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January 3, 2000


India Down Under

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Another one bites the dust

Prem Panicker

Justin Langer scored the first century of the new century, millenium, whatever -- let's celebrate.

And if he was 'lucky' on three separate occasions, so what? It's all part of the game, ain't it?

You've got to wonder what it is about Langer that has umpires, neutral and otherwise, losing all sense of perspective. First, an umpire, in an unprecedented act, actually apologises to him for giving him out, wrongly. Then, in the second innings of the same Test, the selfsame umpire gave him not out off a thick, palpable edge through to the keeper, and he went on to score a match-winning century that gave Australia a two-zero lead over Pakistan.

And into the fourth Test from that one, the umpires are still compensating for that one bad decision that went against him. LBW, but not given, at Melbourne. Thrice LBW, once caught behind superbly by Prasad down the leg side off Ganguly, not given.

"One bad decision cannot change the course of the match" -- that justification has been trotted out, time out of mind on this series whenever Tendulkar gets a dodgy one. It's a clever justification, that -- the implication being, maybe Tendulkar got a bad one, but hey, the rest of the team sucks big time, so one guy wouldn't have made much of a difference in any case.

Maybe it is time to examine that argument a bit more closely? In the first innings, wickets are falling left, right and centre. And amidst the ruins, stands Sachin Tendulkar. After lunch, he first sees off Brett Lee. On comes McGrath -- the man who "fancied his chances against Sachin" before this series began. With a field placed for the uppish drive away from his body, he bowls four deliveries outside off. Sachin refuses to touch them. McGrath is forced to change his line, and bowls one closer to the off stump. Tendulkar glides forward and smashes an extra cover drive that leaves the field standing. Next over, McGrath changes tack. With a man behind square and another at deep midwicket, he sends down a series of short pitched deliveries. Tendulkar pulls, hooks, pulls, pulls again. A brace, then three fours, so much for that line of attack -- and then, Tendulkar gets one on the pad and up goes the finger, immediately.

That decision, coming at a time when Tendulkar was taking the attack to the Australians and going at 45 off 53 balls, didn't change the course of the game, oh no.

The Aussies begin their reply. And India's attack, described after the first Test as club class (strangely, though, Mark Waugh pointed to that selfsame attack as the reason why he isn't getting runs) strikes, yet again, early. I wonder why it escapes notice that the Australian top order, so lethal against Pakistan, has struggled time and again to cope with the Indian new ball attack? Anyways -- as usual, Australia lose a quick wicket, Srinath taking Slater out with a ball around off, seaming away and taking the edge through to the keeper to reduce Australia to 9/1.

At the other end is Blewett, struggling for form. In comes Langer. With the score on 23/1, Srinath pitches one on a full length, Langer offers no shot, gets it on the pad bang in front. As the ball struck, Tony Greig in the commentary box goes "That's out!". Umpire Robinson thinks otherwise. Ian Chappell, after seeing the replays, says, "I wouldnt' have a problem if that had been given out".

Prasad comes in to bowl. Pitches one on leg and middle, straightens it on line, takes Langer on the pad, again no shot offered. Huge appeal, but this time, umpire Darrell Hair thinks not. The score then is 43.

During this period, the Channel Nine screen shows, one after the other, the dismissal of Sachin Tendulkar and the LBW appeals turned down off Justin Langer. "There is a bit of a discrepancy in the decision making, here," says Bill Lawry.

This tour is proving a great one for euphemisms. Decisions are not good or bad -- they are "bold", "courageous", the decision-making shows "discrepancies".

That was twice, inside the first 50 runs, that Australia should have been two down. Greg Blewett's continued misery, meanwhile, ends when Prasad produces an incutter which the batsman chops down onto his stumps -- same mode of dismissal as the last time, different bowler, Australia 49/2.

Mark Waugh comes in next, for his 100th Test, to a standing ovation. When the ball is on line of middle and leg, he plays with supreme fluency. Anywhere else, and he pushes and prods, struggling to work the ball off the square. In between, he comes dancing down to Kumble and carts one way over the long boundary straight, for a huge six over long on.

Langer, meanwhile, continues to lead a charmed life. In the first over after lunch, he edges Srinath through the slips, four. Then hits in the air wide of gully, four. Then inner edges to third man, two. With the score at 84/2, he chops one back onto the stumps, off the same bowler. No ball called, though.

Around this point, a series of short balls from Agarkar and some horrendous fielding by Prasad (by my count, thrice in four overs he let the ball through for fours, when there wasn't even the single to be had) gives the scoring rate a huge spurt. Finally, Ganguly comes on --- and off the first ball he bowls, he brings one back off the seam, Mark Waugh plays down the wrong line, and back goes his off stump. 145/3.

10 runs later, Ganguly going round the wicket bounces one. Langer moves into the pull, and gets the glove onto thigh pad. "Two noises there," goes Mark Taylor in the Channel Nine box, after watching the lines on the famous snickometer. Prasad goes a long way to leg to hold a very good catch. Not out, says the umpire. 153/3 the score at that time.

Langer is 98 at tea. Ganguly and Bharadwaj, resuming, make him sweat for 38 deliveries for the next two runs -- but finally, a drive through the covers gets the batsman his 6th Test century. Australia is 200/3, Langer having got exactly half of that.

That trend in fact continued right through to close -- Langer batting 167 out of 331 at close (A wag, on our cricket chat, pointed out that Langer had, at that, done better than the Indians -- he had scored 167 being out only 4 times, whereas India managed only 150 losing nine, ten if you count Tendulkar's dismissal). And between his century and his 150, Prasad pitches one on the middle stump, straightens it, Langer gets it on the pad on the back foot, and again, the appeal is turned down. "Hmmm, that looked pretty adjacent," goes the commentator on Channel Nine.

The fact that he was let off by the umpires not once but four times, and went on to score half the Australian runs on the board, didn't alter the course of the match.

The fact that Srinath, with the old ball, ripped one through Steve Waugh, took the outer edge when the batsman was in his 30s, and found yet another appeal turned down, did not change anything much either. Steve Waugh merely went on to score 50+ before Srinath, with the second new ball, finally got him in front with a ball of fullish length and for once, found an appeal being upheld.

Just as, in earlier outings, Gilchrist being given not out on the Kumble caught and bowled, and going on to score runs at a rapid pace and help Australia take the game away, didn't change the course of the previous one. Or that the course of the match isn't changed when, late into the evening, both Blewett and Langer are given not out on LBWs, making the difference between Australia going in at stumps one wicket down, as opposed to three.

The Indians bowled as well as they were allowed to (one among the revealing statistics on the day belongs to Langer -- beaten 29 times in course of his innings, outside off, playing and missing and lucky not to get the edge) -- not by the batsmen, who every single one of them had prolonged spells of uncertainty against the seaming ball in sunny conditions that favoured batsmen a lot more than on day one, but by the "inconsistent decision-making" of the umpires. And that is the real tragedy here. There was a full house at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Presumably, the full house came out in anticipation of a good contest. Pathetic refereeing is getting in the way of this Test being one. And maybe, when next someone feels like talking of how spectators are being cheated of their due (as happened when India refused to play under lights), they would remember this, too?

It is not the argument here that the Indians haven't contributed to their own plight -- they have, in spades. When India batted, batsman after batsman succumbed to the push away from body outside off. One would think cutting out that shot was a basic to playing on quick, bouncing tracks -- but apparently, someone omitted to tell the batsmen that. With the ball, once things began going wrong, the bowlers tended to lose their cool, and pitched too short too often. Langer, who even after getting to his century looked ill at ease to the fullish length ball, was allowed to pull and hook too often, given too many free hits, for comfort. Both with the bat and the ball, thus, the Indians have stuffed up.

But. Running like an irritating undercurrent through this Test, indeed through this series, there is that but... a tantalising what if...

Watching Australia with the ball is enough to show just how much quick wickets lift a team. And that makes you wonder -- if India got the decisions it deserved, today for instance, and the fall of wickets was quicker, what then? It is not as if any one batsman batted with authority out there -- and that is when you begin to wonder. To wish...

Does all this sound like a whine from a section of the media belonging to the country that is losing this series and losing it badly? No more, I would think, than the endless Australian complaints of smog in Delhi (after losing the one-off Test at the Firozeshah Kotla), bad tracks, and worse umpiring, sounded like whining when they were in India in 1998 and lost the series there.

That Australia are a brilliant side is undoubted. But that side deserved to win this one without all these doubts, these undercurrents.

Meanwhile, Ricky Ponting's innings underlined the biggest problem with the Indian bowling -- by the time Ponting came in, it was late into the evening and the Indians, as they do when things are not going well for them, lost their composure entirely. Again, contrast this with the Australian attitude -- when their bowlers are being hit about (admittedly, only Tendulkar has done that so far), they still hold their nerve, keep attacking, whereas the Indians let their heads droop, their shoulders sag, and their brains fly out their ears. Here, to Ponting, they kept feeding him the length and line he loves best -- short on middle and leg, and Ponting pulled, hooked, got fours at will and the runs kept mounting, just when the fielding side needed to keep it tight. When he was 18, he had four fours to his name (7 fours in a 55-ball 34), all of them square of the wicket. The rest of the time, he was pushing and prodding, and had managed two singles. Had the Australians been bowling, Ponting would have been two, period -- no gimme balls for cheap, quick runs.

And this is where India, with the ball, has suffered time and again, despite the fact that pretty much every one of them has bowled tight, testing spells. All the pressure they build up, is undone as quickly, and given that, the hard work has gone down the drain.

At close on day two, with Australia ahead by 181 and with six in hand, India is staring down the barrel of a very big gun. Ironically, given the amount of time left to go in this game, the most possible outcome seems to be a mirror of the way the series against Pakistan went -- an innings defeat to round things off.

In passing, an aside on the Glenn McGrath incident -- Ranjan Madugalle, showing admirable firmness, actually warned the bowler for the number he pulled when he got Tendulkar's wicket.

We are impressed, very. I mean, the match referee actually warns McGrath?!

We are even more impressed at the explanation of why he was merely warned, while Prasad was given a fine and a suspended sentence, both. Apparently, McGrath wasn't quite as close to Sachin, and he didn't pump his fists as many times.

So now we know -- the ICC code of conduct makes nice distinctions. If you get within one foot of the batsman, you are fined and suspended. A foot and a half, you are merely fined. Two feet, and you are warned. Any further away, and...

I wonder -- if I stab someone, once, and kill him, will I be punished any less than if I stab him 5 times?

Is it the offense, or the niceties, that attract punishment?


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