Team effort it was

Anil Kumble for me is a top man. I don't think I have seen a more popular hundred, said skipper Rahul Dravid.-AP

India’s series win in England busted a number of stereotypes. It also underlined the shift in dynamic away from the batsmen, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

India’s victory in England — the first in 20 years, and only the third in 75 — is significant on many levels, not least of which is the vibrant, entertaining cricket the two sides played. Coming as it did after a disastrous World Cup — both for India and the game — and ahead of the inaugural Twenty20 version, the series was an advertisement for all that’s great about Test cricket.

Most heartening from India’s perspective is the number of stereotypes the series busted. Indian cricketers haven’t been poor travellers since 2000 — only Australia has toured better — but most of their victories in this period have been set up by their magnificent batsmen; ironical then that India’s only century-maker in the series was Anil Kumble, who got to his maiden hundred in his 118th Test at The Oval.

“If at the start of the series you had said that (Sourav) Ganguly, (Rahul) Dravid, (Sachin) Tendulkar and (V. V. S.) Laxman wouldn’t get a hundred I’d probably have ripped your hand off,” said England captain Michael Vaughan. “That’s exactly what happened, so all the bowlers deserve credit.”

Indeed, rarely has an Indian bowling unit looked so destructive. As Indians growing up in the 1990s, we watched with admiration — and a little envy — as Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis constantly tore through opposition batting line-ups, making up for the failures of their own batsmen. Zaheer Khan, R. P. Singh, and Sreesanth can’t be compared to those magnificent men yet, but in the series, helped by the Duke ball, overcast skies and largely excellent cricket wickets, they’ve been lethal in critical passages of play.

“We haven’t been allowed to make 400-450 in the first innings,” said Vaughan. “The series has been a great spectacle because art of swing bowling has been seen. It’s a difficult art, and we saw it again. We swung it well, their two left-armers did it really well.”

Even at The Oval — the closest the series came to a batting beauty — India managed to bowl England out for 345 in the first innings. That it couldn’t quite finish the job, in terms of bowling England out a second time, was, ironically, a consequence of the conditions. The ball swung on the final day of the third Test — as it did all series, re-drawing the lines of engagement — but the wicket had eased up just enough for a determined England.

The mood says it all. Indians celebrate the fall of Kevin Pietersen.-AP

The mood says it all.

Rahul Dravid, who joined Ajit Wadekar as the only Indian captain to have won Test series in both the West Indies and England, acknowledged the shift in dynamic away from the batsmen. “It’s great,” said Dravid. “That’s exactly what Indian cricket needs. We need contributions from everyone, we need different heroes. That’s the great thing of this series. It’s simple — if you want to win Test series abroad, your bowling attack must do the job for you. If they can get 20 wickets and win you a Test match, you can then go on and win the series.”

The most readily apparent reason for India’s success was the control of swing, particularly from the left-armers when changing angles. Vaughan said his side had been asked “different questions” by India’s bowlers, geometry and swing stumping England’s batsmen.

Dravid’s take on his left-armers bowling around the wicket was revealing. The success of the ploy had its genesis in success: for it to succeed it had to have been demonstrably successful, as when R. P. Singh had Vaughan caught behind at Lord’s.

“It’s something that’s been done before,” said Dravid. “It’s not rocket science, but it has been executed well. We’ve not come up with something totally new, but it’s not an easy thing to execute, and our execution has been key. It’s credit to the bowlers and the bowling coach (Venkatesh Prasad). Credit to them as a unit after that first day at Lord’s.

“They came up with it, and I said why not have a go. It worked, R. P. Singh got Vaughan and I said ok fine, we’ve got a wicket here, so let’s keep doing that. Then, in the nets, we worked on it, we looked at some of the angles as well. It’s just something that evolved with conversations as most tactics do. Conversations between bowlers and captains and senior players. Some come off, and this came off early, and it was persisted with.”

England’s top six batsmen outscored India’s, but India’s bottom five returned the favour. Most crucially for India, a batsman stepped up to the plate when needed. M. S. Dhoni showed at Lord’s that he can adapt his game, trust his technique, and yet make subtle adjustments. Wasim Jaffer and Dinesh Karthik at Trent Bridge conducted master classes in playing the moving ball. They played the line, not forcing their hands at the ball. But every loose ball was put away ruthlessly.

Sachin Tendulkar’s success lay in mastering his will, and accepting the limitations age and injury have thrust on him. His innings at Trent Bridge was a triumph of the mind, even if it was painful for fans of the great man. Sourav Ganguly batted as confidently and with as much skill as he ever has. His time away from the game has done him well, and both at Trent Bridge and at The Oval, he held his nerve for innings that may well be seen in the time to come as defining half-centuries. He got poor decisions, which proved that at least umpires are exempt from his charm.

V. V. S. Laxman’s vignettes of the purest beauty were as heart-warming as the progress shown by Karthik, Jaffer and Dhoni. At 32, he’s the youngest of the Fab Four, and the brief responsibility of leading the batting unit during a tricky transition may fall upon his capable shoulders. Over the last two years, he has played both match-winning and match-saving innings, but they haven’t had the freedom from struggle some of his moments in England had. Dravid’s series was disappointing by his own high standards as a batsman. He looked in fine touch in the first innings at The Oval before getting a peach of a yorker from James Anderson. He, too, was a touch unlucky with umpiring decisions. Perhaps the burden of leading in the absence of a coach played a part. He refused to dwell on it after the third Test, saying that he was too happy to think about anything else. But, his captaincy was largely sound. He kept conventional fields when Vaughan experimented at Trent Bridge — his strategy paid dividends, for the conditions ensure batsmen would get caught in traditional catching positions. At The Oval — where the bowlers didn’t receive as much help as the preceding Tests — he was innovative.

His decision not to follow-on was seized gratefully by those with an axe to grind, but Vaughan’s assertion that he would have done the same pricked the bubble. And, as seems the norm with this fine cricketer, Dravid chose to deflect praise. The support staff — the engine-room men as he called them — were given their due. They provided the most clinching evidence that the side worked things out together. Manager Chandu Borde’s suggestion that Jaffer skip before going out to bat might seem like it’s from the magic-bullet handbook, but its inherent shrewdness is unmistakeable.

India’s Man of the Match at The Oval and its Player of the Series further showed why the side was successful. Kumble, with his century, proved again what strength of mind can achieve. He is hugely admired abroad, seen as the cricketer’s cricketer, and his moment with the bat found resonance in the dressing room. “Kumble for me is a top man,” said Dravid. “I don’t think I have seen a more popular hundred.”

Zaheer’s return from the wilderness is stirring: “It should be talked about so young bowlers in India can realise from an example of someone who went and did the hard yards,” said Dravid. “That’s a great role model.”

England had its moments in the series. The side was denied by rain at Lord’s, but both captains agreed India was deserving victor, and that the series result was fair. James Anderson had spells where he looked a world-beater. Vaughan’s innings at Trent Bridge, and his duel with Zaheer, were grand spectacles. The series will prove a watershed in Kevin Pietersen’s batting career. He moves inexorably towards greatness, and it’s to India’s credit that it triumphed despite Pietersen making two centuries.

THE SCORES

Third Test, Kennington Oval, London, August 9-13, 2007. Result: Match drawn.

India — 1st innings: K. D. Karthik c Prior b Sidebottom 91; W. Jaffer c Pietersen b Anderson 35; R. Dravid b Anderson 55; S. R. Tendulkar c Strauss b Anderson 82; S. C. Ganguly lbw Collingwood 37; V. V. S. Laxman c Prior b Tremlett 51; M. S. Dhoni c Cook b Pietersen 92; A. Kumble (not out) 110; Z. Khan c Anderson b Panesar 11; R. P. Singh c & b Anderson 11; S. Sreesanth c Vaughan b Panesar 35; Extras (b-33, lb-13, w-2, nb-6) 54. Total: 664.

Fall of wickets: 1-62, 2-189, 3-199, 4-276, 5-354, 6-417, 7-508, 8-570, 9-591.

England bowling: Sidebottom 32-8-93-1; Anderson 40-5-182-4; Tremlett 40-6-132-1; Panesar 45-5-159-2; Collingwood 7-1-11-1; Pietersen 6-0-41-1.

England — 1st innings: A. J. Strauss c Sreesanth b Zaheer Khan 6; A. N. Cook c R. P. Singh b Kumble 61; J. M. Anderson lbw R. P. Singh 16; M. P. Vaughan c & b Kumble 11; K. P. Pietersen c Dravid b Tendulkar 41; P. D. Collingwood lbw Sreesanth 62; I. R. Bell c Dhoni b Zaheer Khan 63; M. J. Prior c Tendulkar b Sreesanth 0; R. J. Sidebottom c & b Zaheer Khan 2; C. T. Tremlett (not out) 25; M. S. Panesar lbw Kumble 9; Extras (b-16, lb-12, w-10, nb-11) 49. Total: 345.

Fall of wickets: 1-12, 2-78, 3-119, 4-124, 5-202, 6-288, 7-303, 8-305, 9-305.

India bowling: Zaheer Khan 22-13-32-3; Sreesanth 21-2-80-2; Kumble 29.1-7-94-3; R. P. Singh 18-3-72-1; Ganguly 5-1-8-0; Tendulkar 7-0-26-1; Laxman 1-0-5-0.

India — 2nd innings: K. D. Karthik c Collingwood b Tremlett 8; W. Jaffer lbw Anderson 0; R. Dravid c Strauss b Collingwood 12; S. R. Tendulkar b Anderson 1; S. C. Ganguly c Strauss b Collingwood 57; V. V. S. Laxman (not out) 46; M. S. Dhoni c Prior b Tremlett 36; A. Kumble (not out) 8; Extras (b-1, lb-5, nb-6) 12. Total (for 6 wkts decl.) 180.

Fall of wickets: 1-10, 2-10, 3-11, 4-76, 5-89, 6-158.

England bowling: Anderson 15-8-34-2; Tremlett 15-2-58-2; Collingwood 10-1-24-2; Panesar 18-1-58-0.

England — 2nd innings: A. J. Strauss c Laxman b R. P. Singh 32; A. N. Cook c Laxman b Kumble 43; M. P. Vaughan c Dhoni b Sreesanth 42; K. P. Pietersen c Karthik b Sreesanth 101; P. D. Collingwood lbw Sreesanth 40; I. R. Bell lbw Kumble 67; M. J. Prior (not out) 12; R. J. Sidebottom (not out) 3; Extras (b-2, lb-4, w-9, nb-14) 29. Total: (for 6 wkts) 369.

Fall of wickets: 1-79, 2-86, 3-152, 4-266, 5-289, 6-363.

India bowling: Zaheer Khan 20-3-59-0; Sreesanth 21-7-53-3; A. Kumble 37-9-123-2; R. P. Singh 13-2-50-1; S. R. Tendulkar 19-0-78-0.