Rohit stars in low-scoring thriller

As in the Mumbai Test, the final delivery of the match was punched to long-on, but this time there were no tears for the home fans as last man Umesh Yadav’s drive went for four to end a pulsating match.

It wasn’t the highest quality of cricket, but there was no shortage of entertainment for a voluble Cuttack crowd watching its first international match in two years. Rohit Sharma seemed to have sealed the game with a mostly level-headed half-century after India slipped to 59 for 5, but his dismissal 11 runs short of the target provided an extra dollop of suspense to an already tumultuous match.

Watching tailenders bat ranks high among the enjoyable sidelights in cricket, and watching a panicky No. 10 Varun Aaron and Umesh, with all of 10 ODI caps between them, negotiate the final passage was a heart-warmer. The two came together after Vinay Kumar, a relatively more skilled batsman, lost his head and his wicket by charging out and holing out to mid-off, and that five deliveries after Rohit’s dismissal.

Eleven runs were needed from the final pair, off 23 deliveries. It was to be expected that the predominant mood in the middle wouldn’t be calm-and-collected, but it was still hard to explain the thinking behind Aaron declining a single off the fifth delivery of the 47th, so that he could take strike in the next over. A visibly stricken Rohit couldn’t believe that decision, and substitute Ajinkya Rahane muttered under his breath.

A spell of 15 dot balls was finally ended by Aaron thumping the ball to long-off for a single. More headless-chicken stuff followed as Umesh nurdled the fifth ball of the 48th, with Aaron this time desperately wanting a non-existent second in another attempt to face the start of the next over.

In Aaron’s defence, Umesh wasn’t exactly the most confidence-inspiring of batsmen, regularly planting his front foot across the stumps and poking at the ball. Umesh managed to sneak a single towards square leg off the first delivery of the penultimate over, for which the pacy Andre Russell might have been a better choice than the innocuous Darren Sammy. An on-target yorker at Russell’s pace could have been the game, but Sammy perhaps feared the edged boundary to third man or fine leg.

In any case, Sammy’s second delivery was a hit-me short-and-wide delivery that was dispatched for four by Aaron, to bring India within four of victory. He guided the next ball towards point for a single, and in his enthusiasm to look for yet another unlikely second, he slipped and had to settle for one. Umesh coolly shouldered arms to the next delivery, before punching a length ball past mid-on for the boundary that extended India’s winning streak in home ODIs to ten. It also ended Aaron’s mad scramble for the second run, something he famously did, without delivering victory, off the final delivery in the Mumbai Test.

At the other extreme when it comes to taking the second is R Ashwin, who was mildly criticised after delaying setting off for the potentially winning-run in Mumbai. This time he will receive a lot more criticism, after staying put for too long though his senior partner Rohit was running to the danger end, and was confident of making it.

Before that run-out, India were 54 away with plenty of overs to go, with Rohit and Ashwin – fresh from a Test century – in the middle. A fairly comfortable state, which India reached due to a 83-run stand for the sixth wicket between Rohit and Ravindra Jadeja. That stand administered CPR to a chase that was fast fading at 59 for 5.

Rohit played the more expansive strokes – a stylish six over the bowler, a textbook cover drive for four off Russell, followed by a controlled pull for another boundary. Jadeja was more content playing the no-frills role, picking up several of his boundaries through glides behind point. It was crucial innings for both players – Rohit, returning after several months out due to a finger injury, is looking to secure a spot in the crowded middle order, while Jadeja is still to emphatically prove he deserves a spot as high as No. 7.

All the drama seemed unlikely when India’s openers galloped to 37 four overs into the chase. The dew was expected to play a huge role in the evening, and a chock-a-block crowd was probably one of the biggest many of the West Indians had played in front of. Kemar Roach didn’t let any of that affect him as he pulled West Indies back into the match by removing Parthiv Patel and Gautam Gambhir in the fifth over, and adding the scalp of Virat Kohli soon after.

When Russell snuck one past Virender Sehwag’s bat, and Suresh Raina chipped a catch to mid-off, it was West Indies who were in control, particularly as India’s most reliable middle-order finishers, MS Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh, were absent.

Rohit and the bowlers clinched it for India at the end, but the inexperienced attack had been hugely impressively in the afternoon as well. India had none of the regular members of their World Cup-winning line-up but that didn’t prevent them from limiting the visitors to a small total. Umesh and Varun showed off the pace for which they have made a name, Vinay ‘s patented away-swinger was on display, and the spinners continued to give the selectors no reason to think of Harbhajan Singh.

West Indies’ batting had had a reviving stand of its own between Darren Bravo and Danza Hyatt after the top-order stumbled. Bravo doled out his usual share of easy-on-the-eyes boundaries as he extended his rich form from the Tests to make 60, while Hyatt was more controlled after starting problems, due to which he has reached double-digits only twice in six ODI-innings so far.

Some amateurish running from Hyatt took away any semblance of momentum from the West Indian batting, and the dismissals of Bravo and Kieron Pollard within a short span, meant the final third of the innings was slow going.

The 211 they posted seemed far from substantial, especially as the pitch wasn’t playing too many tricks – the curator had boldly predicted 300-plus ahead of the match – but they again showed an encouraging ability to fight. That may not have translated into results on this trip so far, but it has resulted in the home side being forced to dig very deep in most of the matches.

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