Where we lost our rubber hold

RAJU BHARATAN

SOURAV as a leader of men evidently still remains susceptible to Anger as the Fourth of the Seven Deadly Sins! Stung to the Adam Sanford quick, Sourav (after having been the role model of dedication and concentration) lost poise for a fleeting second. And that was enough to slacken Sourav's willowy grip on the Test rubber. No two Indian batsmen so redeemed themselves during the five Tests in the West Indies as did Sourav and Laxman. Yet one thoughtless shot by Sourav, another by Laxman, sealed the rubber 2-1 in favour of Carl Hooper's West Indies. Once Sachin left the Sabina Park Test scene (after blazing to 86 off 139 balls with 13 super fours), Sourav and Laxman were, in duty, bound to bat in the exact idiom each had perfected through the series. At 170 for 4 (with Sachin 'Pedroasted' yet again), Sourav and Laxman had but to hold firm. Firm enough to wait for the weather Gods blessingly to intervene (1-1) in India's favour.

Sunil Gavaskar hit the ball on the head when he said that a Test series drawn is a Test series drawn. So is a Test rubber lost a Test rubber lost. If Sourav lost his cool after displaying an exemplary straight bat through 74 balls for his 28 (5 fours) on that fatal fourth evening of the Sabina Park Test, surely his mishooked mode of dismissal should have come as a third eye-opener to Laxman. Yet what does Lax do just when his job was to stay put, seeing how hard-headedly stripling Ajay Ratra was defending India from the other end? VVS, in that hazardous hour, misguidedly remembers that he is a 'run-getter' first and a 'run-gatherer' after! Laxman suddenly tries all the shots in the book, ending up employing the very ill-timed hook that had just proved Sourav's undoing against the very same Adam Sanford. For Merv Dillon at midwicket to fall with a ball-clutching thud shaking India's Windies rubber hold at its very foundation.

This sadly means that aristocrat Laxman is still apt to lapse, in his shot selection, given a crunch Test-match situation. As for Rahul (30 off 58 balls, 6 fours), he is clear-cut about starting a Test innings attackingly only when his one-day niche in the Indian team is threatened. Ironically, it was Rahul's quickfire Kingston Test 30 that had served as the impetus for Sachin to regain his stroke-making pedigree. The moment Rahul was gone 'back' lbw to Adam Sanford for 30, Sachin picked up the pieces at 77 for 3. Sachin now found his best touch in the exact manner he had slammed his way to 73 after India nosedived to 21 for 2 in response to the West Indies' 501 in the first Test at Georgetown.

That time the grind to which Rahul initially reduced India's reply - before finishing valiantly with 144 not out (347 balls, 23 fours) - cramped Sachin's style from the word go. After looking India's Georgetown batting pillar, like a caterpillar crawled Sachin from 73 to 79 (136 balls, 13 fours). Then came the Port of Spain hoop-la about Sachin's 29th Test hundred dubiously placing him on the same summit as Sir Donald Bradman. Unvarnished truth to tell, Sachin's Port of Spain 117 (260 balls, 14 fours) could not genuinely rate among his quality Test hundreds. A closer look at that 117 (umpire aided and abetted) should have mentally prepared us for the shock Sachin Test sequence of 0; 0 & 8; 0 to follow. For all his bad luck with a couple of pad-roll lbw rulings here, Sachin had hardly looked the Little Champion Test-part in the Caribbean. Then Ten met Viv who asked him just to relax at the wicket-gate. And it all came back as 41 from 63 balls with 7 exquisite fours. But the way Sachin left one Sabina Park peg exposed to Adam Stanford when on 41, as indeed to Pedro Collins when on 86, revived visions of what 'The Other Richards', Barry, had hinted at when taunting that Tendulkar Lara-lost out as a match-winner on livelier wickets abroad. This is a point to ponder even if Sachin is again all vim and vitality in Test cricket.

Sachin must accept his full share of responsibility for India's surrendering the Windies Test rubber 1-2 even if he ended the series on a memorable personal note with that rich-veined 86. Compare this churchmouse-poor Sachin run with the way Sunil Gavaskar imperiously finished the 1979 English summer series with The Oval-shaped 221 in the fourth and final Test. That double ton ultimately saw Sunil Gavaskar bat his way to the 74th spot in the Wisden-100 Top Test Innings Of All Time. A Sunny spot ranking a notch above even Wally Hammond's 336 not out for England vs New Zealand in the April 1933 Auckland Test. What were Sunil's Test scores before The Oval 221 celebration of the 1979 series in England? Sunil hit 61 (run out) & 68 in the Edgbaston Test; 42 & 59 in the Lord's Test; 78 in the Headingley Test; before falling for 13 in the first stanza of The Oval Test (as the prelude to that 221). By stark contrast, what were Sachin's scores before that masterful 86 in the final Sabina Park Test? Starting with 79 in the Georgetown Test, Sachin had 117 & 0 in the Port of Spain Test; 0 & 8 in the Bridgetown Test; 0 in the Antigua Test; and 41 in the Kingston Test.

S. Venkataraghavan's India lost that 1979 series in England 0-1 in the teeth of Sunil's 542 runs from 7 innings yielding him an average of 77.42. Sourav's India now lost 1-2 to the West Indies primarily because of Sachin's inability to fire during the crucial 'core' part of the five-Test series. Did Sachin's mid-series failings alone then dampen India's Test rubber-winning ardour? Or did the other three run millionaires in the team keep too tight a rein on their privy run-purses for Sachin to be able evenly to distribute his batting riches? Maybe normally aggressive batsmen like Laxman and Sourav were pushed into a deadly defensive mould by the Windies fact of India's generally having its back to the ball. But who ensured that the series started on a false note for India as the West Indies ran up a total of 501 in the very first Test at Georgetown? Who if not skipper Sourav by opting for the obviously wrong wicket-keeper in Deep Dasgupta! Deep missed Carl Hooper (233 off 402 balls: 29 fours, 3 sixes) when the Windies captain had yet to trouble Mohandas Menon. Thus was India on the Omar Abdullah back-foot from the word go. Deep Dasgupta (as we saw on the small screen) could read the six letters of 'SOBERS'. But not the six balls of Kumble! Had Deep held on to Carl, who knows, the rubber could have gone differently for Sourav and his India.

The main thrust of my submissions before India's TV jury is that we cannot expect to dictate terms even to the West Indies if we have our four top-drawer batsmen, by turns, not only starting dourly but thereafter almost forgetting to accelerate. Laxman's 474 runs from 8 Test innings (ave 79.00); Rahul's 404 runs from a similar 8 Test innings (ave. 57.71); and Sourav's 322 runs from a ditto 8 Test innings (ave. 53.66) might look impressive on plain fax paper. But Sachin's 331 runs' aggregate from 8 completed Test innings (ave. 41.37) falls woefully short by the heights to which he has been unfailingly known to lift India. Where India really lost out was in its Big Four being rarely seen to score strikingly together. First Rahul, then Laxman and, finally, Sourav found themselves stranded at one end, unenviably holding the tail.

In the grand sum, therefore, we shot ourselves in the foot. Self-destructed to a point where neither Sourav nor Laxman saw it fit to try and stay the 'overcast' course on that decisive fourth evening of the rubber-determining Sabina Park Test. As the final Test thus went into its fifth day with Sourav's India already under a cloud, fresher Ajay Ratra (19 off 86 balls: no fours) alone seemed to have grasped the significance of staying back and seeing if the rain could save his team. But Ajay was halted in his series-saving stride by umpire Russell Tiffin (in a hurry to wrap up the Test match before the interminable rain came?) ruling Ratra angularly lbw to a Cuffy delivery clearly missing the leg-stump. That what was obvious to fledgling Ajay (19) remained a 'drawing' lesson lost on the seasoned Sourav (28) and Laxman (23) is the grim saga of our wayward thoroughbreds tamely letting the lowly West Indies pip India at the post.