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January 2, 2000


India Down Under

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Another day at the office

Prem Panicker

Rudyard Kipling once wrote -- and if memory serves, it was Rohit Brijnath who recently quoted -- lines that go: And the strength of the Wolf is the Pack/And the strength of the Pack is the Wolf.

Sachin Tendulkar in Australia is a lone wolf. He forages out ahead -- and when he glances back over his shoulder, what he sees is his pack, cowering like so many sheep at the sight of the butcher. The result? There is no strength in this pack -- and increasingly, their timid showing is draining the strength out of Tendulkar as well.

Day one of the third Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground is a classic example -- on winning the toss, Sachin opts to bat first. An interesting decision given the conditions -- there was some grass on the track, rains had created quite a bit of sub-surface moisture which in turn, together with a pronounced overcast, made for ideal seam-bowling conditions.

Yet Tendulkar (and this is interesting, given that when he choose to bowl last time, the immediate response was that the decision was prompted by fear of the Australian bowlers) choose to bat. His rationale was that even if the conditions early on did favour the bowlers, it was possible to see them off, to make runs and to play for the advantage of bowling last on a track that should assist spin increasingly as this game goes on.

MSK Prasad, stepping in as opener for the injured Ramesh, and VVS Laxman, began the Indian innings -- and proceeded to make a hash of it. While both batsmen did try and get into line to the bowling of McGrath and Fleming, there was no attempt, at any point, to work the ball off the square. Thus, against a field setting where singles were to be had for the taking ( when you have, in addition to the keeper and bowler, four slips, two gullies, and a short square leg, that is 9 of 11 fielders accounted for, and you can imagine the enormous acreage that leaves uncovered in front of the wicket on either side), both batsmen seemed intent on just playing the ball dead at their feet.

This allowed the bowlers to settle and the Aussies need no second invitation. Given that there was no attempt to rotate strike, it also meant that bowlers could work to a plan, focus on one batsman through an entire over, work on him and plan his dismissal. And the dismissals came: MSK Prasad being the first to go with the score at 10, pushing at one outside line of off, playing well away from his body, and giving Mark Waugh another opportunity to show just how outstanding he can be at slip.

Rahul Dravid came in, and with Laxman reduced to complete strokelessness at one end, the number three batsman followed suit. Fear, more than the actual ball, did for Laxman -- Brett Lee pitched one on the short side, Laxman flinched, turned his face away, prodded blind at the ball in front of his body and had the ball go off the handle, via the helmet, to the gully region.

Sachin Tendulkar came out to bat -- and began with two fours, interespersed with quick play off his pads and an active search for singles. This appeared to galvanise Dravid as well, the number three making more of an effort to work the ball off the square and immediately looking a much better batsman for it. But despite the increased fluency of his shot-making, it was evident that Dravid wasn't anywhere close to his peak -- he had a let off when Gilchrist dived in front of first slip but failed to hang on to an edge when the batsman played with bat well away from body. Wisdom didn't apparently dawn following that let off -- because a while later, he played an identical drive, without the front foot getting to the pitch, the ball arcing away from his body, for a McGrath leg cutter to find the edge through to Ponting at slip.

With one over to go for lunch, Steve Waugh brought on Greg Blewett -- and Ganguly for the second time in two innings succumed. The left-handed vice captain has registered a steady slump in scores, and the manner of his dismissal here was as ridiculous as they come -- the first ball from Blewett was pitched around off and lifting, Ganguly shaped to cut, saw the ball lift, had all the time in the world to put his bat out of line but ended up just hanging it out there, for the ball to hit the toe of the bat and fly to point for a simple take.

That took the team in to lunch. Post lunch, the play was enlivened by a contest between McGrath and Tendulkar. McGrath has been attempting to get Sachin playing away from his body, but the batsman wasn't obliging. Instead, he kept watching them through, forcing McGrath to come closer to the stumps -- and the minute he did, pounced on the altered line and blazed a drive through cover for four. In the next over, McGrath set men out in the deep for the hook and the pull and sent down a series of short pitched deliveries. The ploy was greeted with a slightly dodgy pull, first up, Tendulkar going high to put bat on ball but managing to keep it down to deep backward square and getting two. The next ball, he rocked back and blasted one over midwicket for four. Another short pitched ball, and this one was pulled with even greater authority. And now fully into overdrive, the batsman rocked right back to shorten the length on one that wasn't really short, and blasted it very square through the on cordon.

The battle seemed joined -- more so because after the second pull, McGrath went running down the track and had a couple of words to say to Tendulkar, who stood his ground and glared right back, before thumping the bowler for the third four in the over. Then came a ball bowled wide of the crease. It pitched outside off, seamed in, hit the outside of the front pad in front of middle and just above the knee roll, there was a huge appeal, and umpire Ian Robinson sent Tendulkar on his way.

Out? A 50-50 call, at best. Tendulkar smiled, and walked away -- and that seemed to be just about the only possible response.

McGrath celebrated, with punched fists and all the rest of it. There will probably be nothing said about it by the match referee -- at best, we could hear the explanation that McGrath hadn't got quite so close to Tendulkar as Prasad had to Slater, that he had only pumped his fists thrice, not six or seven times, and that he hadn't screamed as loudly.

With Tendulkar gone, the rest crumbled. Kanitkar, as in the second innings at Melbourne, showed signs of some character, but then undid it all with an airy drive away from his body, to Lee, to be taken by the keeper. Bharadwaj, coming into the middle order to "strengthen" it in addition to providing an off spinning option, pushed and prodded for the space of 35 deliveries, and then flashed away from his body to give Gilchrist more practise, and the Sydney crowd more reason to cheer.

Out came Agarkar. As he walked out, he must have been thinking, thrice now I have been out first ball. I need to break that. And how does one do it? By playing a defensive shot if it is in line of the stumps, by letting it through if it is wide of the stumps? Right -- so Lee bowls one on a yorker length, outside off stump, and Agarkar clinically guides it to slip.

India ended the day at 121/8 in 60 overs -- and lucky at that, since bad light forced an early closure. And already, one thing was clear --->barring miracles, which haven't exactly been thick on the ground for the team, Tendulkar's hopes of using the turn on this track to have the Australians, batting last, on the back foot is already in ruins. And it is his batsmen who have shattered it, not the conditions -- his own innings of 45 off 53 deliveries indicates just how 'dicey' the conditions were, and puts the efforts of the others in perspective (Laxman, to cite one of the most pertinent examples, faced 7 balls more -- for just 7 runs).

A reader on Rediff chat made a comment that seemed funny at the time, but which makes for soul-searching material now. "The Indian team," he said, "is a strange, unusual animal -- it's got a tail at both ends."

Meanwhile, thanks to all those who wrote in with good wishes for the new year. On behalf of Rediff, here's wishing all of you out there a wonderful year, filled with everything that you could wish for yourself.


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