RIVALLING THE ASHES

To a large extent, the contest between India and Australia re-affirmed the faith of the purists that there was nothing better than Test cricket between two quality teams, writes VIJAY LOKAPALLY.

THE essence of youth was best illustrated in India's notable cricket journey in Australia. The four-Test series produced some exceptional cricket and the quality of the competition was documented by Steve Waugh and Sourav Ganguly, who said at the end of the final Test that they were immensely privileged to have been a part of it all.

The Indian team which retained the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. -- Pic. V.V.KRISHNAN-

It was a series that brought the spectators back to the Test arena even though the hype surrounding Waugh's farewell overshadowed the rest of the achievements. The response to the India-Australia series was huge, and in some phases, greater than even that for the Ashes and the intensity, needless to say, far superior.

To a large extent, the contest between India and Australia re-affirmed the faith of the purists that there was nothing better than Test cricket between two quality teams. As Rahul Dravid pointed out, "it felt great to know people were getting up early back home to watch our matches. This interest in Test cricket does augur well for the future of the game. To me, it was all the more gratifying because I value Test cricket a lot." Coming from Dravid, it did reflect on the remarkable response worldwide to the series in Australia.

The success of the series lay in the huge turn out for the Test matches at all four venues — Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney. The Australian public loves intensity on the cricket field and the expectations ran high once India, its batting attaining its potential, matched the Australians by not losing the first Test. It was a significant start since the Indian team had a dubious past record of losing the opening Test, especially overseas, and not recovering from the early blow.

This time the focus obviously was on the great strides that Indian cricket made during the course of a month in which it played some glorious cricket against the best team in the world. For a team derided and dismissed by all and sundry before it had even faced a ball on Australian soil, India did remarkably well to take the lead and then leave the series tied 1-1. This was certainly not what Waugh and his colleagues must have visualised in the run up to what many saw as a grudge opportunity for the Australians to avenge the 2001 Test series-loss in India.

Ganguly and his team received a hostile reception on landing in Australia. It was nothing new. The Aussies are known to fight their battles through the media and Ganguly made no secret of it on a few occasions. It must be recorded here that Ganguly's handling of the Australian media was exceptionally noteworthy. He did not take things lying down and put most of them in their places, especially when it came to his relationship with Waugh.

The local media doubted the credentials of a team that was expected to crumble under the fury of the Australian pace on pitches with bounce. The campaign was set in motion by some Australian cricketers, who exaggerated India's weakness against the short-pitched stuff.

Matthew Hayden fired the first salvo when he publicly questioned V. V. S. Laxman's technique against the fast bowlers. His advice to his bowlers was to pitch it short when Laxman came to bat. Laxman responded with some divine batsmanship that fetched him 494 runs in seven innings with two classic centuries. "He was amazing. The ease with which he scored his runs off even good deliveries was an absolute joy for all of us. I relished his batting but told myself not to try the shots Laxman played. Only he can play some of those astonishing shots," said Tendulkar.

The Indian team applauds Australia's captain Steve Waugh as he walks off the ground after being dismissed on the final day of the fourth Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Waugh retired from international cricket after the match. — Pic. REUTERS-

At another stage, the tainted Shane Warne wanted the Aussies to go after Ganguly with some "ear music.'' Ganguly just smiled when he heard what Warne had to say and slammed a sensational 144 at Brisbane on a pitch that most Indian batsmen confessed was the fastest they encountered in Australia. "More than my (two) centuries, I value my knock at Brisbane because it was a challenging pitch to bat on. Certainly it had far more bounce than we saw at any venue," said Laxman. At the end of the series, Hayden and Warne must have been embarrassed with their wrong opinion of this Indian team.

Former Australia captain Greg Chappell was of the firm opinion that this was one of the finest batting line-ups to have confronted the Australians in their own backyard. He did spend time with Ganguly to help the left-hander prepare for the series and his opinion mattered a lot as far as the Indians were concerned. It was a relief for the Australians when Ganguly failed to sustain the touch he displayed in the first Test.

For countless years batting has remained India's strength and this was a series that confirmed that faith. Never in the past had the Indians batted to their potential. It would always be one or two batsmen who would shine consistently and end up with individual achievements. On many occasions the team would not even benefit from the individual brilliance. But this tour was different. Not one batsman failed. The openers, Akash Chopra and Virender Sehwag, did not flinch and gave the team good starts. Chopra may have been a revelation to many but not to those who have watched him play for his club or state. His excellent technique and decisive footwork were exemplary. Sehwag lacked in technique and sometimes footwork, but he flayed the Aussie attack as few have. His knock at Melbourne took the breath away.

Dravid, aggregating 619 runs at a staggering average of 123.80, probably spent more time at the crease than in his bed. His monumental patience was the key to India's success at Adelaide and the motivation for the rest to emulate his passion for batting. As always, Dravid proved India's most reliable batsman overseas.

Laxman was by far the most outstanding in this series. His divine strokeplay carried batting standards to a new high. His dainty footwork, flawless shot selection and sensational timing of the ball made watching him such an unforgettable experience. The fact that he looked better than Tendulkar during their partnership at Sydney spoke for the man's awesome form.

Tendulkar struggled for the most part. Even during his double-century knock he appeared unconvincing in the early stages. There was a distinct lack of footwork as he played and missed and got many edges, but then credit to him for hanging on. Tendulkar had to make a point or two following some loose talk about him losing focus and enthusiasm for the game. Talking of enthusiasm, the sight of Kumble cheering his young colleagues was commendable. His commitment could be seen at the `nets' where he bowled tirelessly. His spirit was visible at Adelaide when he inspired Ajit Agarkar to produce a dream spell that placed the team on the winning course. Kumble's contribution was phenomenal and exploded the myth that he was good only at home.

The captain did not encourage him at all by excluding him from the playing XI at Brisbane, but Kumble only learnt to be strong from that humiliation. Ranked among the greatest bowlers to have played for India, there was justice in Kumble finishing with a haul of 24 wickets from three Tests — 12 in the last contest at Sydney.

Kumble was the only one to achieve success consistently as bowling turned out to be India's weak link in the series. The injuries to Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan crippled the attack to a large extent and put a question mark on the team management's attitude towards selection. It was obvious that Harbhajan had carried his injury to Australia and it was scandalous that an unfit Zaheer was included in the playing XI at Melbourne. All this when the team management had the services of a trainer, physiotherapist, bowling coach, overall coach and a sports psychologist to drive home the finer points of match preparation and the execution of one's duties.

There was no doubt that India gained in a large way from the interest that Sunil Gavaskar took in helping Sehwag and Chopra on the eve of crucial matches. Both the openers acknowledged the master's assistance and played the perfect pupils by excelling on the field. The team also gained by acquiring the services of former Australia left-arm fast bowler Bruce Reid. The bowlers felt he made a difference to their approach on the Australian pitches.

Agarkar's progress was noteworthy and his role at Adelaide clinching as he produced a match-winning spell. Ashish Nehra failed to strike rhythm as he lacked both form and fitness, but Irfan Pathan made the most of the opportunities that came his way. He showed the right attitude and according to Reid "has the potential to make it big." The swinging yorker that Pathan fired at Adam Gilchrist in the final Test was easily the best ball of the series. The youngster from Baroda has a bright future indeed provided he is nurtured with care.

Among the disappointments was Parthiv Patel. "He's good and needs support," defended Ganguly. The wicketkeeper, a favourite of coach John Wright, missed a couple of crucial stumpings but learnt a lot as the series progressed. Former Australia stumper Ian Healy, at the request of Wright, held a couple of sessions to help the young man from Baroda. Healy, too rates Patel high.

S. Ramesh, L. Balaji and Deep Dasgupta did not get to play but remained in the reckoning all through, performing their roles in a team that came to Australia with confidence and finished the series with its reputation and pride enhanced. The 1-1 verdict was a fair indication of the respective strengths of the teams and a good result for world cricket, so sick of Australia's domination.

As Steve Waugh walked into history, leaving a rich legacy behind, Ganguly and Dravid could not hide their disappointment at having missed out on their best chance to write a new chapter in the history of Indian cricket — a series win in Australia. This was not Australia at its best — it wasn't in 1977-78, 1980-81 and 1985-86 either when India ought to have won — and yet Waugh's men shared honours with a team that played its best cricket overseas like few of its predecessors had. Among the many gains for India, this one glorious opportunity lost will hurt and haunt Ganguly and his men for long.