'Test' of Sourav's India: Australia 2003

AS Clive Lloyd's West Indies took a 2-0 throttle-hold on the five-Test series in India before the year 1974 drew to a close, all except Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi were amused as I noted: "Remember, India's tail now begins at No. 5 with the captain!''

RAJU BHARATAN

Sourav Ganguly... his sternest Tes series yet (as helmsman-batsman) is now in Steve's Australia. — Pic. V.V. KRISHNAN.-

AS Clive Lloyd's West Indies took a 2-0 throttle-hold on the five-Test series in India before the year 1974 drew to a close, all except Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi were amused as I noted: "Remember, India's tail now begins at No. 5 with the captain!'' Tiger Pataudi's scores in the four Tests in which he then led India vs the West Indies — 22 at Bangalore; 36 & 8 at Calcutta; 6 & 4 at Madras; 9 & 9 at Bombay. Sourav, as India's striker-skipper, must always remember how this game, as the legendary leveller, mocked at even the world-classy Tiger Pataudi. Sourav — starting with the October 2003 two-match series vs New Zealand in India — urgently needs to reassert his Test batting pedigree. If `Australia 2003' is to see Sourav at his Stevengeful best as captain, India needs to have Ganguly delivering, Down Under, as a Test batsman too. Sourav's 1999-2000 Ansett Test series scores in Australia — 60 & 43 at Adelaide; 31 & 17 at Melbourne; 1 & 25 at Sydney.

Indeed it is against Steve Waugh's Australia that Sourav's litany of Test batting problems begin. In that February-March 2001 watershed series at home, Sourav's No. 5 contributions are well chronicled as 8 & 1 (run out) in the Mumbai Test; 23 & 48 in the Kolkata Test; 22 & 4 in the Chennai Test. From that star-turn series do I now seek to plot the points in the Test career-graph of each one of our four leading batsmen — Sourav and Rahul, Sachin and Laxman. Going on, for starters, to the two Tests in Zimbabwe, immediately following Sourav's telly-tingling 2-1 Test triumph in India. Sourav (in June 2001) scored but 5 in the Bulawayo Test; 9 & 0 in the Harare Test. Followed the August 2001 series in Sri Lanka in which we were without Sachin and Laxman. Sourav's balance sheet here — 15 & 4 in the Galle Test; 18 & 98 (not out) in the Kandy Test; 1 & 30 in the Colombo Test.

Sourav felt he had, at long last, got it all back with his bat-carrying 98 — winning the Kandy Test for India. But, as the Colombo Test was timorously lost by an innings and 77 runs for the series to be surrendered 1-2, back to rectangle one was Sourav. The Mike Denness-ruined November 2001 rubber, lost 0-1 in South Africa next, had Sourav notching 14 & 30 in the Bloemfontein Test, 42 & 4 (not out) in the Port Elizabeth Test. At least on Indian wickets by the December of 2001, against Nasser Hussain's England, Sourav was expected to show his Test batting paces afresh. But a run of 47 in the Mohali Test; 5 & 16 not out in the Ahmedabad Test; 0 in the Bangalore Test hardly added to Sourav's stature. True Sourav won the Test rubber 1-0. But he let Nasser's England get back into the series after its having been laid low (by 10 wickets) in the first Test at Mohali.

There should have been, against Zimbabwe at home after that (February-March 2002), some easy run pickings for Sourav in the two Tests. Yet Sourav gave it away when looking well set on 38 in the Nagpur Test. In the Kotla Test, his 136 & 20 unfurled Sourav as batting with some of his original `left'-landing authority. This set the tone for Sourav's Test comeback series in the West Indies. Some argue that Sourav batted far too wicket-preservingly during those five April-May 2002 Tests in the Caribbean. Yet the vital thing for Sourav, by that self-worrying point, was to keep spending time in the middle. Sourav did this admirably as he came up (in the five-match series) with knocks of 5 in the Georgetown Test; 25 & 75 (not out) in the Port-of-Spain Test; 48 & 60 not out in the Bridgetown Test; 45 in the Antigua Test; 36 & 28 in the Kingston Test. That Sourav (after clinching the Port-of-Spain Test) still lost the series 1-2 to Carl Hooper's West Indies was an indictment of India's batting overall. Well could Sourav here argue that, when the let-down rested in the persona of Sachin (79; 117 & 0; 0 & 8; 0; 41 & 86), the captain, shepherding India's batting, could afford to hit so hard and no more.

After that Windies tour, there were robust signs of a Sourav revival as, in drawing the July-August 2002 four-Test series 1-1 in England, Ganguly came up with that `anti-Nasser' scoreline of 5 & 0 at Lord's; 68 & 99 at Trent Bridge; 128 at Leeds; plus 51 at The Oval. But, as Carl Hooper's West Indies came to India for three Tests in October 2002, Sourav (even while winning the series 2-0) faltered yet again with the bat. Sourav's 4 in the Mumbai Test; 0 in the Chennai Test; 29 & 16 in the Kolkata Test underlined Ganguly as being now Dr. Jekyll, now Mr. Hyde. After that, Sourav's 17 & 2 in the Wellington Test, 5 & 5 in the Hamilton Test represent recent New Zealand history that should never be repeating itself.

The gut thrust of my argument is that, since Sourav made bold to play Steve at his own `sledge' hammer game through that triumphant March of 2001 in India, he has worked by fits and starts as the best Test batsman to emerge from Bengal since Pankaj Roy. In fact, after that dream June 1996 Lord's Test 131 debut, followed by 136 & 48 in the Trent Bridge Test, consistency has been the first casualty in Sourav's Test batsmanship. Sourav therefore clearly needs to do more as a Test batsman to hold firm as India's helmsman. It is Sourav's career as leader that is going to be at stake in Australia. Souravenously hungry for Test runs, Down Under, has to be India's captain. How now Sourav accomplishes this feat against World Champions Australia is his problem.

After Ganguly, his deputy! No one looks more composed while adhering to the grammar of batsmanship than does Our Man Rahul. Steve (in `Waugh Zone') perhaps got to the pith of the `Dravidilemma', after Rahul came up with that dismaying `Australia 1999-2000' Test tally of 35 & 6 at Adelaide; 9 & 14 at Melbourne; 29 & 0 at Sydney. "Rahul Dravid started to find some form towards the end of the one-dayers,'' wrote Steve. "To his credit, he worked hard on his game throughout, but perhaps he tried a little too hard earlier on. It would not surprise me if Dravid uses the experience of this Australian tour to become an even better international cricketer than the very good player he was before this (1999-2000) season began.''

How Rahul, facing by March 2001 a daunting identity crisis in his Test career, raised his game in the company of V.V.S. Laxman (against Australia in India) is now part of our cricket lore. Dravid's Test scores vs Australia (through February-March 2001) of 9 & 19 in the Mumbai Test; 25 & 180 (run out) in the Kolkata Test; 81 & 4 in the Chennai Test put the stamp on this technician's technician as a calibre of fighter for his momentary `tormentor', V.V.S. Laxman, himself to watch from the other end. Rahul's 81 then in the Chepauk Test abides as an all-time classic. But for Rahul's staying yeoman put in the face of a West Indies total of 501, Sourav's India would have started its April-May 2002 series, in the Caribbean, down for the count with the first Test itself at Georgetown.

How Rahul progressively turned the tables on a Laxman stuntingly `demoting' him to No. 6 (with that all-time 281 in the March 2001 Eden Gardens turnabout) is a Test case-study in the triumph of Technique over Talent. Following that chilling challenge posed to his very special niche in the Indian team, Rahul Dravid, in Zimbabwe (during June 2001), notched 44 in the Bulawayo Test; then 68 (not out) & 26 in the Harare Test. In Sri Lanka (August-September 2001), Rahul had 12 & 61 (not out) in the Galle Test; 15 & 75 in the Kandy Test; 36 & 36 (run out) in the Colombo Test. Next, in South Africa (November 2001), Rahul registered 2 & 11 in the Bloemfontein Test; 2 & 87 in the Port Elizabeth Test. Today Rahul knows no telematch as India's anchor. Where Laxman is still all style, Rahul is all substance.

Back in India (during December 2001 vs Nasser's England), Rahul had scores of 86 in the Mohali Test; 7 & 26 (not out) in the Ahmedabad Test; only 3 in the Bangalore Test. Then, against Zimbabwe in India (February-March 2002), maybe Rahul impressed Vijeta with 65 in the Nagpur Test. Only to fall for 1 & 6 in the Kotla Test. Came the acid April-May 2002 Test series in the West Indies and Rahul was right there — a sequence of 144 (not out) in the Georgetown Test; 67 & 36 in the Port-of-Spain Test; 17 & 14 in the Bridgetown Test; 91 in the Antigua Test; 5 & 30 in the Kingston Test. Rahul's purple patch came during July-August in England — 46 & 63 in the Lord's Test; 13 & 115 in the Trent Bridge Test; 148 in the Leeds Test; plus that epic 217 in the Oval Test. As the connoisseur in England now rated Dravid even above Tendulkar, the three October 2002 Tests vs Carl Hooper's West Indies, in India, saw Rahul fetch 100 not out in the Mumbai Test; 11 & 6 not out in the Chennai Test; 14 & 17 in the Kolkata Test.

Clearly too much cricket had begun to exact its price. Yet, even in wildly grassy New Zealand during that dismal December of 2002, Rahul had 76 & 7 in the Wellington Test; 9 & 39 in the Hamilton Test. So that Steve Waugh might have a Rahulian point when concluding: "Perhaps he tried a little too hard.'' Yet are there Test times — for Sourav's India yet — when Rahul has not to try hard, harder, still harder, as the linchpin of our batting? Of Vijay Merchant, Lala Amarnath once tartly remarked: "He could bat to save a Test for India, never to win it.'' Whereupon Vijay bluntly sought to know from me:'' How many Tests did India win in Lala's and my time''

Not a single one! At least Rahul's measured approach has placed other gifted batsmen in a position to bid to win Tests for India. So carry on in the same vein, Rahul, seeing how we need you, as India's Atlas, more than ever before in Australia. I have been able here to focus upon but our Test captain alongside our vice-captain. As I deal with the Sachin-Laxman syndrome two weeks from now, we divine why Sourav's India ranks so low in Test cricket today. Even while having ODI-reached out for Everest. Before being toppled from there by the very superpower all set, yet again, to be India's bugbear — an Australia ensuring that all others go `Down Under'.