The ugly Aussie's Indian `intent'

IS it not time we Indians stopped living in the Cloud-cuckoo-land of having mistily made it to the World Cup final?

RAJU BHARATAN

IS it not time we Indians stopped living in the Cloud-cuckoo-land of having mistily made it to the World Cup final? Which other nation would be still `celebrating' having come off second best in the world? A full two months after the non-happening? That way Indian cricket is the giant wheel all set to come full circle. The perplexing thing about us Indians is that we still tend to take the opposition for granted. Thus New Zealand, in the new year of 2003, was no tour, no contest! Until we caught a Tartar in Stephen Fleming leading his men with aptitude and imagination. If we still had a gripe — grassy green — about the wickets we encountered in New Zealand, Stephen Fleming put the alibi in perspective as he observed that the best batting in the world is expected to cope. If New Zealand was a thorn in Sourav's side before the World Cup, if Australia turned out to be our Achilles' heel at the greatest one-day show on earth, the tender irony is that these are the very two nations we are due next to take in our stride.

Sourav's India should renew its faith in V. V. S. Laxman starting with the two October 2003 Tests vs New Zealand. — Pic. N. SRIDHARAN-

Stephen Fleming's New Zealand arrive in India determined to prove an Asian point, after having made a fair fist of the stern Test threat posed by Muthiah Muralitharan in Sri Lanka. The two Tests with which New Zealand launch their tour of India (come October) are prestige matches that the Kiwis seek to save at all costs. Against the finest spinners in the world. As that two-Test series concludes, who should be joining Stephen Fleming's New Zealand (for a prize ODI tri-series in India) but Ricky Ponting's Australia! A tri-series in which Australia gives India no quarter, while New Zealand asks us for none. The challenge for Sourav, as India's captain, is that, for starters, he has to be seen settling New Zealand's ODI pretensions the exact way we did in the World Cup. Thereby qualifying to meet, in the tri-series finale, an Australia whose measure Sourav's India simply must have this time. If we are not to be confirmed in our World Cup-acquired status of being ` Kangarooted' chokers!

That is not all. Straight from a minimum of 6 one-day internationals in India we go into 4 five-day Tests in Australia (during December 2003). In undertaking what clearly is going to be a make-or-break Down Under tour for Indian cricket. Such a tour (1999-2000) momentarily broke even Sachin. As Tendulkar felt impelled to vacate the electric chair on his disenchanted return from Australia. Always remember that the Big Four in our batting — and I here near inevitably include V.V.S. Laxman on a tour of Australia — are getting no younger. So that delivering in Australia is going to be the foursome's litmus Test series. Here Sourav, first and foremost, has to prove that Mark Waugh is talking through his helmet when writing in mid-March 2003: "Ganguly has always been all at sea against pacemen, right through his career.''

Before Brett Lee in Australia, there is Shane Bond in India to negotiate and neutralise through two Tests. It is not only Sourav who is going to have his job cut out here. For Shane Bond generates the dimension of pace that must make him an ugly customer to counter, even on Indian wickets, for almost all our batsmen. Sourav's last impressive five-day series was in the West Indies during April-May 2002. The five Tests there saw Ganguly get his head down for a scoreline of 5 at Georgetown; 25 & 75 not out at Port-of-Spain; 48 & 60 not out at Bridgetown; 45 at Antigua; 36 & 28 at Kingston. Maybe each was a non-typical Sourav innings cast in a purely attritional mould. But the team's interests dictated such a rearguardian approach. Sourav would need some of the same dedicated determination if he is exemplarily to succeed, as striker-skipper, during the four Tests in Australia. Nothing could be designed to be more fatally flawed than the airy-fairy outlook Sourav tends to adopt in such a daunting setting.

Personally, I see not only Sourav's batsmanship and leadership at stake in Australia during end-2003. I say this is the Test series by which the world is going to revalue Sachin. In the afterglow of ` comeback-lasher' Brian Lara's stand-out turn out during the recent Test series in the West Indies. Against World champions Australia, Lara Test scores of 26 & 110 at Georgetown; 91 & 122 at Port-of-Spain; 14 & 42 at Bridgetown; 68 & 60 at Antigua. In four Tests, a total of 533 runs from 8 innings (ave.66.67). Against all-blasting Australia. Overcoming the trauma of three dicey decisions. Allied to all that ` Stevendetta'. So only if Sachin now comes through the December 2003 ` Barry Richards-pinpointed' four-Test series, in Australia, with his colours nailed to mast does Tendulkar, logically, continue to rate as the superbat he did after the World Cup. That World Cup norm of form, `Instant' Sachin now would be just expected to reproduce in the one-day VB Series to follow. A fitness series — as Zimbabwe joins India and Australia to complete the triangular Channel 9 picture. Let us, before that one-day VB Series, stay with India's four Tests due in Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney. A Test series that could still bring Steve and Sourav face to face anew — diamond cut diamond!

These four Tests are going to be the ultimate cross-examination of Rahul's style and technique too. Seeing that Rahul did not quite come off last time out in Australia. A 1999-2000 sequence of 35 & 6 in the Adelaide Test; 9 & 14 in the Melbourne Test; 29 & 0 in the Sydney Test means Rahul Dravid has a score to settle with the Aussie pacemen. During what is clearly a hairpin bend in his no longer `single' minded career! Short point — from Rahul to Sourav to Sachin, `Australia 2003' represents a U-turn in India's cricketing life and times. We here could overnight discover that, while leaning on our Big Three alongside Laxman, our jet set (led by Viru Sehwag) is not yet quite ready, all by itself, to lead the Test charge. It is a Test contest best described as `third eyeball to third eyeball'. A contest at once designed to test the spirit of the age and the fire of youth! A Test series following which we could well be feeling constrained to make a fresh evaluation of our cricket in the world order.

It is a tour for which we have willy-nilly to pick V.V.S. Laxman, if only because Steve Waugh & Co fear this Batsman's Batsman, in a sense, even more than they do Sachin. So Sourav's India renews its faith in Laxman starting with the two October 2003 Tests vs New Zealand. In the teeth of the harsh fact that V.V.S. Laxman, leading India `A' in the West Indies while Sourav & Co were busy with the World Cup, incredibly produced a string of poor scores. Before being rendered hors de combat in the Caribbean. For all that, where it comes to India's touring Australia, how possibly could we venture to play Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark?

So `Hamlet' Laxman, turning 29 on November 1, takes his Steve-appointed place in the team to Australia. In the hope that V.V.S. will get it all back against a calibre of opposition on which he Sydney throve even before that March 2001 Eden Test 59 & 281, Chepauk Test 65 & 66. Brett Lee might be the fastest bowler in the world today. But Lax had come to laid-back terms with Lee while turning out for India `A' vs Australia `A'. The Sydney Test Tuesday of January 4, 2000, therefore saw Brett Lee hold no terrors for V.V.S. Laxman. Even if that final Test knock V.V.S. came, initially, to view as his swan song for India. Since Laxman by then stood jettisoned from the Carlton & United one-day series to follow those three Ansett Tests.

Sachin's India, in fact, was 402 behind Steve's Australia when batting a second time in that third Test at Sydney. So Laxman just let fly. Let fly once he saw his India (with Sachin gone for 4) slump to 101 for 4. No fewer than 300 to make and the match to lose! The sheer hopelessness of the task saw Laxman relax his taut grip on the bat. The rest just flowed — V.V.S.'s bat, for India, proving a mere extension of his arm in Australia! From an Indian total of 258 for 8 came to be sculpted Laxman's Sydney Test 167. Studded with 27 fours that fleshed out V.V.S. as the epitome of elegance in Australia. Each of his 27 fours a geometric study in willowy virtuosity.

That V.V.S. followed up the epic Sydney Test 167 (off 198 balls) with a C & U run of 9 vs Pakistan; 2 vs Australia; again 2 vs Australia; 7 vs Pakistan; 1 vs Pakistan; 3 vs Australia is Laxman the man. To think that Sachin insisted upon Laxman's being retained in the C & U team (for India) at the expense of an already selected Mohammed Azharuddin! Chagrined, our selectors temporised, reasoning perhaps that, whether it be Azhar or Laxman, it still is the portrait of Hyderabadi grace. Laxman's response — a total of 24 ODI runs from 6 C & U knocks. That is a VB Series `eventuality' we wilfully risk now. After all, if Laxman is a Rhythm Player, so is Sourav's India a Rhythm Team. If India under Sourav gets going — as in the World Cup — it just gets going. If Sourav's India struggles, it just struggles.

Signs of a return to such familiar struggle were already manifest in the Dhaka ODI final against a South Africa rebuilding. We thought (until then) that we had put by something for a rainy day. Any such suggestion our new-look team was swift to shoot own during that Dhaka final. Our bench strength here looked set to walk the plank! Sourav's India now might, therefore, somehow hold its own at home in the two Tests against New Zealand. Even perhaps in the six one-day internationals to follow, as Australia joins tri-series issue with New Zealand and India. But come the tour of Australia and we must instantly know our true worth in international cricket.

Sourav and Rahul, Sachin and Laxman, do they — all four together — remain Test certainties after the four-match series in Australia (during December 2003)? The VB Series after that, could it possibly again see Sourav's India on the kind of roll it was in the World Cup? If February-March 2003 witnessed India's cricket thoroughbreds make almost every other World Cup post a winning one, there is no accounting for what our balance sheet would reflect by mid-February 2004. Remember, it was on the Saturday of February 15, 2003, that Australia's historic World Cup conquest of India, in South Africa, began. By February 15 in the new year of 2004, therefore, our cricket could well come under the kind of VB scrutiny Aussie-calculated to show Sourav's India to be nothing better than a pretender to the world crown. The Ricky Aussie ` intent' remains to so `intimidate' Sourav's India as to ensure a March 23 World Cup encore. Nothing less — nothing more.