'New Zeal' & the old Aussie enemy

HOW come the eternal dilemma of V.V.S. Laxman is, overnight, the big worry of the Indian team itself?


V. V. S. Laxman... all Australia waits to watch him afresh. — Pic. G. P. SAMPATH KUMAR-

HOW come the eternal dilemma of V.V.S. Laxman is, overnight, the big worry of the Indian team itself? "The greater danger for most of us," trenchantly observed Michelangelo, "is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it." Where Laxman got to "reach" (by returning tamely to No. 6) is a saga of lost aim. Likewise, to "reach" the final in the World Cup became all India's obsessive Wanderers' aim. An aim beyond which Sourav & Co just could not "reach" for Australia's gullet. Let us, therefore, get our aim clear at least now. It is to put the December debacle, in New Zealand, behind us. That cataclysmic experience — on wickets still green in memory — surely should not inhibit Sourav & Co, now, from taking New Zealand in their stylish stride here in India.

Indian cricket loses caste if the two Tests at home vs ` New Zeal' are contests Sourav & Co fail to turn into a mere landing stage for the sterner four-Test series to follow in Australia. Only given such a dominant mindset could we hope to move on to our more long-term objective. Of meeting Steve Waugh's Australia on more equal Test terms in the Ugly Aussie's own native terrain, Down Under. For the prime task of cutting the Kiwi to recipe size, on our own neutral ground, we must get one idea crystal clear. This is that two quality spinners are a must for India to drive its advantage "home" in the two October 2003 Tests vs New Zealand.

Recall how the same doubts (as are being raised now) were expressed about Anil Kumble's continued utility to Sourav's team, as a match-winner, when Nasser Hussain's England descended on India in December 2001 for that three-Test series? The "nil part of Anil" was being critically evaluated even then, as the first Test vs England got under way at Mohali on the Monday of December 3. Yet it was the fact that Anil Kumble was there to lead the Harbhajan spin-way that won, for us (by 10 decisive wickets), that Mohali Test. A Test ultimately deciding the series 1-0. As Harbhajan (with figures of 19.3-4-51-5 & 24-9-59-2) sharpened his spinning wits on the whetstone of Anil's seasoning. Seasoning worth 19-6-52-2 & 28.4-6-81-6 in the final analysis. Anil Kumble thus tellingly employed his flexibility of wrist in twisting the arm of the English.

So much so that Nasser Hussain and his men just did not know what hit them as England, in the "Mohalimb-loosener" itself, found itself one-down in the series. On benign Indian wickets, Sourav and his team had merely to hold out in the two Tests after that. So that Mohali, Anil and Harbhajan had India putting its 1-0 "rubber" stamp on that December 2001 series. There should be, therefore, no second thoughts about playing these two complementary spinners together, now, against a New Zealand still vulnerable to turn. For, in the case of our pace, barring Zaheer Khan, the others are marginal men on their way back — from being either injured or sidelined. In the circumstances (after "No Operation Harbhajan"), Anil Kumble must play as our spin spearhead in both Tests vs New Zealand.

This is no more than what Sourav owes to Anil after the scurvy way the skip shut out Kumble, so early in the World Cup. When this wily spinner had not bowled all that badly against Australia (7-0-24-1 — Adam Gilchrist st. Dravid b Kumble 48). Remember, India here had been shot out for 125. All Anil then needed was a slightly longer match exposure to overcome the trauma of that "helmetabolizing" bouncer he copped in the West Indies. Nothing that our pace has lately accomplished convinces me that, in Test cricket, our strong suit, still, is not spin. Especially at home. What Harbhajan Singh crucially needs is sustained pressure (with pinpoint precision) mounted from the other end. Mounted by a practitioner of spin as a craft form. That practitioner is the mentally extra-tough Anil Kumble, whose leavening of experience is not to be wished away.

All the more so, now that Javagal Srinath is no longer game enough for Test cricket. In fact, Sourav has, on TV, accepted the Karnataka stalwart's not being there as a fait accompli. So let Srinath be. Yet let not Javagal Srinath nurse the optical illusion that Lakshmipathy Balaji automatically fills his slot. That is not the way the new ball necessarily rolls in cricket. Srinath's present state of mind is, to Sourav, a reminder of how the Junior Nawab of Pataudi, as captain, just did not want Ramakant Desai (as his main new-ball operator) on the 1967-68 tour of Australia. Knowing it to be his swan-song tour, "Tiny" Desai was visibly short on motivation. Indeed he went through that entire 1967-68 tour of Australia wicketless. "Tiny" Desai here played in but 3 matches (one of them a Test) for tour figures of 49-2-221-0. As for Javagal Srinath, this quick well knows that, after some initial help, you really have to bend your back on Australian pitches to get wickets. So Sri has rationally concluded that a full-scale tour of Australia is an undertaking now physically beyond him. After all, when he was four years younger and stronger, Javagal Srinath could manage (in 3 Ansett Tests through 1999-2000) figures of but 29-3-117-1 & 21.5-4-64-3 at Adelaide; 33.1-7-130-4 & 14-0-45-0 at Melbourne; 28-4-105-2 at Sydney.

Javagal Srinath thus had a total comprehension of what lay ahead of him and so quietly opted out. For Zaheer Khan now to show Sourav's India the back-breaking way. The more you think of how well the Aussies play anything short of peak pace, the more you come round to the view that you need at least three specialist spinners (as a back-up) during the 4 Tests in Australia, dovetailing into the Sydney new year decider. What a shame we failed to groom an all-rounder spinner here in the chunky shape of Sunil Joshi. Steve Waugh, for one, was surprised that India looked such an all-round gift-horse in the mouth. Wrote Steve on February 9, 2000: "I believe that Sunil Joshi should have played more games for India" (during the C & U series in Australia). "He's looked a really good prospect during the times I've seen him before this tour. Again when we came up against him at Perth" [10-1-33-2 — claiming the wickets of Mark Waugh (40) and Ricky Ponting (33)]. He is a promising bowler who will play a part in India's future."

Anil Kumble... the four letters of Anil are the four letters of spin . — Pic. G. P. SAMPATH KUMAR-

Nor was Steve Waugh the only one to think so highly of the Boy from Gadag. Ian Chappell, too, saw an India prospect in Sunil Joshi — as a resourceful left-arm spinner; as a safe catcher (particularly of the high ball); plus as a timely striker of sixes lower down the order. But our selectors let Sunil Joshi's supple left arm wither away and today we are still questing for a bowler all-rounder of his possibilities in Murali Kartik. Also, we have to wait and watch if Ajit Agarkar's back-lift does not find him out, all over again, in Australia. What we have today are far from true-blue all-rounders. Sanjay Bangar, for instance, looked to have the makings of a good all-rounder. But can you really see his sheer determination succeeding, in opening a new front, on the pacier pitches in Australia?

I have nothing against Sanjay Bangar. Indeed, he looks to me as committed a cricketer as did Madan Lal in his prime. But commitment by itself is no substitute for technique. Sanjay Bangar visibly lacks the technique to open in Australia. At the other extreme, we have Venkatasai Laxman, all class, coming up with the alibi that the scope for him to unfurl his shots is now circumscribed by the fact that, at No. 6, VVS is frequently stuck with the lower order! But who pushed Laxman into that unenviable position? Who if not VVS himself? Look at the telepicture after Laxman's run of 20 & 12 in the Wankhede Stadium Test; 59 & 281 in the Eden Gardens Test; 65 & 66 in the Chepauk Test during March 2001. In the 5 ODIs that followed against Steve Waugh's Australia, Laxman should have had the perception to judge that he just could not hope to get away, playing his shots all the time. In fact, VVS's ODI scoreline, here, of 45, 51, 83, 11 & 101 should have served as a warning signal to Laxman (at No. 3) that all these runs were happening primarily because he was still "on a Tirupati roll". In the wake of a dream Test series in which Laxman had shunted a technocrat of Rahul's calibre to No. 6.

Zimbabwe then was where Steve Waugh had predicted that Laxman would be truly tested as Sachin's would-be peer. Envision the vein in which Laxman struck out in the June 2001 Bulawayo Test — for devil-may-care scores of 28 & 38. Followed by 15 & 20 in the Harare Test. That second-stanza 20 actually had Laxman all but holing out, overhead, for starters. Only to bring off three sizzling fours as if nothing was amiss! Finally, playing the ball pointlessly to point, Laxman came to be rather dubiously caught by Brian Murphy off Travis Friend. There was, of course, no question of "Nizam" Laxman's subtly suggesting to Asoka de Silva that the catch had not been cleanly taken. That would have militated against Hyderabadi aristocracy!

Thus, given VVS's rare ability to self-destruct, no one but the soft-playing Laxman himself was veena instrumental in relaunching the process of Rahul's working his way back to No. 3. Now, when Laxman should be playing his shots more freely as one consigned to No. 6, he is viewed to be just playing for his place in the team. A sad decline in values for one who was assessed as ranking among the world's finest, by Mark and Steve Waugh alike, after that March 2001 Eden Test 281 (452 balls, 631 minutes, 44 fours). That super 281, even now, is the yardstick by which all Australia measures Laxman, as he tours that country yet again. Yes, to Australia Laxman doubtless goes. But just one Sydney Test-style showing there — by which this "batsman's batsman" sculpts 167 off 198 balls in an India total of 258 for 8 (with 27 fours and a 5) — merely makes Memory the name of the lane down which Aussie viewers travel to meet Laxman, V.V.S.

Considering that VVS would be "going on 30" by Brisbane and December 4, it is with Sachin that Laxman invites spot Aussie comparison. In fact, Channel 9 viewership's having to wait for as many as four Indian wickets to fall, before seeing Laxman in touch-artist action, must come as something of a culture shock to telebuffs Down Under. On how VVS uplifts himself from that No. 6 non-bargain basement — in an Australia mustard keen to see him strike new ground — depends Laxman's future as a vintage India player. Attitude has willy-nilly to match aptitude if Laxman is to deliver in Qantas country. A country where a sustained flair for the airy-fairy must merely help put Laxman on the plane back to India — after 4 Tests. Never to take off again.