Busting stereotypes

At several crucial moments, the third Test in Perth was up for grabs, and India won nearly every single one; besides, it wrapped up the Test in four days, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

The Australians hadn’t lost in Perth since February 1997, they hadn’t, for that matter, lost a home Test anywhere since December 2003, and no team from the sub-continent had ever triumphed at the WACA. Moreover, Ricky Ponting’s side had strung together 16 successive Test wins, equalling the mark set by Steve Waugh’s men in 2001.

The array of statistics appeared forbidding for India as the third Test neared. A few days back, it had seemed unlikely the tour would go forward: the events in Sydney had embittered the series, and it wasn’t until considerable back-office manoeuvring had cleared the way that the Indians arrived in Canberra for a tour match of great import. It was in Canberra, the political centre of Australia, full of manicured dry lawns and impossibly organised streets, that the Indian team regrouped.

“Going to Canberra was probably a good thing for us,” said Anil Kumble, whose leadership in troubled times has been statesmanlike. “We were away from everybody. We did discuss how we’re going to go forward, how to play as a team. That’s when we had decided we’ll concentrate on cricket. We focused all our efforts into concentrating on this game. I did discuss it individually and also collectively. I’m delighted they all came together. We needed to think positively and the kind of bonding we had is special.”

A team determined to win the four-Test series in Australia and reclaim the Border-Gavaskar Trophy had been forced to settle for levelling it. Perth seemingly wasn’t the easiest place to begin the turnaround: the strip was showing signs of returning to its pacy, bouncy self, and the Australians had decided on four quick bowlers, three of whom could consistently breach the 90mph mark. The old wife’s tale of India fearing genuine fast bowling was beginning to do the rounds.

The most heartening thing about India’s 72-run win was the number of stereotypes it busted — again. Poor tourists? Series wins in the West Indies and England, Test wins in South Africa and Australia, and the second-best away record in the last seven years behind Australia. Inadequate team-work? No Indian scored a century or took five wickets in an innings in Perth, yet the side out-played Australia. Lack of killer instinct? At several crucial moments, the third Test was up for grabs, and India won nearly every single one; besides, it wrapped up the Test in four days.

There were uplifting stories on each day of the Test. Rahul Dravid has shown through the series that poor form can be beaten — he may have looked at times (in Melbourne and the first innings in Sydney) like he has misplaced his timing, but not once has he given up trying. Restored to his number three spot, he weathered potent spells from Brett Lee and Stuart Clark in the first innings, playing a big part in India reaching 330. Sachin Tendulkar mightn’t have equalled his poor second innings average of 16 (against Australia) in the Test, but in the first he made a gallant half-century, relieving at various points the pressure on Dravid.

Virender Sehwag, making a return to Test cricket, proved why he is so precious, batting with freedom and addling the Australian bowlers. He may not have scored a half-century, but his start on day one gave India the early momentum, and at a vital juncture on day two, he played to stumps as if he were having a net. His contributions weren’t restricted to bright batting. He was involved in the defining battle of day four, albeit in an advisory capacity. The 19-year-old Ishant Sharma had hassled Ricky Ponting with in-swing, cut and bounce, but the Australian captain had survived seven testing overs. Kumble had decided to relieve the 6ft 6in seamer, when Sehwag told the Indian captain that Ishant was used to bowling long spells for Delhi. Ishant got his man with the first ball of his eighth. Sehwag also bagged the important wicket of Adam Gilchrist on the fourth day before tea.

Irfan Pathan, whose comeback was fast-tracked because of injuries to India’s other fast-medium bowlers, took out both Australian openers in each innings. He also got Stuart Clark at a time when the New South Welshman and Mitchell Johnson were just beginning to worry India with a ninth wicket partnership of 73, chasing 413. Pathan’s contributions with the bat were just as important. In the first innings, he stretched India’s total in M. S. Dhoni’s company; in the second, having fulfilled the role of the night-watchman, he held his end the next morning even as more exalted exponents fell around him. He provided Laxman just the ballast the under-appreciated batsman needed.

For some reason, Laxman’s performances slip conveniently from memory every time a batsman needs to be sacrificed. But, both the Indian and the Australian teams acknowledge there are few better under pressure. After directing the gathering of 169 runs for India’s final five wickets on the third day, Laxman said bafflingly that he enjoyed playing during tense times. Ricky Ponting, who saw India revive from125 for five, said, “It’s not the first time he has done it against us,” referring to last time Laxman helped break Australia’s record streak (Kolkata, 2001).

Anil Kumble reached 600 Test wickets in the Test, and typical of the man it came when it was most needed. Andrew Symonds and Adam Gilchrist were counter-attacking with vigour and purpose in the first innings when Kumble got a leg-break to bounce on Symonds. The Indian captain also claimed the top-scorer in the second innings — Michael Clarke for 81. R. P. Singh, who must be the most improved fast-medium bowler over the last six months, was a constant threat, swinging the ball away from Australia’s left-handers at good pace, and bringing the odd one in. It was fitting that he ended the Test match, bowling Shaun Tait.

“It was a tough four days,” said Ponting after the Test. “India deserved to win the game the way they did. They outplayed us for the majority of the game. We probably misread the conditions leading into this game a bit, but I wouldn’t like to give any excuses. The Indians are a very good team. We never underestimate any opponent and certainly not the Indians because we know they, particularly their batting, can be a formidable opponent and their bowlers did a terrific job here.”

So, just how good was the win in the context of overseas conquests? How does it compare with the defining wins in New Zealand in 1967-68, Port of Spain in 1970-71 and 1976, at the Oval in 1971 and at MCG in 1980-81, the series triumph in England in 1986, the remarkable victory canonised as Adelaide 2003, the twin wins in Pakistan in 2003-04 and the one in Johannesburg in late 2006? The question hasn’t a resolution, so let’s allow the magnificent Kumble the final words: “It’s right at the top. It’s not just overseas but when I look back at wherever I was involved, both home and away, it’s right up there.”

THE SCORES

Third Test, Perth, January 16-19, 2008. India won by 72 runs.

India — 1st innings: W. Jaffer c Gilchrist b Lee 16; V. Sehwag c Gilchrist b Johnson 29; R. Dravid c Ponting b Symonds 93; S. Tendulkar lbw b Lee 71; S. Ganguly c Hussey b Johnson 9; V. V. S. Laxman c Tait b Lee 27; M. Dhoni lbw b Clark 19; I. Pathan lbw b Johnson 28; A. Kumble c Rogers b Clark 1; R. P. Singh c Hussey b Johnson 0; Ishant Sharma (not out) 0; Extras (lb-19, w-9, nb-9) 37. Total: 330.

Fall of wickets: 1-57, 2-59, 3-198, 4-214, 5-278, 6-284, 7-328, 8-330, 9-330.

Australia bowling: Lee 24-5-71-3; Johnson 28.2-7-86-4; Clark 17-4-45-2; Tait 13-1-59-0; Symonds 10-1-36-1; Clarke 6-1-14-0.

Australia — 1st innings: P. Jaques c Laxman b Pathan 8; C. Rogers lbw b Pathan 4; R. Ponting c Dravid b Ishant 20; M. Hussey c Dhoni b R. P. Singh 0; M. Clarke c Dhoni b Ishant 23; A. Symonds c Dravid b Kumble 66; A. Gilchrist c Dhoni b R. P. Singh 55; B. Lee c Dhoni b R. P. Singh 11; M. Johnson (not out) 6; S. Clark c Dhoni b R. P. Singh 0; S. Tait c & b Kumble 8; Extras (b-4, lb-1, w-4, nb-2) 11. Total: 212.

Fall of wickets: 1-12, 2-13, 3-14, 4-43, 5-61, 6-163, 7-192, 8-195, 9-195.

India bowling: R. P. Singh 14-2-68-4; Pathan 17-2-63-2; Ishant 7-0-34-2; Kumble 12-1-42-2.

India — 2nd innings: W. Jaffer c Hussey b Clark 11; V. Sehwag b Clark 43; I. Pathan c Ponting b Clark 46; R. Dravid c Gilchrist b Lee 3; S. Tendulkar lbw b Lee 13; S. Ganguly c Clarke b Johnson 0; V. V. S. Laxman c Gilchrist b Lee 79; M. Dhoni c Gilchrist b Symonds 38; A. Kumble c Clarke b Symonds 0; R. P. Singh c Gilchrist b Clark 30; Ishant Sharma (not out) 4; Extras (lb-14, w-5, nb-8) 27. Total: 294.

Fall of wickets: 1-45, 2-79, 3-82, 4-116, 5-125, 6-160, 7-235, 8-235, 9-286.

Australia bowling: Lee 20.4-4-54-3; Johnson 10-0-58-1; Clark 19-4-61-4; Tait 8-0-33-0; Clarke 13-2-38-0; Symonds 10-2-36-2.

Australia — 2nd innings: C. Rogers c Dhoni b Pathan 15; P. Jaques c Jaffer b Pathan 16; R. Ponting c Dravid b Ishant 45; M. Hussey lbw b R. P. Singh 46; M. Clarke st. Dhoni b Kumble 81; A. Symonds lbw b Kumble 12; A. Gilchrist b Sehwag 15; B. Lee c Laxman b Sehwag 0; M. Johnson (not out) 50; S. Clark c Dhoni b Pathan 32; S. Tait b R .P. Singh 4; Extras (lb-6, w-8, nb-10) 24. Total: 340.

Fall of wickets: 1-21, 2-43, 3-117, 4-159, 5-177, 6-227, 7-229, 8-253, 9-326.

India bowling: R. P. Singh 21.5-4-95-2; Pathan 16-2-54-3; Ishant 17-0-63-1; Kumble 24-2-98-2; Sehwag 8-1-24-2.