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December 13, 1999


India Down Under

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Basic instincts

Prem Panicker

A tip, for free: if you have access to a video recorder, try and make a recording of the dismissal of Sachin Tendulkar, in the second innings, to Glenn McGrath. If possible, try and get the video autographed by the three persons involved -- Sachin Tendulkar, Glenn McGrath, and umpire DJ Harper.

When you have it, lock it up in your strongbox... and in your will, name it for your favourite heir. Some day, many many years later, it's going to be worth a fortune -- sort of like rare stamps.

Because after say another 100 years of cricket, you won't find too many more instances of batsmen being given out LBW, ducking to a short ball and getting it on the shoulder. Which is how Sachin left, in the second innings.

True, the ball did not climb, as would have been expected given the length. True, Sachin is, what's that phrase, vertically challenged. True, he was right down on his haunches when the ball struck him. But, having said that, the ball was on the climb when it hit, and if you had to take a guess, from the angle, you would say the stumps had to be four, five inches taller for that one to have hit.

Would it have made a difference to the outcome? Debatable. Sachin has played that kind of rearguard innings before, but then again, the very next ball could have been the unplayable one and Sachin could have been out one ball later. So there is no attempt here to use the decision as an excuse for the plight India finds itself in, at the end of day four. In fact, it needs mentioning that India would have been in a sorrier plight, had Umpire Steve Dunne got it right and given Saurav Ganguly out caught off the glove from a Kasprowicz bouncer.

The outcome of the game, thus, is not the point. Nor can it be used as a reason, an excuse, to explain away a defeat. However, the incident raises two broader issues that deserve to be addressed.

The first of these is this: both in the first innings and in the second, Sachin Tendulkar was given out when patently not out. On both occasions, the umpire was the same -- Harper, home country Australia. Once is a mistake. Twice in two goes?

If we say mistake, we raise a question -- is an umpire who makes such mistakes consistently, competent to stand at this level? And further, we raise a larger question -- how many more mistakes will it take for the ICC to figure that the game can only benefit by having neutral umpires at both ends?

The second issue is this: Are reporters and television commentators expected to tell the truth, to call it as it is, or are they expected to fly the national flag? The question begs the asking because, as the Sachin 'LBW' was repeatedly aired on television, various people used various phrases that leave me, for one, clueless about what their take on it actually is. Ian Chappell called it a "dangerous decision" -- what would that mean? Mark Taylor -- for whom, I must confess, I had enormous admiration until this point in time -- called it a "courageous decision". After listening to both the gentlemen, I -- without their experience, their credentials, their knowhow, their cricketing savvy -- am left groping for an answer.

Was Tendulkar out, Ian, Mark? Can we have a "courageous" answer to this one, or would that be too "dangerous"?

Trolling through those sections of the Australian press that is available online, one fact hits you in the face -- none, not one, went down one side or other of the fence, and called the first innings decision against Tendulkar. None went on record and said, in so many words, yes he was out, or no he wasn't.

Do controversies go away because you don't address them? Is criticising a home umpire unpatriotic? I wish I had known -- over the years, I and my fellow reporters in other papers have if anything been harsher on our own umpires than those belonging to other countries.

When Australia toured India last, and lost 2-1, those same papers were filled with indignant writeups blasting Indian umpires, and suggesting that the "home advantage" on Indian soil actually meant biased umpiring. That has been a facet of all visiting teams and visiting media -- first up, write about the dust, the pollution, the crowds. Next, blast the umpires -- often, before the series has even started, a recent case in point being Martin Crowe of New Zealand.

Very "courageous", that brand of reporting -- calling a spade a spade, and all that sort of thing. But is courage a commodity that flies out the window, when nationality walks in the door? Would the Indians be equally justified in claiming, at the end of the series, that they were done in by the umpiring? (This particular reporter has no such intention -- I believe the team now touring Down Under will stand, or fall, on the strength of their ability, and I suspect they have both -- the strength, and the ability -- to come back). But the question remains -- is a spade, if it is yourspade, not a spade any more? Does it become a manually operated eco-recreational agricultural implement?

One peripheral point: Shane Warne is quoted in the Australian press as saying, on the Tendulkar dismissal, that he felt there was a nick and he wouldn't have appealed otherwise. While putting my hands together in applause for Shane's sense of fairplay, one question remains: I thought the ICC code of conduct expressly forbade players from discussing umpiring decisions? Or was I wrong? Is it okay to say the umpire got it right, but not okay to say so if he was wrong? If that is the case, it sounds dangerously like the kind of stuff Goebbels dished out in his prime.

To get to the game itself, India had what is easily its best day on tour thus far. 71/2 at start of play, with a big 156-run lead backing them, meant that Australia would be looking to dominate. To, as one particular columnist put it in an Australian newspaper, "grind India into the dust".

And yet, by any yardstick, it was India's bowling, devoid of stars, devoid -- or so all experts agree, of firepower -- that turned up trumps. And that came about thanks to a drastic rethink of its first innings performance. This time round, they stuck to the basics. The line was just around off, the length was three quarter, there were no free hits on offer, every single run had to be earned, and every one of the four bowlers used on the day bowled to that one plan, kept it simple.

The whole was backed by a fielding side that stayed "up", and a skipper who -- again in marked contrast to his first innings performance -- showed a finely judged instinct for balancing attack with defence. Tendulkar, throughout the day, focussed on one gameplan -- to make the batting side sweat, to earn every single run, and to do so in the face of pressure. Thus, the field was brought in at the first sign of a batsman struggling, quickly shifted to containing mode at the first sign that the batsman was looking to shift the momentum.

It was a superb team effort -- and barring Adam Gilchrist, none of the Aussies absorbed the pressure (hopefully, the Indians will, before every day of what remains of this tour, study videos of today's bowling performance to remind themselves of how it's done).

Mark Waugh was first to go. Rapped on the helmet by a Srinath short-pitcher that didn't rise as high as Waugh anticipated (he was, I guess, lucky at that -- an inch lower, and he might have gone ahead of Tendulkar and become the first in history to be out LBW when rapped on the helmet), turned inside out constantly by the probing line of Kumble, he finally lost it walking into an airy parody of a drive, to get the thick edge to an Agarkar outswinger, for Laxman to hold well, low down at second slip.

Agarkar, brought in after Srinath's opening spell, bowled in a fashion that resembled his first innings effort as night resembles day. In the first innings, he was all over the place -- too short, too wide, too often, about summed it up. Here, he was bang on line from ball one. Bowling a touch under his top pace, focussing on the line he was bowling and ensuring that he didn't give away any free hits. One graphic, shown by Channel Nine during the break, was the best indicator of the turnaround -- in his entire spell, he pitched 58 per cent on off, a further 18 per cent just outside -- figures comparable to the line, the strategy, McGrath had used in the first innings to the Indians.

With pressure unremitting at both ends, Steve Waugh struggled. And, after scratching around for half an hour, he finally went the way of his brother -- walking into a drive, if you define drive loosely, to edge to the keeper.

There was just a short period, after lunch, when it looked like India was losing it again -- mainly due to Venkatesh Prasad who, for the only time in the match, pitched short and sprayed outside off and leg and gave away a few for free. But to his credit, he tightened things up quickly and as a bonus, took out Ponting -- the batsman was looking to push things along, he tried to drive on the up once too often and the patented Prasad leg cutter took him out, edging to Prasad who continued to have a good match behind the stumps.

Greg Blewett must consider himself very very lucky that the LBW law permits of multiple interpretations -- that helped him survive on the third evening, and he hung doggedly on at one end for the best part of two sessions today, without ever giving the impression that he was going to get into batting form. As long as it was okay for him to just bat the ball out of the wicket area, he was fine. And when someone pitched short, he played the pull with admirable fluency. But into the late afternoon, the need was for batsmen to take charge -- and the first time he tried, he produced a wild heave at a straight one from Agarkar, with head, feet, bat all going different ways, and lost his off stump.

From then on, it was all Gilchrist. Srinath effectively tucked him up by going round the wicket and angling into his body, denying him room to free his arms and swing for the sidelines. But against bowlers not as pacy, he used his eye and power to lethal effect, coming down the track, blasting the ball either into the straight field or square onto the on side, and played a brisk cameo of 43 off 46 that really set it up for Australia. My favourite was a shot he played off Prasad -- down the track, to the pitch, and bang; a clean hit that sent the ball at exocet speed back to the bowler, who did what any sane man would -- he ducked out of line and let the ball scream to the fence. Finally, he tried that one hit too many, aiming to pull Srinath, beaten for pace and bounce and putting it high in the air for Laxman, at point, to run in and hold despite MSK Prasad's best efforts to impede him. Earlier, Srinath had taken out Shane Warne with an away swinger that the batsman patted to cover, attempting to drive on the up and playing too early.

Gilchrist's dismissal signalled the declaration. At that point, Australia had played 62 overs, and made 168 for the loss of 6 wickets, on the day. Overall, Australia were 395 ahead, and India had a maximum of 118 overs to survive and, if they could, to get past the target.

Gandhi lasted exactly one over. And even as he took guard for the first ball, there was no doubt how he would go. McGrath's field setting was a dead giveaway -- besides the three slips and two gullies, he had one under the helmet on the on side, and a short backward square in place as well. The short-pitched ball was coming, sure as Christmas. First up, Gandhi got one, shut his eyes, turned his head away, and pushed blindly, one handed. Lucky to survive. Then came the barrage, and Gandhi ducked with a desperation that was sad to see. Having set him up, McGrath finished off the over by pitching one up, outside off, Gandhi pushed, found the edge, and that was it, bye bye. I have heard a few encomiums of his batting, I am told no less than Sunny Gavaskar thinks he has the stuff in him. Sunny should know, he's been there, done that, often enough. But still, a doubt niggles -- would you say that an opener who, on even suspecting that the next ball is going to pitch short, turns his head towards first slip and pushes the bat in front of him blind and, often, one-handed, "has what it takes"?

VVS Laxman fell to a perfect con job, a piece of brilliant bowling by Damien Fleming who has, otherwise, had a pedestrian Test. With a field set for pace -- three slips, two gullies, one under the helmet on the on -- Fleming bowled a slower inswinger first up, Laxman pushed at it way too early, anticipating a ball much quicker than the one he got, and was bowled through the gate. A brilliant take-out, that, and India at that point, 3/2 inside the second over.

Rahul Dravid is known for introspection. Between now and the second Test, beginning Boxing Day, he has a plateful of that stuff to digest. He began fluently enough when the quicks were on, but the minute Warne was sighted, he seemed to panic (brilliant captaincy, that, by Waugh to bring on the spinner ahead of his third seamer as soon as Dravid walked out). In India, he had handled the leggie well. Here, he seems to have psyched himself into an unnatural style of play, using the bat merely for ornament and relying on his pads to keep him out of trouble. Here, to a Warne delivery on middle, he opted to push his pad, hang his bat behind the pad, and just stand there while the ball spun back and took his glove en route to the keeper. You can't play spin that way, and Dravid, who practises regularly on his home ground against the likes of Anil Kumble and Sunil Joshi among others, should know that as well as anyone else. On how quickly he works it out in his mind will depend his own performance through the rest of the series -- and, by extension, the fortunes of his team.

And then came the Sachin dismissal. Of which, enough has been said in the beginning.

All along, Ramesh at the other end had been playing with enviable panache. He handled McGrath with seeming ease, and when Fleming stopped in mid-stride after one delivery to wish him a good afternoon, responded by spearing the next ball through point for one of three cleanly hit fours. And then he made the same error as Dravid -- used his pad where his bat would have served him better. The ball pitched off, was turning to leg and his front foot was a long way forward when it struck, to draw the umpire's okay for the LBW appeal -- you would think that was another "courageous" decision, since he was so far forward, and the ball was obviously turning in. But irrespective, the Indians have to get out of this hangup of shoving a pad out at Warne, if they aren't to get bamboozled through the rest of the series.

Ganguly was lucky to survive the day. Kasprowicz bowled him a lifter around middle, Ganguly went to pull but was a touch tentative, the ball brushed glove en route to the keeper, but the umpire called it not out. Otherwise, he played with composure and thus far, has handled Warne better than the rest. At the other end, Prasad put his head down, focussed on survival, and together, the two took India to 76/5 at the end of the 26 overs possible on the day.

The irony of it all, as you contemplate that scoreboard, is that though the odd ball is keeping low, though there is rough from the bowler's footmarks for Warne to exploit, this remains a very good Test wicket, the kind you can bat on through a day if you want to. For which, of course, you need wickets in hand.

A rather ironic touch to the Tendulkar episode is this -- before the series began, Warne said he had thought out some new things to try against the Indian skipper. And Steve Waugh assured us that Glenn McGrath "fancied his chances" against Tendulkar.

Two innings gone, and Warne and McGrath have him under their belt, once each. As to how... well...


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