A great day for Indian sport

Published : Jun 23, 2001 00:00 IST

WHILE it was sensational to watch an Indian cricket team win a Test match away from the sub-continent, and there was a genuine sense of belonging among us in the media as well, it was just as heartening to watch Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi win the French Open once more. It had long been an ambition of mine to go on air and say "What a great day for Indian sport" and thanks to two very talented sets of young men, it came true in far away Bulawayo. One of the great joys of touring is to be able to bring happy stories back to viewers and it is possibilities like those that allow the mind to tide over other, less pleasant, times. I am typing this in a restaurant at Bulawayo airport, where there is very little to eat, where the flight is terribly late and the attitude towards passengers is, well, just terrible. But it isn't as disheartening as it might have been. The Test win and the win at the French Open have that kind of effect.

I have long been a fan of Leander Paes because he over-achieves and because you can see a passion in everything he does. To speak to him, on live television, on the morning of India's Test win was an unforgettable experience. I have often wished that the Indian cricket team played a bit like Leander Paes, punched the air and goaded a little bit more from a nearly done body. At Bulawayo, they did. It was made easier by the quality of the opposition but good Indian teams have failed against poor opposition in the past. Make no mistake, this was a pathbreaking win. Often you need to see the path once to walk on it again. And there was enough here to suggest that this young Indian side can.

Actually that is something that in itself deserves greater appreciation. This is a far younger side than people realise. Apart from Javagal Srinath and Sameer Dighe nobody has seen 30 summers and that is rare. Youth gives a side fire and irreverence and while the latter is an often criticised quality, on a sports field it can overcome obstacles. The captain is only 28, so are Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid. There are fiery young men in Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra and balanced sound minds like Shiv Sundar Das and V.V.S. Laxman. It is not wrong to expect more and with a bit of administrative support (most teams have more than just a bit of support!) this team can deliver.

There is more than one reason for this confidence. For a long time, India did not have the support bowling cast to take 20 wickets. At home Anil Kumble took most of them and when he became a restrictive bowler overseas, we did not have the bowling strength to take the load off him. Now we do. Nehra was extremely impressive and in a funny way, being taken off for running on to the pitch, might actually help him. It was noticeable that the moment he went wide off the stumps, he got a wonderful angle to the right hander and John Wright is confident it is a minor correction. When the call came to bowl a long spell on the third evening, Zaheer Khan was there to answer it. He bowled fast and he was hostile and neither is a quality that is too common in our cricket. And Harbhajan did not seem to mind not picking up a wicket in every spell. He closed one end in the first innings and in doing so, he allowed Ganguly to get a good game plan going. Often, you can prove value without taking wickets.

This is now a high quality catching side. Two from Sadagopan Ramesh in the second innings were outstanding and Das' effort at short leg was more difficult than it seemed on television. The ground fielding is looking a lot sharper as well and it is interesting that all the young men on the fringe of selection - Badani, Kaif, Yuveraj and Sodhi - are all brilliant.

If there is a concern at all it is with the batting and that must seem ironic given that it has long been believed, and accepted, to be India's stronger suit. On tours of Australia, South Africa and the West Indies, it was the batting that failed at key moments. As it did the last time India played a Test against Zimbabwe. For all its charm, Indian batting needs a lot more steel and that needs to come at the top order. A solid opening pair is like the shell of a coconut, it protects the more delicate and tasty core within. Das is showing greater signs everyday of being the reliable top order man that we have so long been searching for. But he needs a partner, ideally he needs two others like him. Sadly, for all his ability to caress a cricket ball, Ramesh is turning out to be increasingly inconsistent. An opener cannot be a lottery, he cannot have number three waiting to get up with every ball. In the second innings at Bulawayo, there were signs that Ramesh was trying to be the innings builder rather than the flashy, stylish player we know him to be. That is why we need to be a little more patient; that is why the talk of asking Badani to open must remain just talk.

There is much to look forward to now. Not just in Zimbabwe where there is still a lot of cricket to be played, and matches to be won, but in Sri Lanka and more critically, in South Africa. That will be the real test. And yes, there is a lot to look forward to at Wimbledon as well. Maybe a doubles final coinciding with the final of the tri-series here. Maybe...

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