Laxman provides the succour

THE debate on the quality of pitches gained force on the eve of the Test in Mohali and five days later the focus continued to be the playing surface.

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

V. V. S. Laxman drives Vettori during the course of his unbeaten century in the first innings. He followed it up with an unconquered 67 to deny New Zealand a possible victory. Laxman was named the Man of the Series. -- Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN-

THE debate on the quality of pitches gained force on the eve of the Test in Mohali and five days later the focus continued to be the playing surface. The claims by the cricket administrators in India that the new season would herald a new era of sporting pitches remained a farce. The pitch that greeted the teams at Mohali turned out to be deceptive. That none failed to read the strip was another matter. What struck most was the failure of the Indian batsmen and bowlers to match the Kiwis.

"It wasn't a bad pitch,'' stressed India skipper Rahul Dravid. He lamented the fact that his spinners could not exploit the conditions on the fourth and fifth day of the match but the fact remained that it was a seamer from the opposition who made the impact. If Daryl Tuffey was declared the Man of the Match, he deserved the honour. He bowled his heart out and all credit to Tuffey for livening up the final day's play.

New Zealand skipper Stephen Fleming was right when he said "your perception of pace and bounce is quite different from ours.'' His opinion was supported by mates Craig McMillan and Nathan Astle, who mocked at the lack of pace and bounce on pitches in India. "You're good at home because the ball doesn't rise above the waist. That's why your record overseas is so abysmal.'' That was a very telling statement on the state of Indian cricket but then no one seems to bother about looking into this aspect of the game.

Virender Sehwag, who was one among the six century-makers in the Test, in an aggressive mood. -- Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN-

A committee of experts monitors the preparation of the pitches in India but obviously little progress has been made in this department. The quality of pitches in Ahmedabad and Mohali was certainly poor advertisement for Test cricket. Even as the India skipper made a plea for spinner-friendly tracks, the Kiwis took the honours by dominating the second Test, without once making any complaints about the playing surface.

The curator got plenty of flak. The hype that preceded the match compelled seasoned administrator I. S. Bindra to publicly acknowledge the folly of preparing such a pitch. If the crowds came in large numbers to make the match a success, it need not necessarily speak well for the quality of the pitch. "It was a flat pitch. I haven't seen such a placid track at Mohali,'' confessed Virender Sehwag, one of the six century makers in this match, the other five being V. V. S. Laxman, Mark Richardson, Lou Vincent, Craig McMillan and Scott Styris.

The match showed the Kiwis in a better light. The batsmen adapted wonderfully to the task and the bowlers read the pitch better than the Indians. Tuffey and left-arm spinner Daniel Vettori stole the limelight with their fine show. In comparison, the Indian spinners, Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, paled. Dravid defended his bowlers but the fact remained that Vettori and Tuffey made a greater impression.

At the end of the Kiwi innings, with 600-plus on the board, the contest swung in favour of the visiting team. The disciplined batting by New Zealand ensured the team would not lose from such a position of strength. The onus was on India to save the follow-on, a possibility that looked tough considering the batting potential of the home team. The absence of Sourav Ganguly meant Yuvraj Singh could make his Test debut but the Punjab cricketer had a poor outing.

Mark Richardson (left) and Lou Vincent cross for a single. They posted a double century opening partnership. -- Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN-

Despite the efforts of Sehwag and Laxman, the Indians failed to avoid the follow-on essentially because of some sterling show by Tuffey. He bowled a lethal spell on the final day to leave the Indian innings in a shambles while Vettori commanded respect with his tight spells.

The most intriguing aspect of the Test was the failure of Sachin Tendulkar. The master was in poor form but managed to get a half century. He may have got a good ball to lose his wicket in the second innings but his struggle against Vettori was a surprise. It would not be fair to pick holes in Tendulkar's game but on this occasion even he would confess he was disappointing.

The pleasing feature from India's point of view was the success of Akash Chopra, the opener from Delhi. He compiled a half century in each innings to grab the chance and cement his place for the tour to Australia. His positive approach was a big gain from the match. "He looks a very good prospect and I'm very happy for him,'' said former great Mohinder Amarnath, who was a special invitee for this match. Former Test left-arm spinner Maninder Singh also praised Chopra. "He's got an excellent temperament. His shot selection is flawless and I like the way he approaches his job. He's a very confident cricketer and I've known him for long. He's a fighter and should be an asset to the team.''

Scott Styris dispatches Harbhajan Singh to the fence. Styris came up with a determined 119. -- Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN-

Among the few gains from this match for India was Chopra. His partnership with Laxman on the last day was one of the best phases of the match for the home team, which owed it to this 26-year-old from Sonnet Club, a nursery for disciplined cricketers. Chopra enjoyed the attention. "I'm happy I didn't let my team down. I wish I had converted my half centuries into centuries. That would've made my coach (Tarak Sinha) happier,'' said the modest Chopra.

The spectators may have felt cheated by the Indians' performance but they were treated to some entertaining cricket by the Kiwi batsmen where Vincent and Richardson stood out for their aggressive innings. They were backed by a very determined Styris and McMillan. "The batsmen did a wonderful job'' said Tuffey, who emerged quite a popular cricketer with the spectators. His dismissal of Tendulkar was the most critical moment of the match.

Craig McMillan looks immensely pleased while returning to the pavilion after having made an unbeaten ton. — Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN-

The Test put Indian cricket in its right perspective. The team lacks quality in bowling and the spinners especially need helpful tracks to make an impact. "It's a pity we can't play to our strength. There's nothing wrong in having helpful pitches at home,'' said Maninder. But the fear here may have been the possibility of the Indians succumbing to the guiles of Vettori, who was the most outstanding spinner in the two Tests.

The Indian spinners did not complain. They toiled to create a winning situation but the Kiwis were better prepared. In the absence of any help from the pitch, Kumble and Harbhajan bowled a predictable line and the Kiwis placed themselves in a strong position. It was now a battle between the Kiwi bowlers and the Indians and the contest became intense once the Kiwis realised that Laxman stood between them and a possible win. But he did not allow the Kiwis to call the shots and played an innings of immense character to ensure the match ended in a draw.