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January 14, 2000


India Down Under

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India go down to Oz at the SCG

Prem Panicker

In the early eighties, an international match was being broadcast on BBC radio. On the expert panel were Tony Lewis, Bill Lawry, and Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi. There was a delay in start of play, so the panelists got into this involved discussion of what to do on winning the toss, how to judge whether to bat first or second, etc. Lewis talked of the need to examine the cracks and the soil around the cracks, to see it it would break up or hold firm. Also of the need to assess the nature and texture of any grass on the pitch, the possibility or otherwise of clouds overhead. Lawry went further, and told us how important it was to learn the local conditions, ask the locals for advice on weather patterns not just on the first day, but over five days because sometimes, the weather on day three or four or even five could have a bearing on the decision to bat or field first.

It went on and on, in all solemnity. Until someone remembered that the third member of the panel hadn't said a word. 'What about you, Tiger?', one of them asked Pataudi. 'What factors did you weigh before taking the decision?'

With deadpan humour, Pataudi responded: "Oh, you know, I don't have the brains for all this kind of analysis, so I used to ask Sharmila, my wife, before start of play what to do. If she said bat, I batted, if she said bowl, we bowled."

Deathly silence, from Messers Lewis and Lawry.

I was reminded of that incident as India won the toss, announced its lineup, and opted to bat first. In the past couple of days, so much has been written about how there are cracks on this pitch, how the ball would turn (there was even this business of taking McGill into the ranks, and the leggie promptly went on record in one section of the Australian media, telling whoever would listen that if they thought this was a fast pitch they were bonkers, he fancied it would turn and suit him to a T).

The Indian think tank -- which reads captain Tendulkar, coach Kapil Dev and by extension, vice captain Ganguly who one presumes has a word or two to say when these things are discussed -- I suspect, relied too much on the media reports and the general buzz. They would have been better advised to ask their wives, instead.

Because what did India do? It went in with two spinners and two seamers. With Agarkar injured, one thought Debashish Mohanty would finally get a game, on a grassy track under overcast skies -- but no, the cracks on the track proved too seductive, apparently, and the off spinner got the nod. The result? Australia, chasing 101 to win, are 66/5 at the 20 over mark when Srinath and Prasad, bowling through their allotted overs on the run, finish their respective quotas. At that point, the home team is struggling, and even the rabidly jingoistic ABC commentators begin going uh oh, wait a moment, this ain't the cakewalk we thought it would be...

6.5 overs later, Australia are home, and dry, the winners by 5 wickets as the support bowling yet again failed to back the opening act. Kumble goes for three fours in his opening over, Nikhil Chopra doesn't get to bowl.

This wasn't the only glitch. The inclusion of Devang Gandhi in the eleven counts as another big one -- and for this, where do you point the finger? At the team management? I wonder -- right now, said team management seems to be, at least where batting is concerned, in the position of a lousy gambler, sitting at a table, the most useless hand in history dealt to it and frantically shuffling one card after another, hoping that somehow, the hand will look at least marginally better.

Consider the team the Indians go Down Under with, and what happens to it. Gandhi is found out after one Test, so out he goes -- and then surprise, surprise, stays back for the ODIs. India, we are told by the wise men, needs an opener. Well hey, cool, for the ODIs there is no stint -- we have five, courtesy the selection process. Count them: Laxman, Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dighe ('He is being picked ahead of MSK Prasad because he can open if necessary,' we were sententiously assured by Chandu Borde and his merry men), Gandhi. All of whom played today, which must be some kind of record.

So the shuffling goes on. Laxman on top of the order, then Laxman at three. Jacob Martin at six. Kanitkar at six. Gandhi at, god help us all, five. Lots of shuffling, with no discernible change in the wickets. But then, why would that come as a surprise? If you have a bad hand, you fold. Which you can't do at cricket -- tickets have been sold, so India can't quite concede the games, can it? That leaves only one thing to do -- shuffle the same dog-eared pack over and over, and in the process, at least try to create the illusion that there is some thinking going on.

Tendulkar won the toss. And opted for first strike. Nothing wrong with that one -- if it was overcast at the start, and good for seam bowling, the forecast said there would be showers later (there was a short, sharp one when Australia batted, in fact) and the prognoscis was for the weather to stay cloudy, which allied with the grass on the track would help bowlers through the day. So India had to back its batting to put some runs on the board for the bowlers to aim at.

The idea may have been right enough, but in the execution, the Indians failed. Horribly. Again, I suspect from the way they played early on that they were seduced by the expert analysis. 'You can play shots on this pitch,' we were solemnly assured. 260. 270 is surely on, this is a good track for shot-makers, the curator of the ground said in his pre-match sound byte.

Glenn McGrath and Damien Fleming all but made the ball talk, in their respective first overs. And suddenly, that 260 looked a million miles away. Tendulkar fell into the trap of looking for quick runs when commonsense screamed for him to stay out there, and jabbed at a ball outside off which lifted on him to take the edge through to the keeper. That was it. When he batted at four to bolster the middle, the top collapsed and the middle didn't too well either. Up he goes to the top, and in his first outing tehre, no discernible difference.

Saurav Ganguly, coming off two fifty plus scores, the latter converted into a century, followed suit immediately after, jabbing away from his body at a superb ball that lifted and seamed away late to yet again put Gilchrist in business.

VVS Laxman promptly decided to shut shop. They do say that on difficult batting tracks, if you concentrate on survival alone, you are sooner or later bound to get the get-out ball, and when you do, you'll find nothing against your name in the books (a truth Mark Waugh was going to underline later in the day). But apparently no one told Laxman that, the batsman consequently stayed strokeless, playing and missing, not playing and being beaten anyway, until McGrath pitched one on a fullish length and brought it back in off the seam, after sending the previous ball the other way. Laxman pushed tentatively, unsure where it was going, got the thick edge and onto his stumps.

Devang Gandhi came out to bat. The very first ball was short on middle. Gandhi turned his head away and pushed, one handed, in blind defence. He was lucky to see it bob in the air on the onside -- but the cynical grin from McGrath at the end of the ball told its own story; the Aussie bowlers are all aware that this lad is scared witless of the short ball, and he can expect one served up with his name on it each time he comes out there to the middle. Ironic, really -- when he played for India A against the visiting West Indies A, Reon King found him out with the short lifter. But the selectors maintained that he had what it took to open the innings, the batsman got a few on domestic tracks where you need a forklift to get a ball to bounce, and off he went to get his visa to Australia. So much for 'We pick players on the basis of their ability after taking a quick long look'. As it turned out, Gandhi fell to another lifter, this one from Brett Lee which he poked at, one handed, in front of his body for Bevan to hold the dolly at cover.

Robin Singh with his low back lift and tip-and-nudge style of play was always going to find these conditions a touch difficult. And he was distinctly lucky to avoid being given LBW after being rapped bang in line of middle and leg. But he hung in there, as he always does, while at the other end, >Rahul Dravid played a few strokes, nudged a few other balls around, played and missed often enough. Together, the two added 42 precious runs, before Singh finally succumbed, Shane Lee getting his outer edge for Damien Martyn to take a superb diving catch at slip.

Symonds then came on, produced one that jagged back in off the seam and took Dravid's pads. There was some doubt expressed about the decision -- but to my mind he was gone for the money, the ball did hit the pad outside line of off but there was no two ways that it was coming back to hit the stumps, and that is what the LBW rule is -- or should be -- about.

After that, the Indian resistance collapsed. The first ball that Kumble faced, was wide, way wide in fact of off and the batsman launched into a huge drive to find the ege going through to the keeper. Dighe then touched one through to give Martyn (amazing, in a way, how the Aussies find one fielder to replace another -- Martyn was fielding first slip taking over from the injured Warne and on the evidence, he could field first slip for any team in the world) another take, this one easier by his standards.

Chopra, another gritty customer when batting, resisted for a while but finally fell to another Symonds off cutter, padding up to be trapped in front and off the very next ball, Venkatesh Prasad pushed the wrong line, and was bowled off stump by another one coming in off the seam. India had, in the space of 36.3 overs, folded for a mere 100 runs, and the highest score was registered by extras with 32.

The Indian media, in passing, is often blasted -- mainly by Indians themselves -- as supposedly too jingoistic. That is as it may be -- when Prasad was bowled by Symonds, there was no commentary on ABC -- only uproarious laughter. Good, honest amusement, one presumes -- but the laughter was stilled soon after, as the Australian openers survived a torrid 20 minutes to go in to the halfway break at 12/0 after five overs of searching seam bowling by Prasad and Venkatesh Prasad.

And whatever remained of the laughter died when play resumed after the break. Mark Waugh was lucky on one LBW shout, padding up down the wrong line, and very iffy on another one. His 28-ball misery ironically ended when yet another LBW shout was given -- Peter Parker, having got the earlier one wrong, figured perhaps that two wrongs do make a right, and lifted a finger to one that was hitting on line of leg and going down the legside. Whatever, it was another failure for the master batsman and it made you realise what it means to be part of a winning side -- Mark Waugh can play on, because his team is winning; for far less, an Indian batsmen would have been consigned to oblivion by the fans.

Ricky Ponting, in his two earlier outings, had decided that right from the first ball, he was going to start hitting and keep hitting. Here, he played four balls, was beaten by two of those, and off the fourth, managed to touch it through to Laxman aiming a wild drive at a leg cutter from Prasad.

Adam Gilchrist played a fine hand -- 'fine', here, being defined by the conditions. True, Gilchrist played and missed so often that at one point, he gave the bowler an embarassed grin. But in between, he was alert enough to seize on the least aberration in line, and smahsed 5 fours, four of themover midwicket as the bowers committed the cardinal error of pitching short. When he left, slicing one from Srinath, he had made 37 -- out of the team's score of 55. The other biggest contribution was extras, at that point.

Two balls later, Srinath produced another scorcher, and Bevan was squared up, watching the ball fly off the splice for a simple take at gully. And three runs later, Steve Waugh got one on a very full length, jagging back just enough to take his pad in front of off and middle, and suddenly, inside 17 overs, Australia were 59/5.

In the morning, as India crumbled, there was universal dismay among fans who seemed to think the fault lay entirely with the batting. A point in context -- India, a team coming through a summer of defeat followed by disgrace, had after 20 overs made 51/4. Australia, on a roll right through and coming in with the knowledge that they were facing a low score, was 66/5 at that same point. And in between, Andrew Symonds was lucky to see Devang Gandhi jump for, but fail to hang on to, a sharp chance at slip, and in Srinath's final over, to see a confident shout for LBW turned down.

But that was that. Given seaming conditions, Sachin opted for Ganguly and Robin to take over from Srinath and Prasad. That was the only move available, but it wasn't enough -- neither bowler has the pace to make the conditions tell, and slowly, the Australians began to pull away. Ganguly did induce Symonds to slash a sharp chance that Laxman, diving away at second slip, got a hand to and spilt, and Robin bowled a couple of tight overs. But the only thing that was going to do it for India was wickets -- and there was no bowler around to deliver them. Kumble (in passing, I wonder why, in the universal condemnation that the likes of Srinath and even Agarkar, who managed to end with more wickets than any other Indian bowler on tour are getting, it appears to escape everyone's notice that not once has Kumble been able to come in, after a good start by the seam bowlers, and consolidate the advantage? When Australia toured India and Warne flopped, it was said the reason was the opening bowlers were unable to get through the openers -- that has certainly not been the leg spinner's problem here, but strangely, the fact of his complete failure does not seem to merit mention) got one over, and was thumped for three fours by Symonds, and that was pretty much the finish.

For once, at the post-match press briefing, there was no equivocation. 'We read the conditions wrong, we should have gone with seam bowling here,' Tendulkar said.

Yeah, right.

And now for an aside, on a completely unconnected subject. Over the past three or four days, I've been getting two different kinds of mails. One kind, which I'll talk about first, goes, in effect: "Why are you not answering questions on the right hand side any more, during commentary?"

We were checking some figures earlier today. The registry log was set to zero at the start of the Australian tour. At this point, there are 78,271 registered users of the commentary-cum-chat page. Today, as every day, the accesses on the commentary side was heavy enough to slow, almost to freezing point, the dedicated server. At the same time, through the day, at various times, 42 -- 42 -- individual chatters logged in and actually chatted on the right.

The disparity between th>etwo sides is not, however, the reason for my absence from chat. Rather, it is the nature of posts on that side. Of those 42 chatters, 11 had to be frozen for downright vulgar language. Here is a random cull -- the full list, posted here, would completely numb the reader's senses with its sheer inanity -- from posts on the right today:

syed1: India-loose - Not Rediff, I think it is an extremely good site. Only Prem is such a moron, a fanatic without limit.


Martin: Ithink the comments on tommorows Rediiff sports edition will be...THE PITCH DOING TOO MUCH FOR THE INDIANS..Prem Panicker

Martin: I hope Rediff closes this site very shortly

muldooh: Fire: Watch this: Prem: you are telling us that as a cricket fan you are enjoying this massacre?

Martin: How did this Prem Panicker come into prominence never heard of him before prior to Rediff...Is he another Vijay Lokapally or R.Mohan...........

Baml: prem doesn't have the guts to face the music on the RHS!!

syed1: rabi - Remember Prem is the guy who said it would have missed the stump by six inches about SRT,s dismissal, whereas who saw channel nine replay know it was very close. Prem is special

Baml: now faisal does not have the guts to come on the RHS...we feel cheated by u commentators!!

Baml: glad i ordered it on pay-per view today...atleast i know how much prem deceives us!!

Martin: Todays Headlines In Rediff...SRINATH A DANGEROUS BOWLER.....My foot...... This, incidentally, was posted before Srinath bowled a single ball -- as part of a diatribe on how Rediff was hyping this particular bowler, who in the opinion of the poster, was third rate

Baml: faisal's messages are like prem's commentary.....lacking in sense( goodness what that means??)

Baml: dighe the great gone...and here comes rediff's one of the gurus...srinath!!

raj_man1: why is this chat session full of nonsense? nobody seems to be engaging in a decent cricket discussion. You guys are just mouthing inanities to yourselves

worstteam: Faisal, Why did u go to Chandra? Is evryone else refusing to write for Rediff?

worstteam: Faisal, Chandra's article is milleniam special...what a joke! rediff is definitely in trouble

bawa: prem is not gonna support azhar because you know he is the greatest fan of srt

syed1: CricINfo says: Srinath lets loose his trademark appeal, but it's missing off and what PREM says "that was close, He is unique, Prem come on, be better

Baml: prem don't give false commentary...i did not see the "huge applause" (This, in response to a mention that as Srinath walked off at the end of his ten overs, the Sydney crowd applauded him)

That is merely a partial transcript. It brings us, however, to the second group of emails that have been flooding our boxes. These are from cricket fans who actually want to talk strategy, who want to discuss the nuances of the game. And the consensus is, they do not like to come on chat because in their opinion, it has turned into a forum of abuse... of anyone and everyone.

I agree. Frustration at having paid money to watch a bad performance is, according to one of the chatters, the reason for the diatribes on the left. 'Shoot the messenger if you don't like the message', seems to sum it up just fine.

This particular messenger, however, does not intend to play sitting duck, for this bunch of misguided missiles -- it is far more rewarding to focus our energies on doing the commentary as well as we possibly can. Thanks for the attentive ear, adios for now.


Mail Sports Editor