'The Big Showdown' under

THE cricket media in India, how provocative is it? Is it anywhere near as proactive as is the cricket media in Australia?

RAJU BHARATAN

Sachin Tendulkar and V. V. S. Laxman are pre-eminently there in the team to attack. And Sachin is expected to show India the Bradmanly way, once he gets a feel of the Aussie Test bowling. -- Pic. AFP-

THE cricket media in India, how provocative is it? Is it anywhere near as proactive as is the cricket media in Australia? "The Big Showdown" (as EspnStar bills it) is not just all about cricket. It is also about playing the Aussie media at their own India-hooking game. As the Aussie media prepares to unleash itself, in all its World Championing fury, on Sourav and his men set to go Down Under. Where are you, Mr. Steve Waugh? You who have set your heart upon the tour of India (beginning end-September 2004) as the Final Frontier all over again? How come, Steve, you failed, on this touring occasion, to carry out some long-distance baiting of Our Man Sourav? Matthew Hayden (380), as Steve's Brian Lara-lashing opener, certainly did the job for Captain Waugh by proxy. By landing his "left" on Sourav's India just where it is likely to hurt in Australia.

Matt, on Indian turf, let it be known that "the Indians are fragile where it comes to short-pitched bowling — they are so loose outside the off-stump." Tellingly adding: "Someone like Laxman is really scared of the short ball. In fact, I think the majority of them are worried about fast bowling." What is significant here is the particularised way Hayden targeted Laxman. Something that should be interpreted as a left-handed Hayden compliment by Laxman. VVS should not let anything Matt says about his being "scared of the short ball" inhibit him now or ever. For it was by exemplarily smashing the short ball purveyed by Brett Lee (11-2-67-2) that VVS conjured that dream 167 on the Tuesday afternoon of January 4, 2000, in the Sydney Test.

Actually, in singling out Laxman, the Aussies are venturing to transmit the mock message that they view VVS as a soft target even before India reaches Australia. VVS, in tune with his Sydney pedigree, must simply continue to play his natural game. The game by which VVS has once again discovered his wristy bat to be a willowy extension of the arm. Laxman is not a name the Aussies are taking in vain. They already sense VVS — if a total contrast in style — to be a rival cast in the same demoralisingly shattering mould as Sachin. A timely word here about India's attitude of mind in Australia. However tough it might be to carry out, selective counter-attack is India's only way out during the four Tests Down Under. Sachin here is going to accomplish nothing, just nothing, by adopting the ponderous norm he did in "centimetring" his way to that 55 in the Mohali Test vs New Zealand.

Sachin, lately, appears to have radically revised his batting outlook in Tests. Sachin's neo stance is to wear down the bowling first. This is just not on in Australia. Where Sachin is expected to show India the Bradmanly way, once he gets a feel of the Aussie Test bowling. The Don never waited for the bull in the ring to set after him. The Don took the bull by the horns in running rings around it. So must Sachin seize the striking initiative now. Remembering that Laxman and he are pre-eminently there, in the team, to attack. Where Rahul is there to drop TV anchor. While Sourav now is perhaps left with no choice but to bring up the doughty rear.

The best example to cite to Sachin here is Laxman himself. About how Laxman almost erased his virtuoso "Eden 281" identity, as a world-classy performer, by anxiously switching to being the rearguardian of India's batting. In a misplaced effort to uphold his No. 6-demoted standing in the Test team! It was only by chance VVS rediscovered his true-blue originality as a super striker of the cricket ball. Believe it or not, they had initially jettisoned V.V.S. Laxman from the TVS Tri-Nation Series. The selectorial argument put forth was ingenious. It was that, since VVS had not been a part of the Sourav outfit winning 8 World Cup matches in a row, Laxman's name need not even be ODI considered now.

It was only with some friendly persuasion that VVS was brought back into the ODI picture. On the plea that his 99 (for Rest of India vs Mumbai) was Irani Cup proof that Laxman had reinvented himself as a shot player for one-day cricket too. Grudgingly, still, was Laxman accommodated in India's TVS team. Today you just cannot envision an India one-day team sans Laxman. In fact, it was as Laxman (102) and Sachin (100) straightway got strokefully going against Ricky's Australia that India's true batting potential began to be realised. If that was in one-day cricket, neither Laxman nor Sachin should now be batting in any other vein during the Tests in Australia. For this is the only approach that is going to win friends and influence people in the opposition during the Test series in Australia. Happily, there are signs that Sourav is maturing as skipper and striker alike. You had to be impressed by the application with which Sourav fashioned that undefeated 100 in the Ahmedabad Test vs New Zealand. After vitally losing out on "match practice" by letting Laxman (99) chip in ahead of him during that crucial Irani Cup encounter. For Laxman to play a "blinder" calculated to hold Sachin's eye.

A healthy augury for Tour Australia is the cosy manner in which Sachin and Laxman have moved in fluid tandem since. When India's two finest batsmen are on the same wavelength, the team stands to spot benefit. Each one of our batting stars has, willy-nilly, to contribute meaningfully if we are to put up any sort of fight in the acid series on the anvil Down Under. Never forget that Rahul still has to build a Test reputation in Australia. The same goes for Sourav. As the Ugly Aussie comes ultra-hard at him. Rewind to Steve Waugh writing at length about how they went about breaking skipper Sachin, in spirit, even before the one-day C & U Series got going in January 2000. Maybe Sachin, by his own rigidity of mindset, invited certain leading questions here. But the challenge now confronting Sourav, as skipper, is no less daunting. Sourav could hope to lead from up front only by hitting back with the bat. On how Sourav grapples, as striker-skipper, with the Champions of World Cricket hinges his longevity as captain of India in Pakistan. Not to speak of the Asia Cup to follow.

There are two ways of looking at the calibre of our batsmanship in Australia — as core represented by Rahul and Sourav, Sachin and Laxman. Cricketing logic suggests that all four should be at the zenith of their striking powers during this stage of their cricket career on Tour Australia. Yet this is the very career juncture during which the chinks, developing in one's batting armour, begin to show. Especially against the quality of relentless pace with which Australia now traditionally addresses its adversary. I dwell upon India's batting ammunition here because we already know that our bowlers could hope to deliver only with a lot of runs raised on the board. There is no need, therefore, totally to discount what Matthew Hayden meant when he said of Zaheer Khan: "He hits the track really hard off a length. But in Australia we will be pulling that. Is Khan going to be short and full? They haven't got that explosive pace."

Zaheer Khan will have to bowl as much with the head as with the heart in Australia. -- Pic. AFP-

We really haven't. What we view as fast is chicken feed for the Kangaroos. Javagal Srinath got to the essence of it all when he observed: "They keep telling me to pitch up the ball, but don't tell me how to do it on such wickets!" It is a fine perception, in pitching the ball, that our attack, speed and spin, needs to acquire out there in Australia. Where the ball comes on to the bat. So that you are easily driven off the front foot. Or cut and pulled by stepping back. Even Javagal Srinath did not always know where to draw the line, about the length to pitch, in Australia during the late-1999 Test series there. Sri now recognises that it is the scale of back-bending job for a younger breed of quicks to undertake. But this breed (spearheaded by Zaheer Khan) has to bowl as much with the head as with heart. So as to create the openings for our spin to pitch in the rough. Anil Kumble would tell you that there is no tour tougher than Australia for even a seasoned spinner. There are no easy breakthroughs Down Under. So the lack of any real depth in our bowling presents a real cause for concern. Harbhajan Singh no longer comes through as the buzzing "star-turn" he looked against Australia in March 2001. All our slows would do well to memorise what vintage commentator Alan McGilvray said: "In Australia you get the spin of the ball in the air rather than off the wicket."

That is why Erapalli Prasanna was such a stand-out success, first time out, in Australia (25 wickets in 4 Tests). Where B.S. Chandrasekhar ended up as a worn-out novelty (one wicket from 2 Tests). Well could our spinners finish with "None for plenty" if they depended on bounce alone to do the trick for them in Australia. E.A.S. Prasanna came to be rated above Lance Gibbs by Ian Chappell only because the chunky Mysorean ceaselessly drew that intrepid stroke-maker out of the crease. With his supple, subtle spin in the air.

Never forget that our slowmen, only the other day, ran into Test problems against the Kiwis on our own homespun wickets. India dominated the Ahmedabad Test, we here even had the size of the Kiwi coffin determined. Yet Sourav's spinners just could not drive the final nail home. In Mohali, we simply looked to lack the bowling fire-power, once Stephen's New Zealand had first choice of lying back on that Bindra featherbed. This is our most worrying aspect on Tour Australia — the lack of true penetration in our Test attack. It is all very well to say that the pitches in the two Tests vs New Zealand had our bowlers feeling defeated. But the tracks in Australia, after the first two hours of a Test match, are really going to be no different.

It is a myth to believe that wickets in Australia favour peak pace all the way. Wickets in Australia, after the first session on the opening day, have this habit of rolling out so easy as to be ideal for batsmanship. The fact that the ball is on to the bat in a flash, Down Under, makes pinpoint precision all the more imperative in our bowling here. Has our bowling the savvy to measure up? Could our topnotch batsmen be trusted to score swiftly enough for our bowling to hold? Our fielding, if it is anything like it was during the two Tests vs New Zealand, would see Sourav's India found out, as non-benders to the manor born, in those vast stadiums of Australia. Through four razor-keen contests (Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney), therefore, is Indian Cricket on sterling test here. From here, where do we go? To Pakistan with our true calibre in world cricket exposed all over again?