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December 10, 1999


India Down Under

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Wizards of Oz do a Houdini

Prem Panicker

It's like this -- as Sachin Tendulkar and his mates walked off the Adelaide Oval for lunch on day one of the first Test, they happened to glance up at the scoreboard, and saw to their considerable astonishment that it read 74/4.

'Hey!', they tell themselves, 'hang on a minute, this ain't quite the thing. Here we are, at the start of a series no one expects us to do well in, we lose the toss, we are asked to bowl first on a decent batting track and what do we do? We have our hosts in all kinds of trouble! What are the folks back home going to think, they'll be downright ashamed of us for going against type!'

Now what to do? You can't ask batsmen who have been given out to come out and have another go -- so post lunch, the Indians do the next best thing, and allow the remaining blokes to settle right in, and take the game away.

How else does one explain the bizarre captaincy that saw the Indians, post lunch, open with Saurav Ganguly at one end and, worse, persist with him for five overs that cost 30 runs on the board, and many many more by virtue of having allowed the batsmen to get their feet going again, and their eyes set? You would have thought that based on the morning's play, the Indians -- captain Tendulkar specifically -- would have figured Venkatesh Prasad and Javagal Srinath were the best of the bowlers on view, and that therefore the idea, after lunch, would be to use them in tandem, in a bid to take out a wicket or two and really get stuck in to the Aussie lineup.

What was even more difficult to digest was the field setting -- with four down, with both Ponting and Waugh, before the lunch break, looking tentative, what captain in his right mind would go in with just two slips and the rest patrolling the periphery?

Steve Waugh
 Steve Waugh
 Pic: Allsport
Even as you chalk up, to the credit of Ponting and Steve Waugh, a superb fightback, you have to admit that the Aussies didn't bat themselves out of jail, not really -- rather, the Indians opened the doors, laid out a red carpet, scattered some rose petals and invited them to stroll out.

By close of play, the Indians have, hopefully, learnt the cardinal lesson about Australian cricket -- about all Australian sport for that matter. Which is this -- give the Aussie sportsman an inch, he'll take the whole damn footrule and whack you on the butt with it.

The morning promised a different story. On a hard, lightly grassed pitch, India went in with a three-seam attack, and the only quarrel you could have is with the choice of Ajit Agarkar over T Kumaran or even Debashish Mohanty. Agarkar wouldn't, on recent form, have looked to deserve his place in the starting eleven. But then, captain Tendulkar and coach Kapil Dev have over the last few days been doing the cricketing equivalent of selling the Brooklyn Bridge for scrap -- to wit, telling us what a wonderful bowler Agarkar is and how he's going to prove the surprise element in the Indian bowling package.

Steve Waugh won the toss and promptly opted to bat. Tendulkar said he would have done the same had the coin gone the other way. And inside of the first hour, Australia were neck deep in trouble.

Greg Blewett looked scratchy from ball one. Srinath ended his misery off ball seven -- a couple of breakbacks had the batsman primed, then the bowler pitched the identical line and made one go away, for Blewett, looking for it to jag back in off the seam, to obligingly touch into the hands of the keeper.

A mathematical dismissal, that. At the other end, Agarkar, given the honour of sharing the new ball, was giving us a taste of things to come. It wasn't that he was bad, bad -- just that every now and again, he would produce the gimme ball and get taken for runs, thus easing the pressure on the batsmen. After four overs, Prasad took over -- and promptly struck, albeit with some help from Umpire Steve Dunne. Bowling a very full length, Prasad got one to straighten and take the inner edge of Justin Langer's bat, onto pad. Dunne missed the edge and raised the finger and Langer, who was having a rather torrid time against Srinath, walked back with a wry smile.

Michael Slater seemed oblivious to the comings and goings at the other end. Oblivious, too, of the odd ball that beat his bat. A cover drive hit on the up, a perfectly executed hook shot when Srinath dropped short, then an up from under square cut off the same bowler that powered the ball over the point boundary for a six, were highlights in an innings that looked to be taking the attack to the Indians. Saurav Ganguly, brought on for just one over, bowled one wide of off seaming away further, Slater lit into a cover drive on the up, the slower pace of the bowler made the difference and Ramesh, at cover, took a good catch low down.

Mark Waugh, not in the best of touch against Pakistan, looked none too comfortable here as the Indians kept the pressure up with some good bowling and aggressive field settings. Unable to get the ball off the square, he allowed the pressure to get to him, driving at a Prasad leg cutter and nicking it to MSK Prasad behind the stumps, and Australia, 52/4 into the 18th over, looked to be reeling.

The morning session appeared to underline coach Kapil Dev's promise that his bowlers had been learning lessons from the dismal show earlier by Pakistan. The line -- an Agarkar notwithstanding -- was good, around off and on a fullish length, allowing the ball to swing and seam in slightly overcast conditions. And throughout, the pressure was maintained with three slips, two gullies and a man under the helmet at square leg. The bowling changes were thoughtful -- vide, for instance, Srinath coming back for Ganguly after the latter had bowled just the one over to take out Slater, the quicker bowler being brought back to attack Steve Waugh.

And then a seemingly different side came out after lunch, led by a seemingly different captain. Defensive fields, bowling that couldn't seem to stick to any one line, and fielding that ranged from the merely competent to the positively shambolic, pretty much described the Indians in the two hours between lunch and tea.

None of which is to take away from Ponting and Steve Waugh. The Australian skipper seemed intent on playing anchor while Ponting, coming off a 197 in the third Test against Pakistan, played the aggressor. The two batted in contrasting styles, Waugh gritting it out, working the ball around into gaps for quick singles and only when the bowlers dropped short, rocking back to play his favourite forcing shots square and through covers on the off.

Ricky Ponting
 Ricky Ponting
 Pic: Allsport
Ponting, meanwhile, was fluent off front and back foot alike. A bulk of his runs came square of the wicket, as he rocked back at the slightest opportunity to shorten the length and force the ball to the shorter square boundaries. The pick of his shots, though, were two cover drives -- one hit on the up, off Saurav Ganguly, that had a stunning inevitability about it, the other an effortless caress, off Srinath, played off the front foot almost as though Ponting was having a net against a club-class trundler.

India completely lost the plot, hereabouts. And Luck strolled across to the home dressing room, as well. Thus, when Agarkar pitched one short and the ball failed to climb as expected, Ponting bottom-edged an intended pull for MSK Prasad to hold. As soon as he played the shot, Ponting's head dropped -- he, and pretty much everyone else, had heard the nick. Then he looked up, and you could almost see him fight to keep all expression out of his face as he realised that Umpire Dunne -- perhaps balancing his book here -- had failed to hear the nick, and was keeping his hands at his sides in response to an almost apoplectic appeal by the bowler and the close fielders.

Again, with Ponting into the nineties, Srinath pitched one outside off, and jagged it back in off the seam. Ponting shaped to leave, and found the ball dart in, thud into the bat and fly to second slip. VVS Laxman lunged to his right, got the ball squarely in his hands, and then grassed it.

Steve Waugh had his moments, too. Notably the time when, batting 67, he pushed to mid off and took off. Rahul Dravid raced around, fielding on the run and, with Waugh trapped a good four, five feet short of his ground, shied at the stumps and missed the simplest of run-outs.

With the Indians in prodigal mood, the Aussie batsmen took full toll. Ponting and Waugh added 246, in 70 overs, in a partnership that seized the initiative and could well have decided the fate of the match. The landmarks kept coming -- Ponting, with a cover driven four off a Tendulkar leg break, became the first batsman in history to record back to back hundreds after coming off a pair of ducks. Steve Waugh, when he got to his personal 100, became the first in the world to record tons against every single Test playing nation.

And while on that, give the Aussie skipper major marks here for attitude. I want a hundred against India, he said before the series began, and then went out and got one just when the team most needed him to fire.

The two of them would have been batting on, yet, but for the most ridiculous of mixups late into the day. Steve Waugh, who was showing signs of crampstroked one out to deep cover and jogged the single. Agarkar, out on the boundary, misfielded. Ponting, as always alert to every possibility, took off for the second but Waugh, presumably hampered by his injury, held his ground. Agarkar threw to the keeper's end, and Ponting walked off, muttering what the charitable would suppose was a love lyric aimed at his captain.

Australia ended on 298/5 in the allotted 90 overs and, in the process, dominated the two sessions after lunch. India, by contrast, couldn't put a foot wrong before lunch but after the break... well... the most ardent fan of their cricket would have a hard time finding charitable things to say.

Among the bowlers, Prasad was the standout, bowling an immaculate line and length throughout and constantly making the batsman think. Srinath looked sharp at the start, but as Tendulkar slipped into his old habit of overworking his main bowler (22 overs, just one less than Kumble), Sri noticeably cut back on pace, and slipped into the role of stock bowler, obviously conserving his energies -- which seems a waste of the only strike bowler India has. Kumble, on a track that afforded bounce but little turn, took to bowling full, flat, and fast -- a style that had the batsmen watchful, but unworried.

At close, India finds itself with the slimmest of chances to make something of this Test -- with the second new ball just ten overs old, they will be looking (unless, of course, Tendulkar has other ideas) to try and take out a few quick wickets early in the morning on day two, nd restrict Australia to 350 or less. Let Steve Waugh and Adam Gilchrist get away on the second morning, and the touring side will see te game slip right out of their hands.

And they will have only themselves to blame.


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