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December 26, 1999


India Down Under

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Honours even on truncated first day

Prem Panicker

The other day, I was involved in an accident. Following which, my car's landed up in the garage for repairs, which are estimated to take a week. Meanwhile, someone in administration gave me the choice of using an old car that happened to be lying around, unused.

You know what it's like when you first sit behind the wheel of a strange car -- you twiddle the wheel a bit, to get a feel for its play. You try the clutch, to see how smooth it is, you move up and down the gears to get an idea of how tight, or loose, the gear-shift is, you check the brakes out...

I did. Everything I tried, worked. So then I eased out of the parking space and out onto the road. And a bit further on, found that while the wheel spun very easily, you needed to darn near dislocate a shoulder, turning it, in order to take a U. Further on, I found that while the gears moved up to fourth as easy as hot knife through Amul butter, there wasn't enough under the hood for me to pull off the overtaking act that I was trying for.

You know what I mean? The individual bits and pieces work, but something's a bit lacking in the overall performance?

That was what the Indians were like, on the field on day one of the second Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The component parts seemed to be working okay, but there just wasn't enough under the hood.

After all the hype about a killer track, what we got -- when the covers finally came off after lunch, after a sustained spell of light rain forced the abandonment of the morning session -- was a lightly grassed, hard track. The kind that gives you some bounce and lateral movement while the humidity levels, of 87-plus meant some swing in the air as well. But the even bounce and general conditions indicated that if batsmen had the skill to survive the odd good ball, they could make runs on this track -- in other words, the kind of conditions that keep both the batting side, and the bowling team, interested.

Both sides made a change each. Australia sat out Kasprowicz and, surprise, surprise, gave Brett Lee his cap. The Indians sat out Gandhi and, if you needed telling, brought Kanitkar in. Both Lee and Kanitkar made their debuts -- and in the manner of their making it, we got a pointer into one of the factors that make Australia the team they are. Lee got his cap in a public ceremony out on the edge of the ground, the team assembling while the skipper gave the new lad his colours. Which he then wore, while his mates applauded.

That kind of thing attaches a premium to the baggy green cap, instils in the wearer a sense of pride, and in part, explains why the Aussies, when they go out wearing it, seem always to play at 100 per cent and then some. Whereas in India, caps are given out because the selectors considered Azharuddin and Jacob Martin and thought that Vikram Rathore wasn't worth considering and decided to give it to Kanitkar.

Sachin Tendulkar won the toss, and promptly elected to field. No problems there. A certain section of Australian commentators, on radio, were heard suggesting that the reason was India was scared of playing the Aussie quicks. A simpler answer would be, when conditions seem tailormade to bowl on, you bowl -- you certainly don't gift wrap said conditions and hand it over to the opposition as a belated Christmas gift.

One thing, though -- Mohandas Menon was quick to point out that India has, out of 36 occasions on which it has inserted after winning the toss, won just once. They lost 13 times, and drew 22. Which would suggest that history, at least, was against that ploy. Which doesn't make it wrong, don't get me wrong. Merely a statistical quirk, thrown in for trivia buffs.

>Anyways. The Indians went out into the field. And off the second ball of the day, Greg Blewett -- who had, off the first ball, given a passing imitation of a blind man searching for a black cat in a dark room -- poked at Srinath on line of off, got the splice of the bat on it and Kumble at point floored as simple a sitter as you want to see.

There's a lot been talked about how lousy the Indian openers are and how they can't seem to play pace. Strange, the same is not being said about Blewett, who is palpably struggling out there. An over later, he was walking back after heaving at Srinath with more desperation than design, and managing only to inner edge onto his stumps.

Srinath, bowling a brilliant first spell, then took out Justin Langer after making his brief tenure at the crease a torment. Time and again, the ball flashed past the outside edge before the bowler straightened one on off and middle and got the ball to thud onto the pads, just above the knee roll with the batsman pushing defensively from the crease. Umpire David Shepherd raised the finger, and Justin Langer went after many backward looks, shakes of his head, and mutterings.

No, not dissent -- merely a perfectly natural expression of disapproval; it is when the Indians stand on the ground and watch a slow motion replay that it becomes dissent. 'For the third time,' said a commentator at the time, 'Langer has got a decision he doesn't seem happy with.' If one felt in a particular snide mood, one would probably counter that the only decision Langer has been happy with was the one when he was given not out in the second innings of the third Test against Pakistan -- but let that lie.

Two quick wickets meant India were in the driving seat -- with Mark Waugh, a loaded pistol to his head, coming out to bat next. Time, you would think, to slip into top gear and push the pedal to the boards. But it's like this car I'm using now -- when the time came, the Indians found they didn't have enough under the hood.

Srinath went off after 7 overs. That made you wonder -- if the Aussies were bowling first and someone had tried to take the ball away from McGrath after seven overs during which he got the ball to do all but talk, there would have been murder done. Srinath, for his part, seemed only too happy to surrender the ball and run into the pavilion for a refresher -- an attitude which, at least for me, took some of the joy out of that probing first spell.

At the other end, Agarkar bowled four overs and was quickly replaced. Rightly, too -- when he gets a new ball in his hands and there is some sign of life in the wicket, the young medium pacer begins to fancy he is Jeff Thomson on a diet -- and instead of focussing on line and length, goes for pace. Which he doesn't have, not that kind of pace. Thus, after two blinding deliveries to begin his first over, both beating Slater outside off, he began straying all over the place.

So Tendulkar turned to Prasad -- who bowled as if he had misplaced his mind altogether. I don't get this -- ever since the Indians landed there, Kapil Dev has been repeating one mantra, ad nauseum: "I have been telling my bowlers not to get carried away by the conditions, I have been asking them to bowl line and length." Now all Kapil has to do, is figure out a way to make them listen -- barring the odd one seaming away past the bat outside off, Prasad oscillated being either too full, or too short, or too much on middle and leg.

And Slater and Mark Waugh prospered. In the case of Mark Waugh, 'prospered' is relative. Given his recent run of Test scores, the 41 runs he got here, off 110 balls, and the 95-run partnership he was part of, represented prosperity. But if you remember -- and you don't have to think too far back either -- Mark 'Junior' Waugh at his silken best, then today's effort was patchy, and unconvincing. To his credit, he stuck it out, out there. And latched on to the innumerable balls bowled on his pads, to get a majority of his runs through the on side -- a region Mark will exploit even if you ask him to bat with lead boots and a broken stump instead of bat.

As the partnership developed, India predictably lost the plot. It was, in a sense, a sad sight to watch the team struggle. The intent was to attack -- thus, three slips was pretty mandatory, a gully was in there as well and often, two gullies, even a man under the helmet on the on. And then the bowlers drifted to leg, the runs kept coming through the untenanted outfield (I counted two all-run fours, or was it three, but the real killer was the singles and twos that were available for the taking). To counter this, and to protect bowlers whose radars seemed to be out of commission, Tendulkar took out a couple of slips and shifted them to leg -- and the edge promptly went through the slips to third man for four.

As with so much else, the team came back into the game through sheer serendipity. Ganguly was given a bowl and he came up with a tight second over. Kumble took over the other end and, apparently liking the look of the track, began sending down a series of leg spinners that turned and bounced, as opposed to his pet flippers. Tea was taken and after the break, Srinath came back and bowled a very good, if brief (just five overs) spell. Agarkar came on to replace him and, with an older ball, found his form again, with a probing, nagging line around off, frequent changes in pace and the odd quick bouncer by way of variety.

The Agarkar spell also accounted for Mark Waugh -- the bowler swung one in onto line of off and middle, the ball straightened and hurried off the track, Mark Waugh -- with feet nailed in place -- pushed down the wrong line, and took it on the pad for Shepherd to uphold.

Steve Waugh spent an uncomfortable 20 deliveries at the crease, before bad light caused the umpires to send the teams off. Overall, 48 overs were bowled on the day -- 42 short of the full quota of 90, and 22 short of the revised 70 overs fixed when play began after lunch.

In those 48 overs, Australia had managed to put 138 on the board, for the loss of three big ones. Michael Slater was the huge plus for the home side on the day -- the opener reined in his aggressive instinct early on, to ride out the probing first spell by Srinath before opening out. Very quick to punish any error in line and length, Slater showed fine skill in keeping the board ticking over with some deft, soft-handed pushes and very quick footspeed between wickets. If allowed to settle on day two, Slater could -- on the form displayed till date -- be the one to take this game away from the Indians in quick time.

For the Indians, the abrupt closure of play comes as a godsend -- an opportunity to regroup, to think of how they bowled thus far, to sort out their mistakes and get their act together again when play resumes tomorrow.

To get some power under that hood.


Mail Sports Editor