

Throughout the series, Australia have tried out some unconventional placements of fielders without much success. On Saturday, Dhoni started by positioning eight men on the off side against the left-handed pair of Simon Katich and Michael Hussey. Zaheer Khan with Ishant Sharma bowled to this plan unchanged for 18 overs.

They were bowling wide, sometimes very wide. The bat had to be flashed if scoring was the priority and one such attempt resulted in a chance in the second over. Katich was on 94 when he had a go at Ishant but Rahul Dravid at first slip saw the ball pop out after getting both hands to it waist-high to his left. One more edge fell short and another flew away, but India were willing to wait.

It was critical that the bowlers, especially Ishant who was coming over the wicket, didn't drift in line. That there was just one single on the leg-side in this period and that too in the last over of Ishant's first spell proves how steadfastly and unerringly they executed this plan. People may term it negative, but as long as one doesn't violate rules, everything is positive in India-Australia matches these days.

Dhoni showed he had plan B ready when he brought Harbhajan Singh over the wicket against the left-handers with a six-three leg-side field. The off-spinner was pitching it outside leg, inviting them to play against the spin or stroke inside out through the open region between point and mid-off. The batsmen tried neither, barring two occasions: once when Hussey played a reverse sweep and another time when he drove through covers.

The fielding has to be good to back any plan and except for the missed catch, India intercepted many balls inside what would have been the 'ring' in a one-day match. Ageing bodies were diving, attempts were made to prevent singles being converted into twos and despite bowling long spells, Zaheer and Ishant showed great commitment chasing in the deep.

Luck didn't favour Australia either. Hussey was run out after setting off for a single to break the shackles, but saw his punch getting stuck in silly-point M. Vijay's extended right hand. The debutant showed remarkable reflex again by flicking the ball towards the stumps, behind which Dhoni completed the job. Shane Watson too was a bit unlucky to see the ball roll back after he thought he had got enough bat on it to drop it dead at his feet.

It wasn't defensive throughout. Zaheer attacked when he was getting the ball to come back in to right-handers in a short burst before lunch and in another after it. Ishant too went flat out in his second spell and got Michael Clarke with his special ball that straightens after pitching. Attacking and defending, they demonstrated the variety of plans Dhoni unveiled on Saturday.