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December 27, 1999


India Down Under

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Wet Monday at Melbourne

Prem Panicker

At the end of two days of play in the second India-Australia Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, 180 overs should have been bowled. Only 93 have been (45 of them on the second day). Effectively, thus, a day's play has been lost.

When Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist, the not out batsmen, accepted the umpire's offer of light and walked off with one over left before scheduled tea, Australia were sitting pretty on 332/5. The way they were batting, it seemed as though Australia were setting themselves to make a huge post tea push, then declare in order to let McGrath and Brett Lee lose on the Indians for a few overs before stumps.

A thunderstorm came down, and spoilt that particular party. And, in the process, left prospects of a result at the MCG looking a touch iffy.

The day began half an hour ahead of schedule, and right from the outset, it seemed that overnight not outs Steve Waugh and Michael Slater were hell bent on looking for quick runs. And to no one's surprise, the Indians assisted in the search.

Ajit Agarkar began proceedings, bowling with the breeze at his back. Javagal Srinath at the other end ran into the headwind. A rather curious choice of ends right there, and Srinath in particular looked completely out of sorts with himself and the world around him. Agarkar, meanwhile, succumbed to his usual habit of alternating very good spells with eminently forgettable ones -- having bowled a good probing spell late on day one, it was the turn for the other Agarkar to surface; the one who bowls too short, too often.

Slater, who throughout this innings had been looking in very good touch, thrived. And Steve Waugh, more circumspect, alternated between pushing the singles to give his dominant partner the strike, and blazing them through the covers when the bowlers pitched short.

Slater's innings was an interesting exercise in tactics. Time and again, he went way across to off to change the line and play to the less populated leg side. In an attempt to block that shot, Sachin Tendulkar reduced his slip-gully cordon to just two and pushed men out on the on. And the bowlers took to bowling even wider of off, thereby giving the batsman room to play square on that side of the wicket. Bowlers and captain both, thus, fell into the Slater trap, and the opener took the game away from the Indians.

Srinath and Agarkar were taken off in short order, with Prasad and Kumble replacing them. And suddenly, things fell back into place. Prasad, horribly off the mark yesterday, hit line and length to perfection this morning and with Kumble extracting bounce and turn at the other, the Indians had a chance to fight their way back into the game.

Pusillanimity prevented them from seizing it. Kumble's bowling was a classic case in point. Time and again, he forced edges from Slater. At the time, the field read slip and silly point (when Kumble is bowling well, a short square leg gives him more of an edge since he fancies his chances of getting the bat-pad). After two edges flashed past the solitary slip, silly point was removed, and shifted to second slip. In other words, the intent was not to attack -- the signal rather was, I can spare at best two people in close catching positions, and I'll shift them around, keep using them to lock stable doors after the horse has bolted.

At the other end, Prasad was bowling tight, and getting into a bit of natter with Slater every so often -- then again, they could possibly have been discussing the possibility of rain ruining their fun. out of the blue, came the one bad ball Prasad bowled in that spell -- a short, nothing delivery pitching middle and leg and going further away. Slater, who was finding the big hits suddenly hard to come by, lit up like a neon sign and went into the pull, only managing to pick out Srinath out on the deep backward square boundary. That marks the eighth time Slater's been dismissed in the nineties, either through nervousness or through over-exuberance. No middle ground, seemingly, when this bloke bats -- and in this innings, his batting made Australia's day. Especially laudable was the way he shepherded Mark Waugh yesterday, when that batsman was going through his scratchy tenure at the crease and fighting for form and confidence.

Prasad, having got a wicket when he least expected it, raced down the pitch and all that pent up emotion came out in the form of a screaming, fist-pumping display that left Slater half-amused, half-bemused and prompted umpire Shepherd to call the bowler and captain over for a bit of a talking to. Prasad was over the top in the way he got that close to Slater, infringing on the latter's personal space, and Shepherd did brilliantly well to step in and talk to the bowler. More noticeable was that he was firm, without a lot of finger-pointing and overt machismo that characterised an earlier instance on this tour.

An over later, Steve Waugh was walking back -- Prasad pitching one close to off and seaming it away a touch, Waugh going for the cut, getting too close to the line and edging through to the keeper to reduce Australia to 197/5.

You would think India, at that point, would have gone flat out on the attack. More so when Gilchrist seemed to be struggling against Kumble.

The leggie in fact was unlucky not to have got his man. A hard hit drive, before Gilchrist had broken into double figures, saw Kumble go down quick as a flash, get his fingers under the ball and claim the catch. It was a superb take, and umpire Steve Davis, blinded by the bowler, quite naturally referred it to the third umpire. Who chose to press the green button.

That's the way the dice rolls.

The score was 206/5 at that point, the batting side was under pressure, and all things were possible. 128 runs later, as play was halted for the day, those possibilities had narrowed considerably -- and again, the Indians had only themselves to blame. Under pressure, Gilchrist launched an assault on Kumble, pulling him over midwicket and then lifting him over mid on in the same over. It seemed obvious that Gilchrist was trying to get his tormentor out of the firing line -- and Tendulkar obliged by taking Kumble off immediately, when the more logical ploy would have been to persist with Kumble for an over or two more, and try and get Gilchrist to overplay his hand.

At the other end, Prasad produced a superb spell of 9-4-18-2. And then went for 14 in his 10th, with a series of short pitches that Gilchrist slammed contemptuously square on either side of the wicket. Off he went, and Srinath and Agarkar came on -- to cause some more eyebrow raising.

The double bowling change came about in the 73 and 74th overs. The new ball was due after 6 more. Again, logic seemed to dictate the use of Ganguly, Laxman and even Kanitkar, who can bowl flat and tight, in brief spells, in a holding operation till the new ball came due, before letting Srinath and Agarkar use it when fully fresh. Instead, the two seam bowlers came on, with the old, soft ball, and Ponting and Gilchrist made merry.

Gilchrist hit with savage power, Ponting with electric footwork and perfect placing. And between them, the two accelerated, giving Australia precisely what it needed -- runs, plenty of them and at a rapid pace. Their 50 partnership came off just 62 balls (this despite a slow start, when Prasad and Kumble put pressure on them) and they were still scoring rapidly when first bad light, then rain, ended play for the day.

Australia is now perfectly placed to push for a win -- a blazing beginning to the third day, looking to add 70-odd to the total in quick time, still leaves the best part of three days (wind and weather permitting) for the home team to make a push for a result. For India, there is only one option -- to batten down and save the game, since they for sure do not have time to top the Australian score, and assuming they can, add a further 200 or so to that and then try and bowl the Aussies out again.

Thus, by close on day two, there are only two results really possible -- and if the Indians find themselves in that predicament, the fault lies with the way they played their cricket. They had their chances, when Australia were 28/2 with the struggling Mark Waugh coming to the wicket. Again at 197/5, with both Slater and Steve Waugh back in the hut. And each time, when unbridled aggression seemed the need of the hour, the Indians back-pedalled and let the opposition back into the game.

It's almost as if they -- so unused to winning away from home -- go into a state of sheer panic when circumstances put them in a position from where they just possibly could force a positive result. Not to mince words, this team isn't winning because it is scared to win.

Meanwhile, a tangential thought. Much is being made of India's refusal to play under lights. "It was the Indians' fault, plain and simple. Their refusal to play under lights is unacceptable. At least the batsmen could have been given the option." So says Peter Roebuck.

Others, in the Australian media, have been just as strong in their choice of words, while suggesting that with this attitude, the Indian team is doing the dirty on the paying public.

Frankly, I'd think that extreme reaction was way over the top. There are two issues here. Firstly, why did the Indians refuse to play under lights? Simply because they are not used to playing red ball, white clothing cricket under lights -- India hasn't implemented that rule at the domestic level, none of the touring party has any experience of playing in those conditions and an international Test tour is not the place to learn.

The other issue is that of the paying spectators. 49 thousand and a bit, a report reminds us. Sorry, but that won't wash -- the conditions of play, including the fact that India had turned down the proposal to play under lights, were decided before the tour began, not on the eve of the Boxing Day match. The weather conditions in Melbourne are, equally, no secret, not at least to the locals -- fully a week before the Test, I had got mails here from Indians settled in Melbourne, predicting the game would be hard hit by rains that are, or so I am told, pretty much the norm around this time of the year. All this was common knowledge -- to the Australian board, the media, the paying public. So let's not create an impression, here, that the touring Indian cricketers cheated the unwary spectators out of something that was their due.

The larger question, though, of playing under lights is a legitimate one -- and it would seem to make more sense to point fingers at the ICC for this anomaly. Look at it this way -- suppose in the rulebook, you had a line which went, 'If a legitimate delivery goes through a batsman's defenses and disturbs the stumps, that batsman shall be deemed out -- unless the two boards concerned decide, before start of play, that such shall not be the case', wouldn't you laugh yourself silly?

Point is, either you have a rule, or you don't. What the ICC did, when the proposal to play under lights was first mooted by the boards of South Africa and Australia, was to say fine, go ahead, provided both concerned boards agree.

It is the ICC's business -- not that of the tour management of Tendulkar and Kapil Dev -- to worry about the spectators. Especially given that the ICC has been making a lot of noise about wanting to popularise the game, broadbase it further, and what have you.

If that body was serious about its stated objective, it would have been simple enough to write, into the rulebooks, this: 'Test match play will be continued under lights in the event bad light and/or rain makes it impossible for the stipulated 90 overs to be completed in regular time. This rule shall be implemented, without exception, in all Test venues that have lighting capacity. Further, within three years from date, it shall be mandatory for all venues aspiring to host Test matches to install lighting of international standards.'

That's it, one flat statement, no caveats, no ifs and buts, and the entire confusion is solved. It is then up to the member boards to ensure that their teams are up to snuff, that they have sufficient practise and can handle the red ball under the glare of lights, if the need arises.

But then, when has the ICC ever come up with any flat pronouncement about anything at all?

Equally to the point, why should the Indian touring team be held responsible for what is an administrative failure?


Mail Sports Editor