A first-rate spectacle

No side has so thoroughly dictated play to the champion side as India at the WACA, the Australian bastion. Victory in four days, against the backdrop of the events in Sydney, went a long way towards restoring the primacy of the India-Australia rivalry. The level contest in Adelaide reinforced it, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

Paradoxically, the series actually exceeded the realist’s expectations. There were so many great cricketers thrown together that it seemed only natural they perform below par. Cricket’s history has had several such duds, promising on paper, but utterly disappointing thereafter. Moreover, many of these greats were getting on in age — even for a sport that privileges skill, cricket derives greatly from the strength and endurance. But, the spectacle India and Australia put on, particularly in Sydney and Perth, was first-rate.

Also in terms of an entertaining, even contest, the series hit its highs at the SCG and the WACA. Australia was clearly the stronger side in Melbourne, and the strip at the Adelaide Oval reduced the fourth Test to a batting contest, albeit one that featured five exceptional, varied hundreds. The depths and heights of the series were confined to the middle Tests as well.

Defeat with eight minutes left on the grand clock atop the Members pavilion at the SCG was a cruel fate for India. At various stages, Anil Kumble’s band of strong-willed men would have fancied winning the second Test; at other stages, they would have been sure of drawing it. While they certainly didn’t help themselves with the batting on the final day, that they were done in by poor officiating is incontrovertible.

Perth was perhaps the most outstanding away victory in the last decade — that’s no empty statement, considering this Indian team has travelled well in the last decade. Indeed, only Australia, which ranks above them on the ICC’s Test rankings, has done better overseas. No side has so thoroughly dictated play to the champion side as India at the WACA, the Australian bastion. Victory in four days, against the backdrop of the events in Sydney, went a long way towards restoring the primacy of the India-Australia rivalry. The level contest in Adelaide reinforced it.

“While not wanting to over-romanticise it, this is a great contest,” said Matthew Hayden, the Australian opener who made centuries in each of the three Tests he played. “We are two great cultures, two great cricketing nations, we have so much passion that it’s a great rivalry.

India have been enjoyable opponents and they have pushed us, they’ve tested us, which is what you want at this level.”

Another sign that the series was a grandee can be had from the sub-plots, each uplifting and enhancing. Sachin Tendulkar, who is revered here in Australia as the best batsman since the Don, was accorded standing ovations every time he so much as touched a bat, forcing the great man into saying he had to check the scoreboard to see if he was on zero or hundred. His battles with Brett Lee in the first innings of all four Tests were worth the admission money. (As indeed was Ishant Sharma’s defining duel with Ricky Ponting in Perth).

Tendulkar found redemption in Australia — over the last few years, he had changed considerably as a batsman. He had slipped from his outrageously high standards of attacking batsmanship. He seemed to have made his peace with the transformation (another instance of how genius is rarely understood by others) and become a very effective player, although a different player. But, in Australia, there were several moments that recalled an early intuitive part of his career. Tendulkar alluded to feeling in better touch, and it showed.

He changed style and set-up as is his wont on differing surfaces, but the aggressive half-century in Melbourne, the reasoned century in Sydney, the custom-built fifty on the faster surface in Perth, and the 153 at the Adelaide Oval were dipped in genius. It’s another matter that he couldn’t break out of his abysmal second-innings record against Australia. He did enough, however, to reassure his Australian devotees that they were in the presence of a talent that was still very special.

V. V. S. Laxman was the first Indian batsman to show Australia could be tamed. The hundred in Sydney was one of his finest against the champion side, and that is saying a lot, for he has turned out epic innings against Australia with remarkable frequency. Few men have counter-attacked with such beauty, and it’s surprising that this admirable cricketer is forever on tenterhooks. His half-century in the second innings in Perth under extreme pressure was the defining innings of the Test.

Rahul Dravid, who made 93 in the first, had a strange series. Shunted to open in the first two Tests to accommodate the disappointing Yuvraj Singh, he struggled greatly, but never gave up. He made painful yet compelling watching. It’s all too easy to throw it away when things aren’t going your way. But, Dravid showed that there is a certain nobility in the struggle. He also had fortune — he seemed to be caught off no-balls and dropped off others a fair bit. But, in the crucial second innings in Sydney, where he appeared to resemble his usual self, he was given out caught off the pad.

Sourav Ganguly began as India’s best batsman, but tailed away in the second half of the series. Fortunately, India discovered that Virender Sehwag was back to his marauding best. The touring side missed a trick in not playing the opener in Sydney, but the hundred in the tour game in Canberra was of great benefit to Sehwag. Having had a lacklustre domestic season, the Delhi batsman re-discovered his batting rhythm, and immediately showed the difference he makes to the side. The starts in Perth were typically insouciant, but both innings in Adelaide showed how shrewdly he thinks through an innings. But, India’s seam bowling was the greatest gain. Leaving India without the best attack and then losing Zaheer Khan before the second Test could have compromised India’s chances in the series. But, R. P. Singh, Ishant Sharma and Irfan Pathan rose splendidly to the occasion. They swung the ball to trouble Australia. R. P. Singh confirmed the strides he has made towards becoming a world-class opening bowler.

Ishant wowed the nation, having the greatest impact for a visiting teenager in Australia since Tendulkar. The 19-year-old bowled with pace, movement, accuracy and bounce, ticking all the boxes needed for a fast bowler, and India must look after this precious talent.

This was also a series for milestones. Adam Gilchrist bid farewell to Test cricket, an emotional time for any cricket fan, but he broke the world record for the most dismissals before that. He never really fired in the series, offering the briefest of glimpses in Perth, but he has been a giant of the modern game. The cricket world will miss him.

Kumble became only the third bowler to cross 600 wickets. His unbeaten 40-odd in Sydney was heroic and illustrated that there are few fiercer competitors, few with greater strength of mind. In a series of ructions, India was lucky to have this great man as its leader. He was exceptional on the field — even if questionable tactically. Pertinently, he was a credit both to himself and the country with the way he handled the attendant pressures that threatened to engulf the tour.

THE SCORE

Fourth Test, Adelaide Oval, January 24-28. Match drawn.

India — 1st innings: V. Sehwag c Hayden b Lee 63; I. Pathan c Gilchrist b Johnson 9; R. Dravid c Ponting b Johnson 18; S. Tendulkar c Hogg b Lee 153; S. Ganguly lbw b Hogg 7; V. V. S. Laxman c Gilchrist b Lee 51; M. Dhoni c Symonds b Johnson 16; A. Kumble c Gilchrist b Johnson 87; Harbhajan Singh c Gilchrist b Symonds 63; R. P. Singh c Johnson b Clarke 0; Ishant Sharma (not out) 14; Extras (b-8, lb-21, w-3, nb-13) 45. Total: 526.

Fall of wickets: 1-34, 2-82, 3-122, 4-156, 5-282, 6-336, 7-359, 8-466, 9-468.

Australia bowling: Lee 36-4-101-3; Johnson 37.5-6-126-4; Clark 31-6-92-0; Hogg 31-2-119-1; Clarke 10-0-39-1; Symonds 7-0-20-1.

Australia — 1st innings: P. Jaques b Kumble 60; M. Hayden b Ishant 103; R. Ponting b Sehwag 140; M. Hussey b Pathan 22; M. Clarke c Laxman b Ishant 118; A. Symonds b Ishant 30; A. Gilchrist c Sehwag b Pathan 14; B. Hogg (not out) 16; B. Lee c Dhoni b Pathan 1; M. Johnson c Ishant b Harbhajan 13; S. Clark b Sehwag 3; Extras (b-10, lb-12, w-10, nb-11) 43. Total: 563.

Fall of wickets: 1-159, 2-186, 3-241, 4-451, 5-490, 6-506, 7-527, 8-528, 9-557.

India bowling: R. P. Singh 4-0-14-0; Pathan 36-2-112-3; Ishant 40-6-115-3; Harbhajan 48-5-128-1; Kumble 30-4-109-1; Sehwag 19-2-51-2; Tendulkar 1-0-6-0; Ganguly 3-1-6-0.

India — 2nd innings: V. Sehwag c Gilchrist b Symonds 151; I. Pathan lbw b Johnson 0; R. Dravid (retd. hurt) 11; S. Tendulkar (run out) 13; S. Ganguly c Hussey b Johnson 18; V. V. S. Laxman c Gilchrist b Lee 12; M. Dhoni c Hayden b Lee 20; A. Kumble (not out) 9; Harbhajan Singh c Ponting b Hogg 7; Ishant Sharma (not out) 2; Extras (b-9, lb-9, w-3, nb-5) 26. Total (for seven wkts., decl.) 269.

Fall of wickets: 1-2, 1-57* (Dravid, retd. not out), 2-128, 3-162, 4-186, 5-237, 6-253, 7-264.

Australia bowling: Lee 27-3-74-2; Johnson 16-1-33-2; Symonds 22-4-52-1; Clark 12-3-37-0; Hogg 12-3-53-1; Clarke 1-0-2-0.