Pressing home the advantage

Kumble's second innings bowling performance and the iron concentration of Dravid ensured the stable door was locked before the horse of victory had a chance to bolt.

India's disappointing draws in the Antigua, St. Lucia and St. Kitts Tests suggested that Rahul Dravid's team had become adept at shutting the stable door after the horse had bolted. Certainly it would never have had a better chance of winning a series than it had at the outset of its 2006 tour of the Caribbean.

Unfortunately, however, it seemed to have lost the knack of winning. No one was more attuned to snatching a draw from the jaws of victory. Such was the ascendancy of the tourists in the first two Tests that I fully expected the series to be well and truly wrapped up by the time the St. Kitts game was decided. Instead of which another indecisive game left the stable door swinging wide, affording Brian Lara's side the undeserved opportunity of squaring the rubber at the last gasp in Jamaica. If such had proved to be the case, then the tourists would have had only themselves to blame for their inability to force the issue.

Why had this farcical situation been allowed to develop? Simply because the Indian team lacked the necessary fast bowling firepower and the fixity of purpose to seize exactly the right moment to press home the advantage which they held for most of the match. Shakespeare expressed the ability to exploit this psychological moment perfectly when he wrote: "There is a tide in the affairs of men, /Which, when taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. /Omitted, all the voyage of their life,/ Is bound in shallows and in miseries."

It falls to few men to be able to recognise, take advantage of and possess the skill to capitalise on such windows of opportunity: men like Kapil Dev, Keith Miller, Garry Sobers, Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar. It is a priceless gift.

The experiences of Antigua, St. Lucia and St. Kitts suggested that India had not yet mastered the winning technique of immediacy. They had not learned to play games session by session, so that the loss of ascendancy in one two-hour stint of a Test only served to sharpen the players' concentration and determination to wrest the initiative in the next. To do this they must learn to focus exclusively on the process of playing rather than the result, the goal of winning — firm in the knowledge that to succeed in the former will result in achieving the latter. The resultant improvement in skill levels would then enable the side to change the impetus of the match, seizing the initiative back from their opponents and surge on to victory.

It is all very well to state such ambitions. To fulfil them is much harder and teams such as India have to be adequately equipped in most facets of the game. Thus batsmen must be endowed with a correct defensive technique to counter the possible loss of three or four quick wickets and `hold the fort' against pace on a fast pitch or spinners on a `turner.' Conversely, the same players need the initiative and aggression to score quickly when the match situation requires it. A successful bowling attack demands a wide range of speed, swing, cut and spin — initially to create breaches in the opposition's batting line-up and, then, when given the opportunity, transform such small reverses into routs. At the same time Test bowlers must possess the ability to tighten their length and line and restrict the strike rate of the batting side when it promises to run riot. The key words to describe the physical and mental skills of top Test players are `the ability to perform outstandingly under pressure.' Theirs is the skill and versatility, which facilitates a team's capacity to change momentum.

Steve Waugh's Aussies transformed the skill of changing of a game's momentum to a fine art. One outstanding example of their remarkable ability to change the flow of a match occurred in the second Ashes Test of November 2002 in Adelaide. At the end of the first day, England had reached a very positive 295 for three and was apparently destined for a super 500 total. Not so! Within the space of another seven sessions of play, pace bowlers Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Andy Bichel had choked the resistance out of the residual England batting for the addition of a meagre 147 runs, never conceding more than two or three runs per over. In the Australian reply, within the same timeframe, Hayden and Langer put on 101 at more than five runs per over — yet another change of momentum, this time upwards. The home side then proceeded to rattle up a 552-run response in 120 overs and dismissed England a second time for 159. After the first day's play, England did not win a single session of the game.

Thirty-five years have elapsed since Ajit Wadekar steered India to its one and only away victory over the West Indies in Port-of-Spain. It needed a special effort for India to repeat the feat and compensate for the wonderful opportunity it had to double its success rate in the Caribbean as it had at the outset of its 2006 tour. The fact that only two of the 17 series played by the two countries have ended in a draw suggested that there would be a result in the Kingston Test. Initially, the portents for India, however, were not favourable. Away sides have not won an India-West Indies series since 1983 and India has never won in 26 Tests played in the Caribbean away from Port-of-Spain and Trinidad. The odds were very much more in favour of Dravid's side when it batted first — yet, strangely enough, not if Dravid won the toss as he did. The team winning the spin of the coin had proved victorious in only two of the last 13 Tests. In favour of an Indian victory was the fact that the team batting second in 16 Tests over the last 10 years had only won twice. And eight of the best 10 bowling performances in contests between West Indies and India have gone to spin bowlers — the strong suit of the Indian attack on what proved to be a wearing pitch.

So the moral of the Kingston Test appeared to be: lose the toss and pray that the opposing skipper inserts India. Play Anil Kumble, Harbhajan Singh and an attack weighted in favour of spin. Kumble did everything asked of him. His second innings bowling performance and the iron concentration of Dravid — surely one of the best six batsmen in world cricket — ensured that the stable door was locked before the horse of victory had a chance to bolt.