How good is India overseas?

The Indians know they have to tread carefully as their tour of Australia progresses. The five-wicket haul by Zaheer Khan and the sterling century by Sourav Ganguly were big gains from the Brisbane Test. But then this does not necessarily mean that everything worked very well for the team, writes VIJAY LOKAPALLY.

EMERGING from a long spell of uncertainty when dealing with challenges overseas, the Indian team may have recorded an achievement of sorts by not losing the first Test of a series. The draw at the 'Gabba may suggest a change in the profile of Indian cricket, but it will be naive to conclude the team has discovered new avenues to give shape to its dreams.

`A confident India', is a phrase used sparingly when touring. At home, the team rules supreme, given the favourable playing conditions. But has this really helped the administrators to hone the team into a unit that has little limitations? "What is the point of India winning only at home?" asked an elderly Aussie gentleman at the 'Gabba when India dominated in phases. He had rarely seen an Indian team that could express itself strongly when playing away from home. At least India's last two tours to Australia in 1991-92 and 1999-00 were disastrous for the team.

But things have begun to change. There is merit in the argument that India is now a confident travelling side. The statement does not gain credence from just a draw but some consistently good performances over a period of time. Having played so much away from home in the last few years, the current lot has come to understand the value of playing good cricket consistently. And not just at home.

Sourav Ganguly was quite justified in his argument that this is a different team when he pointed out the progress made in recent times. "We won Test matches in England, West Indies, Sri Lanka. It was so different from the previous years when India was hardly given a chance by the oppositions when playing away from home. The fact that we've begun to perform better outside the sub-continent is a good sign,'' he painted an encouraging picture.

When the Australians say that winning is a habit, they mean it. The winning habit is imbibed in their grooming process by a very competitive structure and the Indians have come to realise they too have to inculcate certain qualities at the formative stage of an international cricketer. Hence the effort to make the newcomers comfortable. Ask Irfan Pathan. "I'm learning in such a wonderful atmosphere. I never realised the seniors in the team would be so easily approachable," he sounded delighted by the opportunities being provided to him.

The Indians know they have to tread carefully. The five-wicket haul by Zaheer Khan and the sterling century by Ganguly were big gains from the Brisbane Test. But then this does not necessarily mean that everything worked very well for the team. The concerns regarding bowling have only grown, what with Harbhajan Singh performing below his best at Brisbane and veteran Anil Kumble not finding a place as the skipper continued to show greater faith in the seamers.

Harbhajan Singh is now out of the tour owing to a finger injury and Murali Kartik has been flown in as his replacement. Kumble has also been fielded in the Adelaide Test. The 'Gabba show must be put behind for the simple reason that the conditions are unlikely to be repeated. The Indians were distinctly fortunate not to have batted in the wicked conditions on the second day when the ball darted around and made survival the priority. It was to Zaheer's credit that he exploited the conditions and even Ajit Agarkar, for a change, looked menacing.

The same Indian attack was put in its place on the fifth day when Ganguly looked exasperated by the flow of runs. The Indian bowlers were whipped around mercilessly and within a span of two days the two facets of the attack showed that this was one department that needed immediate attention. The Indian bowling looked pedestrian in the two sessions when Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting smashed the ball all over the park. It is this inconsistency in bowling that raises doubts about India's capabilities when put under pressure. The Indian attack will need to perform beyond its capabilities to bowl the Aussies out twice in a Test.

It was to the Indians' advantage in Brishane that Australia had only Jason Gillespie to call upon from its fearsome pace trio, the other two, out injured, being Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee. - Pic. AFP-

A confident India can mean a lot to international cricket. India is looked up to as the only team capable of pricking the Aussie pride and this is seen as the best chance to humble Steve Waugh and his men. Of course, one must put things in perspective before jumping to conclusions.

It should be admitted that Australia is clearly not at its best. The absence of Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee, apart from Shane Warne, has considerably depleted the bowling strength and the replacements have not, at least initially, shown the quality to emerge match-winners. There is this depth test that the Aussies talk about, but then there have been little indications of a major improvement in this department.

The Australians were gracious in admitting that the Indians had their moments in the Test. As Justin Langer said, "India has some very, very good batsmen. These blokes simply love to bat and we know it's going to be very difficult to beat this Indian team.'' The Indians may be flattered by this reputation but then a reality check will reveal the true worth of a team that has not learnt to make the most of its potential. Winning Test matches overseas is a welcome step forward, but then a team that boasts of batsmen like Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Ganguly and V. V. S. Laxman should have far more triumphs against its name. It is widely acknowledged that Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, in the 60s, was instrumental in bringing about some vital changes in the Indian mindset when he motivated the spinners to assume the responsibility because the seamers lacked the incisive power to run through the opposition. Almost four decades down the path, the scenario has changed immensely. The captain today believes the future lies in developing fast bowlers. The team needs to guard against such extreme changes in strategies even though Ganguly ought to gain credit for learning the intricacies of the job and trying to implement them in his own way. At least an honest effort is visible in the functioning of this captain to seek the support of his colleagues.

This team was written off by most critics even before a ball had been bowled in the series, mostly because they were driven by history. Often on tours, the Indian teams have fared poorly in the side games and especially in the first session of the first Test. The lack of faith also stemmed from the suspicion that some key players were not in peak fitness. The overworked cricketers would have done well with the rotation policy, but the insecurity factor will not encourage such methods to be introduced in a system that prides itself in promoting professionalism without a semblance of accountability at any level.

A pleasing departure from the past is the fact that the team has come to accept there is another side to its batting capabilities. The over-dependence on Tendulkar has been reduced by the significant presence of batsmen who know the value of playing big innings when it matters. The 281 by Laxman at Kolkata was instrumental in changing the face of Indian cricket two years ago and now Ganguly's 144 promises to carry the team to that exalted position it has been striving to attain.

As Rahul Dravid summed it up nicely, "We're beginning to play well overseas. The change hasn't come about overnight. It'll take some more time for us to become a good all-round side when playing away from home, but the first few significant steps have been taken in the right direction.'' This is a guarded but perfect assessment of the state of Indian cricket.

Team Theme

"Never Take a Backward Step" — the theme adopted by the touring Indians for the first cricket Test against Australia — will be the motto for the remainder of the series for the visitors. Earlier the Indian think tank had thought of having separate themes for each of the Test matches and one for the subsequent triangular series but have now decided to stick to only this theme, team sources said. The Team Theme had worked well enough for the Indian team at the 'Gabba where India fought back gallantly to share the honours with the hosts. The novel concept was first experimented by India during the World Cup in South Africa earlier this year. The "Now or Never" motto became quite popular as India won eight games on a trot before being tamed by Australia in the final.

V.V. KRISHNAN

The Themes have been a result of the Indian team's sessions with Sandy Gordon (in pix above with Zaheer Khan), the famous Perth-based psychologist.