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December 11, 1999


India Down Under

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The Great Indian Dope Trick

Prem Panicker

Is it a national malaise, or merely a cricketing one, that India seems to swing wildly between extremes?

That we either plan too much, or too little? Score too quick, or too slow? Bowl very well, or very badly?

That's how it looked, watching the Indian team on day two at the Adelaide Oval. They came out with their minds fixed on a containing operation, looking not to take out the wickets that remained, but to try and contain the damage to within reasonable limits.

Off the first ball of the day, bowled by Ajit Agarkar, Adam Gilchrist, without waiting to get his eye in, shaped to play to leg. The ball was a slowish, shortish loosener, and the batsman, committed to the shot, could only push -- playing too early as it turned out -- for the bowler to hold on the follow through.

The Aussies celebrate the fall of a wicket At that point, a fielding side with the courage of its convictions should have been telling itself, cool, Santa's come to town, one of the Aussie dangermen giftwrapped his wicket for us, now let's blow the rest away. But no, Shane Warne comes out to the kind of deferential treatment a Mark Waugh, or the Queen of England perhaps, could have expected -- just two slips, the rest of the field respectfully spread out and, as early as over number three, a sweeper at cover for god's sake.

Besides grit, one of Steve Waugh's most notable abilities is his skill at batting with the tail. There is no fuss, no attempt to farm the strike and get unduly protective. Instead, he signals clearly that he is going to hold one end up, there is a calm assumption that the guy at the other end can, and will, get the runs. That was the mode Waugh was in here, and Warne at the other end blossomed.

Initially there were edges -- but with just the two slips, no gully, no fielder close up under the helmet, his pushes and edges didn't prove costly. Equally mystifying was why Srinath was not immediately brought in to attack the new batsman.

Warne's batting style is no secret. When it is three quarter and on the stumps, he fidgets. Give him the short stuff, and he'll pull with venom; give him room outside off and he will free his arms and flay you through the square field. So the Indians did just that -- alternated between the short-pitched stuff (even the normally sane Venkatesh Prasad succumbing to misplaced machismo in this regard) and the wide of off line.

Warne made merry. Besides the gift deliveries, dealt with in clinical fashion, a highlight was his driving -- if you look at the wagonwheels of the Australian batsmen, you'll find that it was Warne who had the most boundary hits in front of the wicket, especially through the covers. He sets himself for the shot early, swings through the line with enviable fluidity, and places the shots to perfection.

Prasad and Agarkar used the 9-overs-old ball first up, before the former made way for Srinath. Watching him bowl, you had to wonder what it feels like for a fast bowler to turn at the top of his mark with a hard, shiny ball in his hand, look down the ground, and find a number eight batsman confronting him with just two slips behind the bat.

Srinath still managed to fire, bending his back to make one lift and seam away. Warne drove, got the edge, and a four as the ball flew waist high to third slip -- only, there wasn't anyone there. The next ball, outside off and kicking off a length, drew Warne into the slash, the ball flew head high to point and Ramesh, reacting late, made a meal of a simple catch. The score at that point was 325/6.

81 more runs were added by the buccaneering Warne and an obviously amused Waugh (it's a toss up which was the better sight -- the flamboyance with which Warne cover drove Srinath or the smile that Waugh greeted that shot with) before India's misery ended. Ajit Agarkar, brought back, tried out a bouncer and Waugh went under it. Next ball was short, and wide of off and going through when the Aussie captain aimed a slash at it, and managed only to nick through to the keeper.

Kasprowicz went in ahead of the more accomplished Fleming, and went out again when he pushed down the wrong line at a Kumble top spinner, and got himself bowled through the gate. Next up, Warne -- having equalled his highest score in Tests thus far Warne, who obviously had his eye set on a first Test hundred, attempted to farm the strike, went too far over to a Kumble delivery aiming to work the single to leg, missed and was trapped in front.

Those 86 runs he got, though, nailed India's hide to the door nice and tight. The score when he came in was 298/6, and India seemed to have pulled back into the game. When he left, it was 424, and at that point, the fielding side would already have known that they could at best draw this one, but there wasn't much hope of winning from there.

Glenn McGrath played an on drive that was met with more applause than Steve Waugh got for his century, but then managed to snick Venkatesh Prasad into the hands of his namesake behind the sticks, and Australia's innings had finally ended for 441, nine short of the 450 Waugh said he was aiming for.

Prasad with three for 83 turned in a decent performance. And if Srinath were prone to violence, he'll surely have felt like wrecking the dressing room after seeing his figures of 1/117 after 29 overs of hard toil -- the wickets column would have looked a heck of a lot more decent with proper backing in the field. Agarkar took out two, and indicated that whatever else has deserted him, Luck is still his girlfriend. Kumble worked hard throughout the innings -- and got two tailend wickets to show for it. And when you review the bowling card, you begin to think that either the fielding, or the bowling, preferably both, will need to improve 100 per cent if India is to even think of winning a game on this tour.

India opened with Gandhi and Ramesh -- and the latter's one besetting sin, a tendency to take things easy, sparked his exit. Gandhi, in the very first over, had taken his eyes away from a McGrath lifter and pushed his bat at it in a parody of a defensive jab -- but when the bowler, in his next over, pitched one on a full length, he eased into a lovely looking extra coverdrive. An all-run four was always on, given the length of the straight boundary and the fact that Blewett was up close at wide mid off as the ball slid past him. As Blewett picked up, Ramesh was already touching down for the third, and turning for the fourth. And he ran as though he was telling himself naaah, no one's going to hit from that distance. Blewett did, and Ramesh's lazy sprint back for the fourth wasn't good enough to beat that incredible throw.

Gandhi went as per the script -- McGrath gave him the short one again, the batsman turned his head towards first slip and jabbed his bat at it, the ball flew off the splice and an easy catch resulted to short backward square.

VVS Laxman looked the pick of the batsmen on view. Earlier, there was a complaint that he tended, early on, to let his feet take root around leg stump, pushing with bat away from body at anything on or around the off. He seems to have worked on that -- here, the initial back and across movement was spot on, and he looked fluid off either front or back foot. Just before tea, things seemed to fall apart for him mentally as he played a couple of airy shots without moving his feet -- and off one of those, Mark Waugh (who with Brian 'Buckets' McMillan must rank as the safest slip fielder seen this decade) let down a sharp chance.

Dravid and Laxman seemed to be playing just the right kind of game. When the bowlers held a line outside off, they left it severely alone. When the bowlers adjusted and came closer to the stumps, Laxman in particular went back and forced off the back foot, or shut the bat face and used the wrists to work the ball away on the onside. And suddenly, the Australian attack took on a less fearsome aspect.

And then Laxman gave it all away -- McGrath, brought back for a second spell, pitched one short outside off, the batsman slashed at it, the ball flew head high to point and Steve Waugh, ignoring the example set by Ramesh earlier in the day, held on to the catch.

That brought Tendulkar and Dravid together, to confront Warne and McGrath. And the madness began.

One of the less likeable aspects of Tendulkar's mental makeup is obstinacy. Once he gets an idea into his head, a team of prospectors with dynamite and blasting caps can't get it out again. And here, the idea he was working with was obvious -- defend the Australian bowling to hellangone.

That India at that point needed to bat cautiously was a given -- but to stretch that to a mindset that refused to do anything but play the ball dead at the batsman's feet, never making an attempt to push the ball around into the outfield and work singles, was carrying caution to ludicrous extents.

Sachin sweeps Warne But 'studied defence' was the gameplan of the day, and all the slow handclapping in the world wasn't going to change that. So we had the far from edifying sight of Tendulkar at one end, and Dravid at the other, gently patting back anything on the stumps, and carefully watching through those deliveries outside, while the scorers went off to sleep and the crowd amused themselves by trying to see if they could clap slower than the batsmen could score runs.

What was the point of that display? Beats me.One thing for sure -- the bowlers, Warne and McGrath, must have loved it. Maiden after maiden went by, and both bowlers enjoyed the luxury of being able to concentrate on one batsman at a time, for six balls at a stretch, without having to make the adjustments that would have become necessary had the two Indians taken the odd single.

Another problem with that form of predetermined defence, irrespective of line and length, is that sooner or later you make that one mistake you can't afford. Dravid, who looked fluent to start with and then inexplicably, got lead in his boots, made his when he lunged into a forward defensive push at Warne -- the ball was a touch short, the batsman wasn't to the pitch, the ball took the high part of the bat and went to short square and Dravid, lucky to get the benefit earlier when he padded up to a Warne flipper on middle and leg, walked back after a most impressive 126-ball vigil.

Tendulkar's 69 ball vigil was unbroken at stumps -- which is the best you can say of an innings that surrendered the initiative to the bowling side.

Ganguly looked positive in the few overs remaining in the day -- mercifully, he appeared to have been spared the defensive disease. And India's slim chance of fighting back here is for him to continue in that vein tomorrow, and for Tendulkar to figure out that the bat in his hands has a use other than to act as advertising hoarding for a particular firm of tyre manufacturers and purported cricket goods merchants.

He is the one the team will look at, to spearhead the challenge against the Australian bowlers. And if he loses that battle here, it will have repercussions -- not just on this Test, but on the Indian mindset for the rest of the series.


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