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December 13, 1999

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Warne's back to magical ways

Harsha Bhogle

For ninety minutes yesterday morning four divine gladiators treated us to a breathtaking exhibition of their skill. Then a human element intervened. In a moment it was over and only one of those four was left to parade his talent. But even that was good enough. If a spinner bowls better than Shane Warne did today, knight him immediately.

Two of the gameís immortals were on view. Their partners were no mere sidekicks, being themselves two of the biggest names of the decade. Warne and Tendulkar, McGrath and Ganguly. To be at the Adelaide Oval and see them locked in combat was a privilege. Test cricket cannot get any better than this.

There was a difference in the air in the morning. Tendulkar was rested and reborn. The previous evening he had tried to be someone else, today he put his own clothes on; and he picked the best. The first ball from McGrath, the machine, was on target as it had been for long periods in this match. Tendulkar played at it rather than move across and let it go and in that one little action, there was a glimpse of a great morning.

Soon all conversation had ceased and as he drove Fleming with ease and then played a backfoot drive against McGrath, the connoisseurs left their cups of tea behind. It would have been foolish to miss a ball.

To watch McGrath is fascinating in itself for no one else in international cricket does as much as him over 12 inches of space around the off stump. Ever so subtly, he goes a couple of inches wider, then a further six drawing the batsman out and then he will slip one on off stump. Or, he starts wider and draws the batsman into leaving it alone. Then he creeps in, and it seems to do it in two inch intervals until the batsman, no longer secure about leaving it alone, plays at it.

By contrast, Kasprowicz is a man of more humble gifts. He bowled a maiden over but then, unable to match McGrath in control, drifted marginally onto leg stump. Tendulkar can be cruel and he latched onto it in a moment sending it searing through the lawn to mid-wicket. Humbled, Kasprowicz started again and lapsed again. But the master having painted a stroke, chose another; a twirl of the bat and it was behind square. The need was to bowl off stump and the big man bowled an honest ball there. And Tendulkarís front foot cover drive brought forth a gasp. If Waugh had a wall of steel in the covers, that would still have gone for four.

Meanwhile Sourav Ganguly was batting in a V of his own; from point to cover. The Australians bowled to his strength and he kept feeding off them. Ganguly bats well with Tendulkar, his left handedness working in his captainís favour. I suspect they think along similar lines as well because Ganguly has now blossomed as a combative and confident cricketer in his own right.

But they were up against a magical spell from Warne. The leg spinner is at his best when he gets the ball to drift around leg stump and maybe even six inches further. Batsmen drawn into a bat-pad shot start moving further and further away and invariably short leg comes into play. And because of his prodigious turn he is difficult to hit across the line on these big Australian grounds.

In India in 1998, confronted by some audacious across the line hitting from Sidhu and Tendulkar, he shifted line towards off stump and started bowling more in the manner of leg spinners on the sub-continent who prefer a middle and off stump line. Indiaís batsmen were quite happy to play him there. But here his line is different and the lesser batsmen are struggling.

He was lucky to get the wicket of Tendulkar, a man judging a divine contest. And it produced a hush, Australian supporters unsure of how to react. Tendulkar merely glanced at Ganguly, shook his head in a mere hint of disappointment and walked off with his bat and his dignity with him. He was three quarters of the way to the dressing room when the crowd started to stir and stand. They idolise him here; they want Australia to win but they want Tendulkar to get runs.

Soon Warne at work again and his dismissals of Ganguly and Prasad were magical. In each case he deceived the batsmen off the track and in Gangulyís case, he beat him in the air as well. Ganguly was drawn forward, out of his crease, when he realised he was short. But sadly for him, he had misread the googly as well. Gilchrist hadnít and the moment the ball left him, the batsman was gone.

Dravid, Tendulkar and Ganguly in one innings and surely now the ghost of India has been buried. The confidence is back; the mind and the fingers are singing a different tune.

The masters of spin, the slayers of spin, have a fight on their hands.

And I cannot wait for it to unfold.

Harsha Bhogle

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