New Delhi: With four ODIs to go before a strenuous tour of Australia, India's bowlers must be hoping their more illustrious batting team-mates don't make it a habit of leaving them to finish off matches. For the second time in four days, India's tailenders were left to do what the batsman could not, and though this did not match day five at the Wankhede for exhilaration and tension, the manner in which the Cuttack ODI finished left the management with frayed nerves and mixed emotions.
Bowlers are supposed to win you matches with the ball, not with the bat under excruciating tension. There can be one-offs, and India will be hoping the last two matches are exactly that. In Mumbai, No's 8, 9 and 10 - R Ashwin, Ishant Sharma and Varun Aaron - had to hold West Indies at bay with 19 runs to defend once the last recognized batsman departed. Ishant did his role admirably, batting 17 balls for 10 runs before he was bowled; Ashwin - after a first-innings century that was the best score for India in the Test - held his composure until he was last man out with the scores level; Aaron, on debut, had to face five balls in what was beyond any doubt the most stressful situation he had even been in.
Chasing 212 under lights at Cuttack, India's last four contributed 36 to what was another humdinger of a chase. Vinay Kumar's 18 from 48 balls was the third highest score of the innings and the number of balls faced second only to Rohit Sharma (99) and Ravindra Jadeja (62). When the last pair of Umesh Yadav and Aaron came together, India were still 11 runs away from victory with 23 balls in hand.
Virender Sehwag's stumps were shattered during the first ODI in Cuttack. (AP PHOTO)
This wasn't as exciting as Bangalore 1996 when Javagal Srinath and Anil Kumble defied Australia. Aaron’s declining a single off the fifth delivery of the 47th over defied logic - and drew furious reactions from India's bench - and on the penultimate ball of the 48th over he was almost run out attempting a non-existent second. That Yadav and Aaron achieved their target was commendable indeed, but India's batsmen should not be leaving the job unfinished.
Apart from Rohit, they will want to forget about this effort as soon as possible. The Man-of-the-Match award went to him for 72 off 99 balls, but he was the first to admit he should have finished the job. Rohit's dismissal, bowled by a straighter one from Anthony Martin, left the job entirely in the bowlers' hands. Before him, Parthiv Patel, Gautam Gambhir, Virender Sehwag, Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina contributed 42 runs between them. They failed because they tried to get ahead of themselves, each dismissed to loose shots.
Low-scoring chases this one need an enforcer, a player who can surmount the strong level of pressure, impose himself on proceedings and steer the match in one direction. It's a difficult role to play, one that requires a touch of steel, but it's for that reason that players who deliver are termed special. Today Rohit payed that role almost to perfection and that is about all the positive India can take from Cuttack. But even he had himself to blame for running out Ashwin and then failing to cover the line on the ball he was bowled.
West Indies missed a trick by not bowling it in the blockhole. Of the last 16 deliveries of the match, 11 were either short, on a driveable length, or on the pads. The short and wide offering which Darren Sammy served up to Aaron - who played it excellently wide of third man for four - was a very poor choice and the one which ended the match was in the slot to be driven. That Yadav did so with sublime timing and all the panache of a top-order batsman was something else. Sammy will also rue his decision to bowl the penultimate over himself instead of giving it to his best bowler of the day, Andre Russell.
But West Indies' problems began earlier in the day, when a combination of rash batting and disciplined bowling kept them to 211. Lendl Simmons was to late on an attempted late cut, Marlon Samuels played the ugliest of slashes, Darren Bravo drove loosely away from the body, Danza Hyatt fell victim to amateurish runnings, Kieron Pollard fell to a horrendous stroke, Denesh Ramdin swung meekly, and Sammy just held the bat out limply. It was another sorry scorecard for West Indies, and India didn't do much better.
It was overall a poor game of cricket. West Indies' batting was poor, marred by indifferent shot selection, and India also had a slew of loose shots to blame. Even Vinay, as well as he played to score 18 crucial runs, will cringe at the shot that brought about his dismissal. That India's final-wicket pair gave an ordinary game an extraordinary ending shouldn't mask the fact that plenty mediocrity was the theme of the day.