Encompassing all cricketing geographies

Published : Nov 06, 2004 00:00 IST

Australia did not merely win the series, they owned almost every session; they showed up ready, the Indians were not even dressed for battle, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

EVENTUALLY most frontiers fall because men are found ambitious and accomplished enough to go the distance. In sport, too, great athletes and driven teams continually push at the boundaries of possibility, impelling themselves beyond known limits, their defiance holding us in their thrall. Thirty years ago, almost to the day, Muhammad Ali resisted all conventional wisdom to subdue George Foreman; it was even suggested the fight could be fatal for Ali, but in the end he proved that the adventurous, valorous man can surmount most challenges.

Everywhere barriers are crumbling and historians put to work as athletes confront their dreams and refuse to bow to adversity. The Red Sox, owners of a curse and object of a national derision, won America's World Series for the first time last week since 1918. Now the Australians, defeated by an ancient land since 1969, have finally achieved their personal nirvana. History has been made by bold men with grand ideas and it has been a remarkable journey.

The visitors have outplayed, outmanoeuvred, outthought and out-energised the hosts; they have been the game's Vikings for a while now and finally their conquests encompass all cricketing geographies. We are surprised by India's capitulation with the bat, but there is no real astonishment at the Australians' performance: greatness they have worn well for years now and such wilful men are not easily denied.

From the first day of the first Test, the Australians made their intent obvious and have not flagged amidst the heat generated by the sun and the spinners. They have bit their tongue mostly and walked a gritty, graceful road to victory. Success often requires humility, frontiers their respect, and this time they packed both in their baggage. Their press conferences, once all routine bluster and bullying, have been subdued; their deeds have done the necessary talking, their acts have spoken. India the land has its own particular rhythms, it beats to a different and beautiful drummer, and for once they have not scorned but embraced it. The mere tempo of their batting tells us that.

There are apparently old men in this Australian team but evidently they are not set in their ways; they may be slower to catches but are wiser with wood in hand. Men of instinctive aggression have batted with the solemnity of priests, preachers of violence have turned the other cheek when necessary. They have adjusted their feet, and set their minds, and produced sermons with the bat alternately dazzling and audacious, sublime and moving.

Four centuries were scored by the visitors and nine 50s (three of them scores in the 90s), while the hosts could scrape together only one century and four 50s. They beat us at our own game in our own back yard and that is something.

The Indians hurled down their best with the ball, but the Australians mostly held firm amidst the gale. There was heart and skill to be found in the Indian bowlers, but first they were let down by a fumbling wicketkeeper. Ten Australians are hard enough to dismiss, Patel ensured India had to take 13 or 14 wickets every innings. Hospitality must have its limits surely. Years ago an Indian spinner mentioned to me an unsure 'keeper bruised his confidence, and safe hands are the least to be expected from the man with mittens.

Patel must go to where he has never been, domestic cricket, and his batting suggests a resilience he will need on the long, hard journey back to acceptance. His youth is relevant in so much that he has time on his side. Certainly it should not protect him against criticism; this is not Sunday school but Test cricket. Men who draw a professional's salary cannot be allowed a string of amateurish performances, and age does not enter the equation. Patel is not new to the team and anyway more recent additions like Chopra have hardly been accorded similar generosity.

India is not short of excuse but none will wash. Yes, the umpiring in Bangalore was hurtful, yes Tendulkar was missing, yes they lost all three tosses, yes Harbhajan and Irfan were missed in the third Test; yes, the rain robbed them of precious momentum in Chennai; but only a myopic patriot would believe it might have altered the end result. Australia did not merely win the series, they owned almost every session; they showed up ready, the Indians were not yet even dressed for battle.

No, India did not deserve to win and simply because its batsmen did their talent an injustice. These are not men of inflated reputations but who produced a compendium of deflated performances. Their bats sang in Australia and Pakistan in recent times, but since then have collectively lost their voice.

No doubt form stays within no man's grasp forever, it is as whimsical as a child, and no man but one is a Bradman. There has been little chance either to rediscover it, for as exemplified by the second day in Nagpur, the Australians quartet has produced a suffocating symphony of line and length. Even Dravid seemed handcuffed and uncertain. Of course, field settings also blocked the boundaries, and singles anyway are beyond our regal ways, but that itself is insufficient explanation. Experienced men must anticipate being tested, and then find a way, yet we are left with the absurd statistic that a visiting debutant has gathered a 100 more runs than Dravid-Laxman-Tendulkar-Ganguly put together. Too long they have struggled this season and it is worrying.

No doubt the Nagpur pitch was not the balm required for a wounded side, and India is not expected any time to receive a spinning wicket in Perth. That said, celebrated practitioners of the batting arts are expected to hold firm on any pitch. Instead, India wilted, its nerve was misplaced, its spirit scarred, and it was agonising to watch; grown men have embarrassed themselves in public and reputations will take some rebuilding.

The openers continue to present themselves as a problem without solution: Sehwag is D'Artagnan enough and pairing him with Yuvraj, a cavalier fellow in his own right, is too much excitement for anyone, especially Dravid who is next in. Chopra's bat is steady but speaks only in monosyllables, and eventually openers must get a move on. Clearly India must cast a wider net and its absent bench strength requires introspection. Of course, India's officials are spending more time in court than running the game.

Laxman continues to baffle and since his 178 in Sydney, his Test scores have been 29, 11, 13, 71, 31, 3, 4, 13, 2; still he suggests he is not a great batsman but a batsman of great innings, and India requires from him more than the occasional masterpiece. To drop him is to embrace overreaction, yet India must be careful not to succumb to an old theory of sacred cows. Men's pasts must be considered but it's the present they must be mostly judged by, and young hopefuls outside the team must feel they are not without opportunity.

Ganguly poses a grander dilemma, and soon enough conversations about his continued captaincy will open. His leadership was not the cause of India's performance — indeed it is the first home defeat on his watch — but if his team stumbles against South Africa and Pakistan at home in coming months then it might just be that a fresh voice in the dressing room is required. Even inspiring leaders, and he has been one, have a use-by date. We shall see.

More pressing is the problem of his form, for since his valiant century in Brisbane, his Test scores read 2, 12, 37, 73, 16, 77, 45, 5, 9 and he has reverted to committing hara-kiri outside off stump. Captains are not necessarily expected to lead from the front, but at least must comfortably deserve a place in the XI. Ganguly must take a deep breath and pick up his game and his side.

India requires humility and must sit itself at Australia's feet, for there is much to learn. That a team cannot lean on a small group of players but must rely on every man's contribution and younger men must step forth from the shadows; that great teams do not preen at success but sweat in order to repeat it; that true accomplishment means performing day after day, year after year, in land after land, and only on the foundations of such discipline and application and consistent excellence are dynasties forged. Indeed, it is ironic that so much was written about Australia having to prove itself, when in truth it applied more to India. They rule the world, India not even the subcontinent.

It is hard to say India was absent of intent or lacking in resolve for we cannot look into another man's heart; still, they have been sent the cruellest message that for all their previous progress, greatness is more than some distance away.

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