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December 12, 1999


India Down Under

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Aussies on top, Down Under

Prem Panicker

156 ahead on the first innings, 71/2 on the second knock -- with two days left to play, you would have to say Australia is in a comfortable position at the end of day three at the Adelaide Oval. Barring the outrageously miraculous, they can't lose; more realistically, first with the bat and then with the ball, they can go flat out to force a win over the next two days.

So is an Australian win on the cards here? I am not so sure -- but more of that later.

This morning, the Jekyll and Hyde nature of Indian cricket surfaced yet again. Overnight not outs Saurav Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar came out and batted in a fashion that was the polar opposite of the Indian display of the second afternoon.

McGrath and Fleming opened for Australia. Fleming lasted two overs, with Ganguly and Tendulkar both driving and flicking him off the pads for quick runs. That brought Kasprowicz to the crease, and a long standing question, born of curiosity, surfaced again. In Sharjah, in that penultimate one-dayer, Kaspar said something to Tendulkar that so riled him, he's been going after the Aussie quick ever since. Here, as he first took one from middle and whipped it through midwicket, then walked inside the line of one on off and middle and used his wrists to scoop one through the square leg region, then went on his toes, leaning into an extra cover drive that screamed to the fence -- and you found yourself wondering just what Kaspar had said to Tendulkar then, to provoke him to what seems such an endless vendetta.

Steve Waugh finally switched to his best option, Warne at one end and McGrath at the other -- but the Indians on the morning were in no mood to play second fiddle. What they did this morning was precisely what they didn't the previous evening -- looked to push the ball off the square if they couldn't hit it, didn't allow either bowler to settle into a rhythm, and kept rotating the strike, forcing them to alter length and line all the time.

What started out as an innings-saving partnership, thus, suddenly changed character and began shaping into one that looked capable of taking the initiative out of the Aussie hands. At which point, Tendulkar was dismissed, in disastrous fashion. Warne pitched one down the leg side, Tendulkar shaped to guide it to fine leg, hit the ground with his bat and missed the shot, the ball curled in, took the pad and Langer at short square held. Out, said umpire Roger Harper. Tendukar walked off with a light shake of the head.

These are decisions -- the Justin Langer not out during the Pakistan tour being another -- are decisions you want to file away in a little dossier. Just so the next time Australia come touring and whinge about umpiring, you can cite chapter and verse right back and point out that these things happen to all touring teams, in all countries -- and are not a sub-continental phenomenon, as teams touring our part of the world, and their spokesmen such as Martin Crowe, seem to imagine.

At the time of his dismissal, a big one from the Indian skipper was looking inevitable -- he was hitting everything off the meat, batting with a calm assurance that looked ominous. And that is why his dismissal, in this fashion, could have repercussions that go beyond this particular game, and impact on the rest of the series. Remember, before the Test, McGrath was talking of fancying his chances against Tendulkar. Warne was promising "new tricks" to take him out. Even if they won't admit it, the Indian team has much invested in Tendulkar -- had he made a big one here, and in the process blunted the two strike bowlers, the team as a whole would have been lifted.

As it stands, the scoreboard -- which merely records decisions, without analysing them -- shows round one to Warne, and leaves the Indian skipper with unfinished business on his plate.

Ganguly, at the other end, was playing with an authority that must come as an eyeopener. Pre-tour forecasts were for him to struggle a touch on the bouncier surfaces in Australia. Judging by the evidence of this innings, he seems to be relishing it more than anything. When they tried him with the short stuff, he swayed out of line quite easily. On the leg side? He flicked, glanced, and on one occasion, gently guided a pull for a brace. Lifters on off saw him up on his toes, playing them down at his feet. And when the bowlers went outside off, he was in his elements, driving, occasionally just angling the bat, letting the ball come on to hit it and run down to third man. Equally interesting was his battle with Warne, who went round the wicket to him looking to use the rough outside off -- a line of attack handled with calm competence.

The Tendulkar-Ganguly partnership in fact was a little cameo within the larger context of the match, as the two batsmen in their contrasting styles set about establishing some sort of authority on the bowling. And, in the process, opened up a little chink in Steve Waugh's armour -- with this bowling lineup, the Aussie skipper faces the problem that when McGrath tires and Warne has bowled a dozen overs or so, he really has no one else to turn to. Fleming took the tail out -- but then, pretty much any bowler fancies himself against the Indian tail. Kaspar, brought in to lend that pace edge, went for 62 off just 11 overs -- which makes Agarkar in the Australian first innings look very tight and controlled.

The dimensions of the problem became obvious when, after lunch, Waugh turned to Blewett to shut one end down while he kept Warne on at the other. By then, the new ball was due, but it was the leggie who looked most likely to break through. Waugh needed a bowler at the other end, he couldn't tire McGrath out ahead of the new ball, and the fact that he choose Blewett seems to send out a little signal.

Interestingly, even when the new ball was finally taken, Warne continued to share it with McGrath. Prior to that, though, Ganguly fell. With MSK Prasad playing watchfully at one end, Ganguly seemed to have regrouped after the Tendukar dismissal and was seemingly intent on batting through. Fatally, though, he telegraphed his intention to come down to Warne, the bowler spotted the movement forward and dragged one down and pushed it through, the ball stayed low and Ganguly ended up playing all over it for Gilchrist, staying admirably low (hopefully, Prasad was watching at the other end) to bring off the stumping. After close of play, when asked about it, Ganguly said, "The ball was coming on nicely, batting was quite easy out there. As to that shot, I had played it earlier in the morning to Warne, gone down and lifted him over mid off, I didn't think I picked the wrong shot, I just played over it, one of those things."

Ganguly fell in the 88th over. What was most noticeable about the play from then on was that the normally brittle tail hung around, in the face of McGrath, Warne and Fleming with the second new ball, for a further 25 overs, showing a tenacity and patience not seen too often in the recent past. Warne's taking out of Prasad was worth mentioning in this phase -- a ball floated up outside off and turning back a mile to bowl the batsman round his legs, a classic Warne dismissal though Prasad did make the cardinal error of not moving his front foot to cover the line.

When Fleming's inswinging yorker landed on Venkatesh Prasad's boot for the LBW, India had made 285. Not the kind of score you want to sing hosannas about -- but then again, in context of being 9/2 and 107/4, it represented an improved attitude from the side, which if sustained could make a difference as this series progresses.

When Australia came out for the second knock, Slater -- the man they would have been looking at to get them off to a cracking start -- fell early, Srinath taking him out with a perfectly pitched leg cutter that Slater had to touch, for Ganguly, lunging to his left at first slip, to hold a great catch.

Justin Langer would appear to be the favourite of umpires Down Under -- Agarkar, who bowled a full length at brisk pace and made the ball swing around a lot, in a vastly improved performance, pitched one on middle and straightened it up to trap him in front, but the umpire reckoned otherwise.

In fact, both umpires appeared to have a rooted objection to LBW as a mode of dismissal -- Venkatesh Prasad against Blewett, and Anil Kumble against the same batsman, had reason later on to feel aggrieved at convincing appeals going the other way.

Blewett and Langer hung on in there, without either of them giving the impression of being even close to midseason form. Blewett in particular is struggling, and India made a tactical mistake by not hustling him a bit more, ringing him with fielders around the bat and taking him out cheap to add to the mental pressure.

Nudges, edges and the rare firm shot got the Aussie board ticking over till, in the penultimate over of the day, Langer did a Dravid. Having determined on defence -- he probably figured that was the way to go with just one over left -- Langer lunged a long way forward to push defensively, failed to get to the pitch, the ball had enough room to bounce and hit the bat on the maker's label, and Gandhi at short square leg did the rest.

All of which has left the match interestingly poised. 180 overs remain, Australia are 227 ahead and the runs and overs equation now comes into play. Two questions for Waugh to figure are, how many overs does he reckon he needs at the Indians, on a pitch where the pacemen will be less effective, but which will turn more out of the rough? 100? 120? Take that out, and in the remaining overs, Australia will look to pile up as much as possible, to put the touring side under pressure.

And what of India? Ganguly, in that post match statement, summed up the options best: "We need to get wickets quick, that is the only way to get back into the game."

Precisely. And that will need a much more aggressive field setting, and more attacking bowling, on the morning of day four.

In chat, quite a few guys invited me to call the result. So, duly sticking my neck out on the block, I'll go -- this one's a draw! No, that is not 'patriotism', 'optimism' or some such -- merely a gut feel for the way this game could go from here on. And knowing the readership, I think I'll play safe and not open my mailbox, tomorrow!


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