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January 4, 1999


India Down Under

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The good, the bad, the impossibly ugly

Prem Panicker

Indian cricket has this thing about it -- when it is bad, it is disgracefully so. And when it gets good, it can get electrifying.

Day three at the SCG had enough of both -- only, the Indian team being what it is and playing the way it does, by the time the good surfaced, it was way too late in the day. India gave the game entirely away in the first hour of play and from then on, everything that followed was anticlimax.

I remember, from back during our schooldays, an incident where a bowler in a school game got pissed off because an appeal was not given, and bowled a lot of rubbish. End of play, our coach goes, "So okay, he was out on that one ball and it wasn't given -- so what did you do with the other five balls?"

Today's performance by the bowlers and fielders reminded me of that one. What we saw, first thing in the morning, was complete, total abdication. The team played like it had given up -- the fielding was shambolic, the bowling completely ragged. Srinath started off nicely with a tight over, and Agarkar at the other end promptly gave it away with a spray of deliveries wide of off, or short on leg. Prasad was brought on as replacement, and he seemed to be trying to outdo Agarkar in giving it away. The disease soon spread, and Srinath began straying as well. Anil Kumble (for suggesting that he should not be treated as a must pick Down Under, the 'fan mail' I got lowered all previous records) appeared to have given up on ever being able to take wickets out there, and moved round the wicket to angle the ball onto leg stump -- the so-called defensive line, which we have seen from the likes of Jayasuriya and Dharmasena, and there is no uglier sight in cricket than to see a bowler bowling a foot and a half outside leg and sending them straight through (a Warne doing it is something else, since he turns it back in off the rough and looks for wickets).

The fielding was a match for the bowling. Within the first half hour, Rahul Dravid missed on two absolute sitters when, with first Ponting, then Langer, stranded half the length of the pitch, wild throws from well inside what in ODIs would be the 30-yard line let the batsmen off the hook.

Ponting and Langer flourished. Ponting in particular played a superlative knock -- he came out looking positive; positively belligerent in fact. And proceeded to take the bowling apart, playing shots all round the wicket. He couldn't have had a more devastating impact if he had simply taken an AK-47 and cut loose.

At the other end, Langer continued where he left off, the odd well-hit shot interspersed with nudges and edges. But in his innings, there was something for the Indians to learn -- in fact, two lessons. One, if you quit attacking and go on the 'defensive', it is counter-productive. The wider the field is spread, the less chance of edges going to hand, and the easier the runs are to come by. And the other is, when you bat, never mind the near misses, never mind the reprieves, just grit it out, stay there, hit the ball every chance you get, and the runs will come. In plenty.

The only bowler who looked like taking a wicket was Tendulkar himself -- as always when he bowls, there were the long hops, which were clinically put away, but in between there were also the ones that spun, turned a long way and had the batsmen scrambling. Justin Langer's 525 minute vigil ended when he slashed at an off spinner from Tendulkar, getting the toe of the bat on it to put it high in the air and down the throat of cover.

Ponting merely stepped up a gear. And with the Indians showing a complete lack of heart for the fight, Gilchrist joined in the run feast. Until Steve Waugh finally applied the closure with the score on 552 for 5. And again, for the nth time in the series, the Indian bowlers had started well -- 49/2 inside 20 overs -- and then let the opposition get away from them.

The last time India lost by an innings was way back in 1983. It was obvious that it would take one heck of an effort to stave off a defeat by that margin here -- but the early half of the Indian innings merely continued the performance with the ball. There was an 'aw shucks, what the hell is the point anyway' air about the batting, at least from one end, that must have disappointed viewers -- character comes through best when you fight against odds, not when you shrug, give it up, and roll over and play dead.

MSK Prasad left early, and predictably -- pushing at McGrath outside off, to give Mark Waugh his 13th catch of the summer. You can't blame the guy, really -- opening on foreign soil is a job for a specialist, and India is merely continuing to pay for its policy of using stopgap openers andpacking its middle order. After every away tour -- the last was New Zealand -- you hear the management, the selectors and the board wax sententious about the need to develop and groom two regular openers. Between New Zealand and now, they did find a Ramesh, on the plus side of the ledger -- but equally, they also found a Devang Gandhi. Who, as anyone watching him even on home soil would have agreed, is no opener, not against testing new ball bowling on anything bar the featherbeds we play our domestic cricket on, back home.

The quota system, though, remains alive and well. So we have Gandhi. And we have Prasad doing what Mongia did earlier. For a bowler of McGrath's class, the sight of a non-regular is an invitation to add one more to his tally, and he did that in clinical fashion.

Rahul Dravid's fielding this morning was indication enough that the vicissitudes of this tour have shattered his confidence, that he is struggling in his mind. If any more evidence were needed, it was there in the mode of his dismissal today. Still to get off the mark, Dravid -- rated by experts as one of the best leavers of the ball outside off in the business -- did a Prasad, pushing at a straightforward delivery outside off, his foot not to the pitch or into line, his bat a long way in front of his body, to get the edge for Warne to juggle, and hold, at first slip.

At the other end, VVS Laxman was giving some early indications of what was to follow. From the moment he took guard and rocked back to pull a short one from Fleming through midwicket for four, he looked positive. The pickup of the bat was fluent, the strokes were played with a full flourish and perfect timing, and suddenly, the man who in the previous innings had pushed and prodded his way to a 60-ball innings of seven looked more the stylish strokeplayer we know.

His story, more than any other, is symbolic of the tragedy that is Indian cricket. By nature and temperament, he is a middle order batsman, pushed into opening when it suited various selection committees, then dumped again at their convenience. It is something I for one find hard to understand -- if you take a batsman and ask him to do something that goes against his natural grain, and he willingly obliges; if, further, he plays in the early stages an innings or two that indicate good character, shouldn't you then reciprocate by keeping the faith, by letting him do the job for an extended period? Shouldn't you, keeping in mind that he is not an opener to start with, let him have a good, uninterrupted six months or so in the job, letting him learn, and grow? But no, that has not been the policy -- instead, he is pitchforked into the position when India goes travelling, then dumped when the side plays at home because on the featherbeds you get in India, even a wicket-keeper is good enough to play out a few overs at the start.

Tendulkar came out to join him. The first ball he got was short, and he was on the back foot in a flash, pulling McGrath to the midwicket boundary. Oh ho, we go, so that is how it is going to be? Not -- Fleming pitched one on off, seamed it in a touch, Tendulkar was already into his on the up extra cover drive when the ball came back at him, all he could do was go through with the shot and pat it down the throat of cover. For the second time, a dismissal no one can quarrel with. And for the first time on this tour, a complete failure for the Indian captain and suddenly, India was 33/3 and down and out for the count.

Saurav Ganguly came in next. If you look at his run-scoring on this tour, there is a steady, and noticeable, decline. And that is equally true of his confidence -- early on, he looked even more comfortable than Tendulkar did. Of late, he looks edgy, unsure. When on tour, and playing a series, a batsman growing in stature as he comes to terms with the conditions is understandable -- but when the process is reversed, you begin to wonder.

Here, he played the odd flowing shot, but they were interespersed with nudges and edges that were at marked variance with the way he addresses the ball when he is on song. There was also this interesting incident, when he slammed a cut at a delivery outside off. Greg Blewett, whose fielding today was dazzling, flung himself forward and got his fingers under the ball to hold. However, he appeared unsure whether he had taken it on the full, or on the bounce, and shook his head. Barring a mild query from Slater, none of the other Australians appealed, either -- could it be that the flak over bad umpiring was getting to them, restraining them a touch? So the third umpire was not called for -- and Ganguly lived on.

Isn't it about time -- a point being made for the nth time -- the third umpire was given wider powers? To overrule the on field umpires if, with the benefit of technology, a decision proves to be wrong? We say this when batsmen are given out wrongly -- but it is equally true of instances such as these, when a batsman is out and not given. The counter argument you hear is that such reversals will undermine the authority of the on-field umpire -- but why should it? The players, the media and the fans are aware that on the field, with decisions needing to be made in a split second, you could make a mistake -- and that a reversal made on the basis of technological help by the video umpire is no slur on the one doing duty out there in the middle. In any case, which is the priority, really -- is it to save the umpire's face (which, given the availability of giant screens in most grounds showing innumerable replays of wrong decisions, doesn't work anyway?), or is it to get the umpiring to be as clean and fair as possible, for both parties in the contest?

And while we are about it, how about a hand for Blewett? He was quick with the headshake -- no one could have blamed him if he had held the ball up, indicated that he was not 100 per cent sure, and asked for the umpire's adjudication, with help from the video umpire if need be.

>Ganguly in any case left shortly after, again pushing at one outside off, slanting away from him, to edge into the slips. Bharadwaj, who earlier in the day had collapsed in the field with a back problem, wasn't expected to come out to bat. So that left Kanitkar, and the tail.

And Laxman came into his own, in a display of blistering strokeplay. Time and again, yorker length deliveries were driven with the straightest of bats. When the bowlers dropped short, he either went under it or pulled fiercely and well (in the first over of the innings, McGrath had got him with a lifter that didn't get up as much as expected, and hit him on the helmet, around the jawline). And when Warne came on, he drove, cut, pulled -- if the shot was in the book, he played it and to perfection, at that. It was the kind of innings a Tendulkar could have been proud of, and would have claimed as one of his best. From Laxman, it came with a bittersweet taste. Sweet, because it is one more in a series of good innings that he has played. Bitter, because it comes at a time when the selectors and management, in their collective wisdom -- if wisdom is the right word -- decided to send him home, and retain Devang Gandhi for the ODI series.

The decision to retain Gandhi is one that must baffle. Never, on this tour, has he looked anything but club class, not even in the side games (unlike Laxman, who scored the first century of the tour, for the tourists, in the first of the tour games and came up with some decent performances after), he looked even less in the one Test he did play, he was dropped from the playing eleven for form and ability -- so why, by what logic, was he retained for the ODIs?

While Laxman was blazing away, on Rediff chat the question was being asked -- can the selectors keep Laxman back and send Gandhi home instead? Yes they can. But I suspect they won't. Because to do so would be to admit, and underline, the original mistake -- and that is not the kind of action our selectors, or team managements, are famous for.

Kanitkar has shown some heart in his previous innings. Here, he hung around for a bit, watching Laxman's pyrotechnics from close quarters, and then went the way of his seniors -- pushing at a delivery slanted across him, bat away from body and feet nowhere in line.

Kumble's batting has been a revelation on this tour (something had to be, his bowling is certainly not something he is going to have fond memories of). Again, he played a fine hand, coping with the pace of Lee and McGrath, giving Laxman admirable support while the latter continued to astonish and delight with his strokeplay. Regulation time was just ending when he finally succumbed -- guess how? That was number four for McGrath, Steve Waugh asked for play to be extended for half an hour since he sensed that he could wrap it up today itself, and Agarkar saved himself from his fifth straight golden duck -- by way of variety, the player who, according to Kapil Dev and Sachin Tendulkar was in the side because he was an all-rounder with the potential to be the next Kapil Dev, fell second ball. Caught keeper bowled McGrath, giving the latter his second five wicket haul for the match.

And that pretty much was that. Laxman finally succumbed to sheer weariness, giving Lee some consolation after the caning the young fast bowler took from the opener, by touching one through to Gilchrist. The Sydney crowd stood to applaud him back -- and every handclap must have come as sweet music to the man who played the kind of innings that captures the imagination (what it sounded like to the selectors and the team management, is something we can only speculate about).

Prasad duly got himself run out, and India had lost by an innings and plenty, inside of three days. Which, somehow, seems a symbolic end to a series where nothing, not one single thing, has gone right for the touring party.

Meanwhile, put it together for Steve Waugh and his men -- at the end of the day, they taught the Indians one valuable lesson. To wit, that the successful teams are the ones that dare to set themselves goals (Waugh said he wanted the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, he got it; he said he wanted a 6-0 whitewash this summer, he got it), then go after them with everything they have got. The umpiring has been average -- to put it politely. But that does not take away from the way Waugh and his team stayed 'up' throughout the three Tests, time and again coming back from seemingly bad positions.

Grit. And pride -- in themselves and their team. That about sums up the difference between these two sides. And, in the process, explains the scoreline.


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