Sourav's litmus test

THE Ahmedabad Test is on and the grudge series is far from off! Two Tests abroad did Sourav's India lose, comprehensively, to the "green" New Zealand.

RAJU BHARATAN

Sourav Ganguly... how hard-hitting on the Long Road from Ahmedabad to Brisbane?-AP

THE Ahmedabad Test is on and the grudge series is far from off! Two Tests abroad did Sourav's India lose, comprehensively, to the "green" New Zealand. Two Tests must the brown India now win, clinchingly, to settle the Small Screen score. Anything less than a conclusive sealing of the rubber, in our own bailiwick, is not really going to help strengthen Sourav's captaincy hands on the eve of the cricket circuit's toughest tour. Of Australia. There is also, before that at home, the gauntlet of Ricky Ponting's Australia to re-run. So the litmus challenge to Sourav's leadership has come. Not just from a Sachin who outplayed Sourav, in terms of ideas, through three days during which Ganguly's Irani Cup was viewed to be full long before tea. That Sourav still won the Irani Cup was because like a Flying Saucer did V. V. S. Laxman (99) Chepauk land on that fourth day. But why in Maharaj's name had Sourav, here, to let Laxman bat ahead of him? Instead of leaving VVS to his own Rahul-rivalling devices at No. 6? Surely Sourav just then (September 21), as India's captain, needed to find his Rest of India touch even ahead of Laxman. Sourav's so demoting himself to No. 6 (that Sunday afternoon) made no tactical sense either. For the strategy obviously should have been for Sourav, as the power player left-hander, to join Rahul in that frontal counter-assault planned on Sachin, as skipper, via his strike spinner, Ramesh Powar. A left-right Sourav-Rahul combo is what, logically, would have made the strike-rotating going tougher for Mumbai and Sachin. No matter that Laxman, at No. 5, ultimately went on to play a Sachinoted "blinder".

Such a winder of an innings Sourav himself needed, no less, at that salad stage of the season. Sourav is no Sobers to have indulgently dropped himself down to No. 6. Finally, when Sourav did come in, it was merely to use his vast experience (like in those World Cup matches against Kenya) to see his side through (with 27 not out). Parallel point. After having so given a thoroughbred like Laxman his Irani Cup head, it made no sense for Sourav to have considered playing that Vizagame under Virender Sehwag. To make up for the "match practice" Sourav himself had lost the No. 5 opportunity to get — in the Irani Cup! Sourav simply must bat, and bat beltingly, at No. 5 now in the two Tests vs New Zealand. For these, precisely, are the two matches in which the captain could hope to hone his bat for those four fiery Tests to come in Australia.

Venkatasai Laxman, meanwhile, has to find his own Test bearings at No. 6. Only by batting in the total virtuoso idiom — as he did during that mind-blowing 99 vs Sachin's Mumbai — could Laxman do true-blue justice to his India No. 6 slot. A slot from which, at least against New Zealand, VVS is expected to carry the attack to the opposition. Only a VVS batting in a vein calculated to put the Kiwis to flight could envision taking the Kangaroos by the scruff of the neck, again, Down Under. First Sourav, then Laxman — alongside Rahul and Sachin — have now to be vintage viewed as preparing the gruelling ground for Australia. Brian Lara put it in a groundnutshell when he observed that you have to attack the Aussie mindset before the World Champions go for your gullet.

Easier said than done? Well, on how he confronts Steve Waugh in Australia, as batsman and captain alike, rests 31-year-old Sourav's future in the game with the telegenic name. Sourav simply must erase the public impression that he retains his vital spark in one-dayers alone, having lost his Test batting grip. In fact (as the first Test vs New Zealand is underway), it is amazing to reflect upon how Sourav's position, right now, is no different from that of Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, in his prime, as India captain. It was Tiger's taking lightly the "lowly" New Zealand, in September 1969 (as the three-Test series vs the Kiwis got Bombay going) that led up to the Vijay Merchant casting vote. The first Test of that late-1969 series was actually scheduled to be played at Ahmedabad. But a human calamity in that city saw that Test series opener shifted to Bombay and the Brabourne Stadium.

No doubt Tiger Pataudi's India won that first Test (against Graham Dowling's New Zealand) by 60 exciting runs. But the underlying fact, that the Test could have still gone either way, should have been a warning signal to Tiger Pataudi. Our skipper had further personal reason to feel disturbed as, for the first time in his career, Tiger was witnessed to drop more than one catch, here, at short extra-cover. Shades of the positional way Sourav fields today! Indeed Tiger's only eye for Sharmila's beauty had been slow to sight both those catches. Yet super clever was Tiger. From his pet cover area, Tiger swiftly (as that Bombay Test headed for a grandstand finish) banished himself to the long-on boundary-line. There to fix, right under Raj Singh Dungarpur's CCI Pavilion nose, two steepling catches off Erapalli Prasanna, bewitchingly baiting the Kiwi batsmen with his parabolic loop.

The unerring focus Pataudi brought to judging those two Sidhu airhostess catches — put up by Ken Wadsworth (13) and Dayle Hadlee (21) — saw that first Test land in Tiger's paws. In the joy of victory, the point, however, was missed that Tiger had all the time in the world to get under those two skiers. While the earlier two dropped catches had subjected Tiger to a closer eye test. So that a victory by just 60 runs, over minnows New Zealand, should have put Tiger Pataudi and his India on their Nagpur toes. But the second Test, at that Vijeta venue, was lost and how! By no fewer than 167 runs, giving New Zealand its first ever Test win abroad.

V.V.S. Laxman... a "blinder" is exactly what India needs from his true-blue blade at No.6.-AP

A New Zealand that had been bowled out, imagine, for 26 (in 27 overs) on 28 March, 1955. Geoff Rabone's New Zealand, then behind by just 46 runs in the Auckland Test, began its second innings at exactly 3.00 in the afternoon. Inside the next hour and three-quarter, England's Bob Appleyard looked set to finish that Auckland Test, all on his own, with figures of 6-3-7-4. But that dream remained unfulfilled, as Brian Statham sent the middle stump of No. 11 Johnny Hayes (0) cartwheeling. New Zealand thus all out for 26 — Len Hutton's England victorious by an innings and 20 runs! By tea on that cataclysmic third day in the case of New Zealand, Frank Tyson and Brian Statham had dismissed Gordon Leggat (1), Matt Poore (0) and John Reid (1) for just 13 runs. This was when Johnny Wardle got into the act, producing that rare chinaman (in his otherwise finger-spun armoury) to clean-bowl New Zealand's best batsman, left-hander Bert Sutcliffe, for 11. Making the Kiwis 14 for 4. Enter Bob Appleyard to claim 3 wickets in 4 balls! For Brian Statham to bowl Johnny Hayes (for a duck) and Kiwi-polish off the innings for 26.

Maybe that was nearly 15 years before Tiger Pataudi's discomfiture in the September-October 1969 three-Test series under debate. But New Zealand (in October 1969) still rated as no-hopers in world cricket. So that Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi's leadership, now, naturally came under ultra-critical scrutiny. What added to Tiger's woes as captain — and this should be a third eye-opener to Sourav — was that he had begun to falter as a batsman always showing India the attacking way. Scores of 18 & 67 in the Bombay Test, next 7 & 28 in the Nagpur Test (so humiliatingly lost) had Tiger Pataudi beginning to shed his sheen as the Prince of Indian Cricket.

The Prince of Calcutta now has no third Test against New Zealand to negotiate. But the fact that such a third Test (at Hyderabad) could be 1969 saved, for Tiger Pataudi's India, only by rain — plus by some very indulgent home umpiring in the matter of restarting play on the final day — hardly redounded to the skipper's credit. For Tiger Pataudi's India, needing a whopping 268 to win that third and final Test at Hyderabad, was reeling at 76 for 7. Down for the count we thus were in that series decider in which Tiger Pataudi had but scores of 0 & 9 to flaunt. I cite Tiger's scores (18 & 67; 7 & 28; 0 & 9), in those three late-1969 Tests vs New Zealand, only to underpin how crucial it is, now, for India's Maharajazzed captain to get runs against the Kiwis.

In fact, I am rather hoping that Sourav has already scored in the Ahmedabad Test. That New Zealand (like in the case of Tiger Pataudi) should, on no run account, be the beginning of any journey down for Sourav. For that sad Monday of October 20, 1969, Vijay Merchant, following the Hyderabad Test fiasco, had instinctively comprehended that, given umpiring fairplay, India should have lost (1-2) the Test series to wooden spooners New Zealand. As Chairman of Selectors, Vijay Merchant felt even more deflated by the knowledge that the Test series had been drawn by India (in a 1-1 heap) after he had made it a point to give Tiger Pataudi the team he wanted all along the line.

So is Sourav getting the team he wants today. This places the onus, squarely upon Sourav, to deliver 2-0 against Stephen Fleming's New Zealand. So that India goes upbeat into the triangular contest involving the Kiwis alongside the Kangaroos. After that 2-0 December 2002 mauling in New Zealand, Sourav well knows that his India, right now at Ahmedabad, is playing for its pride. India has the batting ammunition. But the batting has not consistently fired, of late, in Test cricket. Only Sourav's starting to put up captain's scores, against New Zealand, would give him the Test authority to lead from up front in Australia. There have been healthy signs of Sourav's getting down to assessing, realistically, how the odds are stacked against him and his India Down Under. To be so aware is one thing. To turn such awareness into performance is quite another.

The tone, in sum, has to be set, here and now, in this first Test at Ahmedabad vs New Zealand. All India watches Sourav and his men, on the rectangular screen, with a keen sense of expectation. Viewers are not going to easily forgive any further Test batting failure on the part of a team having, for the fatted-calf middle, Rahul, Sachin, Sourav and Laxman — in that striking order. After India's razzledazzle Asia Cup hockey win, cricket retains pride of place, as our most maddeningly telewatched sport still, only so long as the Men in Blue caps live up to the aura created by those 8 World Cup wins in a row. Test cricket, remember, is another pair of shoes altogether. So Sourav, as a leader of men, is expected to set the momentum himself in the current Ahmedabad Test and in the Mohali Test to follow. Only a dominant display in these two Tests vs New Zealand, now, could help put India in the mindframe needed to tackle, meaningfully, the Ugly Aussie coming at Sourav & Co in a Stevengeful mood.