Wednesday, August 15, 2007

India N-Powered

Did my hope ( actually turn out true? Messrs. Dravid, Co. & Borde gifted us all a great Independence Day gift. India, a 75-year old cricketing nation, won its third overseas Test series in England. The last series win was 21 years ago, when the English team was in total disarray. This time it came against an English team which is officially the second best Test playing country in the world.

The disaster in the World Cup was horrific, but I will take this victory any day for those results (a few brand managers might disagree). Like most of my peers, I have grown up watching Sachin Tendulkar. The interest in the game was kept alive by that man, even at a time when we struggled to win anything outside India from 1986-2001 (except for a one-off in Colombo in 1993). And for all our mutual association, Sachin rated this win as the highest point of his career. So it has never really got bigger for us!

The turnaround for Indian cricket started when the little man decided that his captaincy dreams are turning nightmarish. Without me realising it, India was unfettering, and a 'New India' (a term coined by then-Wisden-now-cricinfo) was about to get reflected in the representative team of its only pan-national mass-sport. Sourav Ganguly and John Wright built a team almost from scratch, which successfully competed with the best. Ganguly could never really win any series, but under his guidance, India built up a very impressive Test record, especially with all the overseas victories (relative to both, her own history and the existing world standards). In fact, even in his only overseas series victory at Pakistan, Ganguly was the captain only in the decider, it was Dravid who led in the first two Tests. Most importantly, apart from the Natwest and the World Cup, India's ODI form remained patchy, with all - Australia, Zimbabwe, England, West Indies - challenging us on our home turfs.

The key to Ganguly's success was some divine batsmanship (the fab five, led by Sehwag & Dravid, VVS, and supported by Sachin & Sourav himself), who consistently out-scored teams to give their steady bowlers a winning platform. In fact, the bowling heroes kept changing - Bhajji against Aussies at home, Kumble & Bhajji at Headingley, Agarkar at Adelaide, Irfan & Balaji in Pakistan, and so on.

When Greg Chappell came in with all his innovative theories and different thinking-hats, there was a sense of expectation, that he will possibly take the team to the next level (it was definitely stagnating in the last year of Wright). His first action, of giving India's most successful skipper Ganguly the boot, should have been a forewarning. I still do not disagree to Ganguly's sacking as captain, but it should have been handled a lot better, and professionally.

The right candidate, the deputy in command, Rahul Dravid took over, and under him and Chappell, we had a season of stunning ODI chases, followed a season of unprecedented humiliation. What we forget is that somewhere in this limited-overs turmoil, we finally got the outside-subcontinent series victory in West Indies which had eluded Ganguly. And this at a time when Sehwag became inconsistent (a below-average series against England at home, a disaster in South Africa), Sachin and Laxan slipped a few notches, and an already struggling Ganguly was kept out of the team. Most crucially, Ganguly's replacements Yuvraj and Kaif did not do enough to establish that Dada's ouster was the right thing to do.

In the crucial deciding Test match in the Caribbean, Dravid was the difference between the two teams, which implied he was leading from the front. It is a different thing that we should have actually thrashed the Windies 3-0, or beaten them 2-0, not scraped out the 1-0 win. Even more astonishing was the first-ever Test victory in South Africa. It came totally against the run of play, from a till-then badly-battered-and-hammered team. It is an absolute shame that Dravid could not build on that to claim an even more commendable series victory in South Africa (would have been a higher achievement in my books than England).

What changed in England? The series was a closely fought one, not really exciting, but in the light of recent cricketing contests, I will take it any day. A full 5-Test series would have possibly whetted the appetite better, but one cannot be gluttonous. Most importantly, there were a few key factors, which possibly affected the final outcome:
  • The strange Indian pair of Jaffer-Karthik put on some opening stands, with the makeshift out-scoring the regular (Karthik was the highest scorer from India, and gave more confidence to Sunny Gavaskar than Jaffer). Historically, we have rarely had any success without a decent opening stand, even VVS played his Innings of 281 after the openers Das and Ramesh had put up a half-century partnership in about an hour. I thought dropping Sehwag was a case of confusing Test and ODI form, but the die is cast for the time-being.
  • For a change, except for the first day at Lord's, the Indian bowlers kept the pressure up. Kumble failed in key moments, Sreesanth who was supposed to be the leader of the pack had a below-par series, but Zaheer and RP were right up there. Zaheer rightfully was declared the Man of the Series, but RP got the absolutely crucial wickets, of Pietersen in both innings at Trent Bridge. RP also delivered the bowls of the series, in the second innings, to get rid of Collingwood at Lord's (the bouncer) and Prior at Trent Bridge (the in-dipper). The fact that Indian fielding, which even in the best of times was good at catching rather than stopping runs, had a below-par outing, showed how good the bowlers were, as they had to do it mainly by themselves.
  • To make it evenly-matched, there was no genuine batting star of the series from either side, except for Pietersen who was the best by a distance (which further highlights RP's winning contribution in the second Test). In fact, his two centuries are just the types which Sachin has been accused of not playing enough. Vaughan also was absolutely terrific in his century at Trent Bridge, and terribly unlucky to get out the way he did (flicking on to the leg stump). For India, Kumble remained the sole and surprising centurion (his acknowledgement at reaching his hundred was emotional, hilarious and quick-thinking). The best innings from an Indian came in the last innings at Oval, when Dravid was simply struggling to pierce the field in any manner whatsover, and Ganguly showed what counter-attacking batting can be like. In fact, the Indian skipper had the worst series. In his defence, one can say he got out to an iffy decision at a critical moment of the first Test, and an absolute peach in the third (when he got his only fifty of the series). I will also never forget the leg-side trap employed for Sachin at the Oval, and his absolute denial to hook and pull. He was apparently expecting the ploy, and just a day before in the nets, had a full session to practice a counter-attack. Of course, he decided against displaying any results of his practice, and while his 82 was another determined contribution, I would rather he take a leaf out of Ganguly's positivity in the second innings (remember, they both had started off so radically different in Ireland).
  • Most importantly, for a change, India was determined to cash on its luck. More often than not, the elements have always gone against us. Yet, my counter-argument is that whenever the opportunity has presented itself, we have let it pass. In 2002 at Kingston, with the series tied 1-1, we chose to bowl (just like at Trent Bridge). The difference was that then the openers Gayle and Hinds put on 111 for the first wicket, here we got them all out for 199. In the same Test, if India would have batted ten minutes more in the last innings, we would have saved the Test and the series, as a thunderstorm rolled in and it kept raining for the next three days. Similarly, at Durban, Boucher challenged India to bat out 50 overs on the final day, we decided to fold up in 40-odd. The best batsman that day was Dhoni, and he learnt to remember it when playing at Lord's. He was lucky to survive in the beginning, but he made his luck count to turn the corner for himself, and India in the series. A good omen for our 20:20 captain.
The victory is a great beginning to a mega season, where we host Pakistan, tour Australia and then host South Africa (somehow they do not count as much these days). We should have ideally gone for a 2-0 victory. I somehow think Oval would still have been a draw even if we had imposed the follow-on. It would just have communicated a more positive intent from India. After all, the biggest impact was created when the openers launched themselves into the English attack on the first day (with Jaffer getting out trying a Sehwag-style upper-cut). Almost all the batsmen (with the exception of Sachin who was grinding them down) batted at a 60+ strike rate in that innings.

Dravid continues to be the ideal captain for India (a winner of two-and-a-half overseas victory, better than his predecessor Ganguly one can say), but he has had two indifferent series in the last six months. Ganguly has definitely strengthened his batting claim, but Sachin and VVS have been patchy - at times fluent, at times really laboured. The contrast showed up in the second test, when India batted at 3.02 runs per over to set up the match, while England batted at 3.41 to save it.

The problem is that the entire middle-order is almost of the same age. We have thrown the youngest of the lot Sehwag out. Now if all these decide to retire at the same time, it will leave a gap impossible to fill. India will possibly benefit if a couple of them stay under pressure, even if its the great Sachin himself.

The true indicator of India's standing standard in the global cricketing order will come in Australia. After all, we all remember what they did to their closest challenger, England, last season.

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