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December 28, 1999


India Down Under

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Sachin solo saves India's blushes

Prem Panicker

Sachin Tendulkar scored a century. Brett Lee took 5-for, on Test debut.

There. That about sums up the game, on the day -- one performer on either side, on an extended day on which 100 overs were bowled.

At the end of it all, India were trailing Australia on the first innings by 170 runs, with one wicket left standing and two days to play.

Yet again, it was one of those days where, early in the morning, the Indians promised much, only to lose the threads of the plot and let the game slip out of their hands. This happens to most teams, once in a while -- in India's case, though, it has happened, regularly, through all the days of this Test tour and that signals serious problems especially with the team's think tank.

It's about signals, more than anything else. McGrath starts a session with a searing bouncer aimed at the batsman's throat. Brett Lee greets Anil Kumble with a vicious bouncer that raps the bowler on the helmet. And Venkatesh Prasad (not by any means the sole culprit, he is being named here merely as an exemplar of a pervasive trend in the team) starts a session with a nice full toss outside off, letting the batsman get going with a four. That just about sums up the contrasting attitudes of the two teams, and it is no wonder that one finds itself so far on the back foot it is not even funny.

This morning, Srinath started off with a superb first over, beating Gilchrist four times out of six. And in quick order, the wickets began to tumble. Gilchrist, looking for runs and not finding much joy, launched into a bouncer from Agarkar that climbed on him, and managed only to hit it up in the air for midwicket to hold. An over later, Ponting, as is his wont, went a long way over to off to play to leg, Srinath bowled one on a full length, and the batsman was trapped in front. Immediately thereafter, Agarkar got Warne edging a cut to the keeper, and suddenly, within six overs of start of play, Australia had lost 3 wickets for 13 runs and it looked like India had clawed its way back in to the game.

And then, everything went back to normal. The field spread out, the aggressive edge went missing, the bowlers began spraying things around again, and the tail flourished. A 59 run partnership between Brett Lee and Damien Fleming was an exercise in the inexplicable -- it is not often that a number 10, making his Test debut, is treated to a field of 2 slips, deep point, deep cover, deep mid off, deep mid on and deep midwicket, and singles for the taking all round the park.

Srinath finally took out Lee with a lifting delivery the batsman attempted to pull and managed only to top edge for the bowler to hold on the follow through. Soon thereafter, McGrath was run out in strange -- even amusing -- fashion: he patted one to cover, Kanitkar fielded quick and threw to the bowler's end, Sachin, backing up, tapped a bail off almost as the ball thudded into the stumps. McGrath was way out of his ground at the time, but spotting Sachin's touch, he kept on running between the wickets while the Indians, walking off, suddenly stopped in their tracks, saw what was happening, and scrambled for the ball. Umpire David Shepherd finally gave the decision to stop the comedy, pointing out to McGrath that one bail was still standing when the ball hit the stumps.

And then the real comedy -- of errors -- began. Fleming took the new ball with McGrath, but Lee got an over just before lunch and with his fourth ball in top flight cricket, took out Ramesh. The ball was quick, yes (at one point, Lee was timed at 152kmph). It seamed in, yes. But the batsman contributed to his own downfall -- his feet never moved, his bat waved lazily down the wrong line, there was a gap between bat and body big enough for Lee himself to go through, and the ball did the rest.

That was bad enough. The next two dismissals were, if anything, even worse. Laxman looked quite comfortable against both Lee and McGrath -- but then, to a fullish length ball around line of off seaming away, chose to launch into a drive, well away from body, not in line and the edge flew to Mark Waugh in the slips.

Rahul Dravid continued to allow the demons of his own mind to prevail. In an interview to Rediff, he had talked of the importance of playing one ball at a time. Thus far, however, he has been playing the whole series at a time -- it is as if, walking out, he is telling himself how much the team needs him to perform, how vital his presence is, how essential it is for his own reputation to perform in Australia, et cetera. And all those thoughts are leaving him with little or no time left to worry about the ball coming down. Result, a complete freeze of mind and body.

Steve Waugh brought Warne on as soon as he spotted Dravid. This time round, Dravid decided not to get locked up in defence, and went for the forcing shots. He was finding the fielders, but at least, at that point, he wasn't getting tied up in defensive pushes. Tendulkar, probably to help Dravid get confidence, waltzed down the wicket, picked Warne up on line of leg and lifted, inside out, for a huge straight six -- but then Dravid went and gave it all away at the other end. Lee sent one down, straight as a string, outside off, Dravid saw it was a bit short and, anticipating bounce, went up on his toes, got himself completely airborne and slashed a cut. The ball didn't get up as much as he thought it would, and Gilchrist did the rest off the edge.

The real tragedy for the Indians at this point was that Lee, coming into this tour with so much hype behind him as the man who could blow the touring side away, and the Indians needed to halt him in his tracks. Instead, they gifted him two early wickets -- and created a fresh nightmare for themselves.

Saurav Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar then got together to do what the openers and number three were supposed to -- see off the pace attack, that is. Ganguly in particular was tested by a stream of short pitched stuff from Lee and McGrath, and came through quite nicely thank you. In fact, he matched Tendukar through their 77-run association, working the singles nicely, handling Warne with ease and looking completely untroubled by pace and spin alike. Ganguly in fact has been showing great form on this tour thus far -- which is why it came as a shocker when he lost it for that vital instant, casually wafting a bat at one lifting and angling away from him, attempting the on the up off drive to a ball too short, and gaining too much height, to make the shot feasible and only managing to put Mark Waugh in business again.

Hrishikesh Kanitkar similarly promised much, only to deceive. He handled a series of short ones from McGrath, he went well back and worked Warne away off his pads, and then he made the unforgivable mistake of taking his bat out of line, not even miming an attempt at strokeplay and merely pushing his pad into line of a Warne delivery landing on off. There was some debate on the decision, but I'd think Umpire Steve Davis made a fair call on that one -- there are umpires who do not give the LBW when the batsman deliberately pushes his front foot into line of the ball without attempting a shot, but that doesn't make it a legitimate ploy. The ball would have turned, yes, but he was hit on the knee roll and it would have probably hit leg, and Kanitkar walked back, another victim to his own bad shot selection more than the ball.

Tendulkar, at the other end, was playing the kind of innings the team has been needing for a while. He wasn't overtly aggressive, as he can be at times. But there was a controlled confidence about the way he played, right from ball one, that told its own tale. Done in twice, in the previous Test, by dubious decisions, here he batted as though he had a statement to make. McGrath and Lee kept testing him with the short stuff, and Tendulkar kept swaying away from line, then locking eyes with the bowler. Warne for his part tried pretty much everything he knew, and Tendulkar drove, cut, glanced, paddled, and guided the ball around for runs, initially playing very much in the V, and as wickets fell at the other end, going for the more unorthodox pulls against the turn to Warne, and the short arm hooks when the length was short enough to afford the shot.

For a while, he also took to farming the strike -- Australia by this time were paying him the ultimate compliment of pushing the field right back when he was on strike, and there were singles for the taking, but Tendulkar refused most of them, kept strike to Lee and Warne, and kept Prasad at the other end. Then gradually, he let Prasad play more deliveries, and the wicket-keeper did a competent job, getting into line to Lee and McGrath, playing Warne with care but not with the exaggerated caution that characterised India's efforts in the first Test.

And then, he went and threw it away. They do say that the best policy is to play the ball, not the bowler. Lee produced an inswinging full toss, the attempted slower yorker. Prasad played for the pace that wasn't there, and just waved down the wrong line while the ball thudded into the middle of off stump, on the full. Lee's bowling -- this being our first look at it -- deserves mention both for pace (oscillating between the 145-152 mark when fully warmed up) and control. It is commendable to be able to hold a line bowling at such sheer speeds, but Lee managed it with seeming ease. And just occasionally, there would be those little changes of pace, step-downs, that had the batsman scrambling (interestingly, when he tried that once to Sachin, the batsman spotted it, wound up, waited with bat raised high, and smashed it through mid on to the boundary).

Agarkar came and for the second time in two tries, went first ball. An inswinging yorker, Agarkar in no position to defend -- he has this habit of raising his bat very high, which his best friends wouldn't advice against pace of this calibre -- and the ball landed on his toe while his bat was still on the downswing. Again, some debate about the decision, given that off and a part of middle were visible when the ball struck, but I'd reckon at that full length, the ball would have gone on to clip leg.

Srinath yet again came out to save the hat-trick, did it with a push to point, then departed soon after (to his captain's very evident disgust) when Lee dug one in short, the batsman turned his head towards the slips and pushed his bat out blindly, letting the ball take the glove and balloon to the slips.

Out came Kumble -- and put everything that went before into perspective, playing with a calm assurance that saw off first Lee, then McGrath, and Shane Warne. Kumble, who was greeted by Lee with a screaming bouncer that thudded into his helmet (to his credit, he neither winced, nor touched the spot, merely straightened, looked at the bowler and settled back into his stance) got behind the line to everything hurled at him, and gave his captain more than adequate support in a stand of 43 runs that took India past the follow-on target.

Sachin meanwhile got to his 7th Test century as captain, in the process recording 1000 Test runs for the calendar year, and 1000 Test runs against Australia (with 5 centuries and 2 50s). And then he went for a pull at Fleming, only to get the ball high up on the bat and down the throat of deep midwicket.

I've rarely seen a batsman walk off the ground at a slower pace. All the way, he kept shaking his head, muttering to himself, miming the shot again and carefully rolling his wrists over it -- which was what he omitted to do on the actual shot. The MCG crowd was on its feet, applauding -- and Tendulkar, suddenly waking up from his reverie, lifted a bat half-heartedly to it, then went up the steps, head down again, muttering to himself. It could be that this signals the premium he is now prepared to put on his wicket -- and if that is the case, it is something his mates could learn a lesson from.

Prasad and Kumble further rubbed in the incompetence of those who had gone before, playing out six more overs before light grew bad enough to call a halt to play.

The respective gameplans for what remains of this Test would be obvious wouldn't it? For Australia, a quick finish to the Indian innings, an attempt to add as many as possible by say tea tomorrow, and then a bid to bowl India out again. For India? Equally simple -- to stop them. To get their bodies behind the line, in more ways than one.


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