Umpiring follies

Umpire BRIAN JERLING, on Test debut, surprised everyone with his staunch refusal to give leg-before decisions when India was bowling before turning around and giving two in six balls when the tourists batted, writes S. RAM MAHESH.

Indian fans — those of who saw the third Test, giving up watching the football World Cup — will remember it, the first ever Test match at St. Kitts, more for the follies of an umpire than the fine batting of V. V. S. Laxman. Umpire Brian Jerling, on Test debut, surprised everyone with his staunch refusal to give leg-before decisions when India was bowling before turning around and giving two in six balls when the tourists batted.

A case for consistency not bias is being made here — the case grows stronger with the presentation of Exhibit C: Jerling's refusal to give Yuvraj on the final day, in front of middle. The 47-year-old's decisions ensured that West Indies piled on a large first innings score. Lest anyone think too much is being made of umpiring errors, consider that India was denied 10 eminently qualified leg-before appeals — Kumble (7), Sehwag (1), Munaf (1), and Harbhajan (1) — besides two bat-pad catches.

Opener Daren Ganga made his first hundred in three years, Ramnaresh Sarwan made one on his 26th birthday, and Marlon Samuels fell short on his Test comeback. While each was an innings of considerable quality, none was better than Laxman's 100. It wasn't the 31-year-old's most fluent or most dominating; those who have seen him artistically dismantle Australia might have grown restless, frustrated even that Laxman gave the West Indies bowlers that much respect.

But, the low, slow track demanded an innings of patience; an attractive, fragile 40 that stoked the senses wasn't just irresponsible; it was next to impossible. The excellent batsman from Hyderabad produced a knock in keeping with his current batting style of playing straight as often as possible early to help India respond adequately to West Indies' 581.

Laxman forged crucial partnerships first with M. S. Dhoni, and then with Anil Kumble, as India fought back from the despair of 159 for five. There never is a wrong moment to make a Test hundred; still, Laxman's 10th came at just the right one. Both for his team, and his career. Even for a man who has authored many defining innings — another matter that most such as his 104 not out and 67 not out, when India last followed on, against New Zealand at Mohali in 2003 get forgotten — this was a crucial knock.

Yuvraj Singh's hot streak earlier this year had made it difficult for the team management to drop him; consequently, Laxman was left out when the team played five batsmen. Kaif's maiden hundred in the second Test at St. Lucia had made it imperative for Laxman to score big runs, and silence the babble. Given the number three spot for the series, the man with over 4000 Test runs illustrated just why dropping him is fraught with risk.

Laxman is a special player, capable of turning a match when it seems lost. Despite a dip in confidence — which will be remedied by runs — he is the Real McCoy. There aren't too many like him in world cricket today. You don't fool around with such men — you give them all the confidence and respect they deserve and need. Laxman acknowledged the support he received from the team management after his hundred.

Harbhajan Singh — who took five wickets in the West Indies first innings — and Munaf Patel played important parts with the bat to force Brian Lara's hand in not enforcing the follow-on. The last-wicket pair batted for 73 minutes to get to within 20 runs of making West Indies bat again. Despite all the fuss made of Lara's decision to bat, it was sound on cricketing reason. Where he did make a mistake was setting India a target. Setting targets on tracks like these is all about the tease: on such pitches, getting wickets is easiest — if one were at liberty to ever call taking wickets easy — when the batsmen play strokes, something Lara acknowledged. Yet the West Indies skipper gave India a target that allowed it to reassess at breaks, have a dash, and down shutters when needed.

Crucially, it wasn't a target India would have been disappointed not chasing down. "Almost 400 in a day was always going to be tough," said skipper Rahul Dravid, expectedly. "360 was the score we thought we could go for, at four an over; 400 has probably never been done on the final day. That he (Lara) set us so much was actually a back-handed compliment. He knew we had the quality, so he didn't leave us 360."

So, India would have gone wholeheartedly for 360 — the mind-set changes when a team chases expecting to win, from when it bats "seeing how it goes, and having a bit of a dip," as Dravid said India batted on the final day. The greater premium on victory, and its attendant pressure can play strange tricks.

If one were to pick something about India on the final day to carp about it was the side's approach after Laxman fell. The 31-year-old controlled an innings given impetus by Sehwag, calmness by Jaffer, bloody-mindedness by Dravid, and substance by all of them. Dhoni, promoted rightly, smashed the first ball he faced for six.

The trouble thereafter was not that he managed just another six; the West Indies bowlers hit excellent lengths — just short enough on a track that made it come on slowly — and if Dhoni couldn't, nobody could. The trouble was not enough singles were taken. Twelve of Dhoni's 20 came in two balls — the other eight took 24.