Saturday, 29 December, 2007

The Absolute Zero

Yesterday night I had an opportunity to hear noted classical singer Aarti Ankalikar in a live concert. I had been waiting for it for quite some time, not the least because her name bears a close resemblance to my better half’s. It was a wonderful mehfil, with Aarti Ankalikar regaling her fans with a wide array of music from the Raaga ‘Madhukans’ to the semi classical Thumri, Dadra, Chaiti and chipping in with a rare Ghazal too.

With the fourth days play at MCG only couple of hours away from the end of this concert, I thought a similar performance from the Indian batters could have been a real icing on the cake. But deep inside I knew, it would remain just what it was – a wishful thinking.

So Indians took the field in hope of venturing, where none has been before. The noises emanating from the players were right too. Bhajji talked of being positive and the team coming to Australia to win and nothing else. The only problem was Indians did not walk their talk. Or dare I say, they simply did not have enough ammo to do it.

Even the most ardent fans would not have hoped for an Indian victory. What they were looking at were those little battles within the war, which would have helped team India to compete in the series ahead. They scratched the surface, even dug a mile, but there was nothing that could remotely suggest an Indian fight back.

Over the next days we may delve on what went wrong and what could have been right. But getting bowled for less than 200 runs in each outing, in less that two days time, is a moral shattering defeat, which ever way you try to look at it. I am not sure if Indians can recover from this mauling.

You criticize the players when you harbour some expectations from them. But when the needle points to -273.15 on a Celsius scale, there isn’t much to write home about.

For me, that is also the saddest part of it.

Friday, 28 December, 2007

The great Indian run chase...

Flashback to the 1967-68 series against Australia. Indian team, led by Tiger Pataudi, had arrived in Brisbane for the third test, with Australia leading the four test series 2-0. ML Jaisimha had joined the team, just hours before the test, as a replacement for Chandra. (Yes, an opening bat replacing a leg spinner. Strange were/are the ways of Indian selectors). But the jet lag did not prevent Jaisimha from scoring a solid half-century in the first innings. Set to score a daunting 395 runs in the fourth innings, India soon slumped to 191/5, at which point Chandu Borde joined the stylish Hyderabadi. They carried the score to 310 and just when India's first win on Aussie soil looked probable, Borde glanced one down to fine leg for Ian Redpath to snap a good catch. Indians folded for 355, falling short of the Aussie total by a mere 39 runs.

Clive Hubert Lloyd's captaincy was under serious threat. The Australian attack led by Lillee and Thomson had walloped Windies 5-1, just few months ago. Against this background, Indians arrived in West Indies to play a four test series in 1976. West Indies won the first test and narrowly avoided a defeat in the second. Indians had sensed blood. Port of Spain, where the second and third tests were scheduled, was Gavaskar's favourite hunting ground. Set a near impossible target of 403 runs, which hitherto only Don's Bradman's invincible team had achieved way back in 1948, most Indians had given up hope. The batsmen though, had other ideas. Gavaskar laid a solid foundation with a regulatory century, only for Mohinder Amarnath and Gundappa Vishwanath to cap it with a fine victory. India won that match by whopping six wickets to set a new fourth innings record then.

Fast forward to the 1977-78 series. Kerry Packer had wrecked most cricket teams around the world. Australia being the home country was never going to be an exception. Amongst the major players, only Jeff Thomson had decided to stay back with the national team. Bobby Simpson was forced out of retirement to lead a hugely weakened Australian team. The five match series was tied 2-2 when the teams arrived at Adelaide for the series decider. Australians had set an improbable target of 494 runs in the fourth innings. Almost every frontline Indian batsman chipped in, with Amarnath, Vishwanath, Vengsarkar and Kirmani scoring creditable half centuries. Their valiant effort was in vain however as the team fell short of the mammoth Aussie total by just 47 runs.

By the time Indian team arrived in England in the second half of the 1979 summer, it had acquired a reputation of scoring big in the fourth innings. The 4th test at Oval test bears testimony to that. English bowling was led by Willis, Botham and Hendrick. As Indians began chasing 438 runs, they met with an unexpected stroke of luck. Hendrick was injured and England had to rely on Willis and Botham for pace. Gavaskar, in company of Chetan Chauhan, put on 212 runs for the opening wicket, erasing a 43 year old record set by Vijay Merchant and Mushtaq Ali at Manchester Oval. Gavaskar looked in ominous form as he scored a glorious 221, which Len Hutton described as one of the very best innings played in England. Only an error of judgement on the part of Indian skipper S Venkatraghavan, who promoted Kapil Dev ahead of Vishwanath in hope of getting some quick runs, prevented what could have been yet another famous victory. India eventually settled for a draw at 429/8, just 9 runs short of the huge English total.

Team India sets out on yet another mammoth run chase tomorrow at MCG. For a team that has managed only 196 runs in its first essay, it would come as no surprise if it fails in the second one too. But tomorrow will also present a huge opportunity for India's lead batsmen to play an immortal innings and carve out a special place in history. An innings that would put to shade even VVS Laxman's epic 281 at Eden Gardens. That alone should be good enough for motivation, if there is any required.

All the very best India.

Thursday, 27 December, 2007

It was a throwback to the nineties

If Santa Claus had told the Indian skipper on the eve of Boxing Day test, that India would bundle out the Aussie team for 350 runs in their first innings, Kumble would have been as happy as a child dreaming of sugarplums dancing in his head.

Sure enough, the jolly old elf kept his words.

Although Mathew Hayden's century on a Boxing Day is a customary thing by now, it is extremely rare for an Australian team to get (almost) bowled out the on the very first day at MCG.

Having feasted upon the unexpected gifts, one would have hoped that the Indian batsmen extended their festivities over to the next four days. Instead, the openers played as if they had been on a leather hunt for better part of two days, as if they were facing an imposing score of over 600 runs and as if the only saving grace was batting out a draw. They displayed same tentativeness, which, a rabbit caught in front of glaring headlights, would have been proud of.

The only saving grace and a reason for Indians to smile was the way Sachin Tendulkar played. His fans were so dearly longing for such an innings. Hopefully, it gets only better and bigger from here.

The Indian batting was, in more ways than one, a throw back to the sorry nineties. It was so similar then - the opening slot being treated like a game of musical chairs, Sachin Tendulkar being the lone becon of hope and the rest of them falling like ninepins after his departure. And I thought those dark days were well and truly behind us.

Contrast this with the Australian approach towards the end of day's play. Even in the final eight overs, when most teams would have played for the shutters, they maintained an impressive run rate of 4.0 per over.

Fear often clogs the mind and breeds tentativeness, so glaringly obvious in the Indian approach today. Kangaroos have taken the game by the scruff of its neck. Indians must play fearless cricket from hereon, only for the tougher battles ahead, if not for this test.

Wednesday, 26 December, 2007

The day of Frank Sinatras of Indian cricket

It is almost twenty years since the original 'Frank Sinatra' of Indian cricket played his last test match. Today belonged to the neo 'Frank Sinatras' of Indian cricket.

Playing 100 tests is a great achievement for a any cricketer, by any yardstick. What looked like a distant dream just a year ago, is now a richly deserved reality. For this reason alone, Mohinder Amarnath must be extremely proud of Sourav Ganguly, especially the way he forced his way back into the team. It was pleasing to see Sunil Gavaskar and then Anil Kumble felicitate one of the India's most hotly debated player/captain in recent years, on a fantastic landmark.

And what a comeback has it been for the other Frank Sinatra - Zaheer Khan! He has been ably shouldering the Indian attack ever since his return from a forced exile, again courtesy Chappell and Kiran More combo. As Sunil Gavaskar said in the post match show, Wasim Akram would have been proud of the ball with which he bowled Ricky Ponting. No praise can be higher than that, if you happen to be a left arm fast bowler. Not only did that ball sent the dangerous Ponting back to the hut with almost nothing against his name, it also opened the floodgates for Kumble to barge through.

For Anil Kumble, life has come a full circle. It was in Australia during the 2003 series, that he reinvented himself with a typical Kumbleish spell of 5/154, when Ponting's bat was raining runs in torrents. Up until that series, Kumble had done little noteworthy on an overseas tour, despite having a phenomenal record back home. The Adelaide test changed all that, and since then Jumbo has been a vital cog in most of India's test wins outside India. More importantly, captaincy seems to have renewed his vigour to play test cricket for some more time and made him even more determined. His spell today was a testimony to that.

From the Aussie stand point, standing up to the Indians was the enormous Mathew Hayden, with an unmistakable swagger in his walk. His innings reminded me of Sehwag's in the Melbourne test of 2003 series. India folded out for a paltry 366 after being comfortably placed at 286/3 at one time. Australian innings seems to be treading a similar path. Anil Kumble would dearly hope it does so on remaining days too.

Like on numerous occasions in the past, India's unsung heroes - the bowlers - have delivered on their promise. It is time for their more illustrious team mates to put up their hands and be counted.

The onus is squarely on you gentlemen.

Monday, 24 December, 2007

Boxing Day test and a Patiala Peg

During the early days of my initiation to the wonderful game of cricket, I was often intrigued by few terms associated with it. Topping them was, where does ‘Ashes’ derive its name from? What is the significance of a ‘Boxing Day’ test?

It was the second query that lingered for some time. Much longer, in fact. And when I attained enlightenment, the Australians had started on what seemed like a never-ending ascendancy.

Wiki has this to say about the Boxing Day:

The celebration is traditional, dating back to the middle ages, and consisted of the practice of giving of gifts to employees, the poor, or to people in a lower social class. The name has numerous folk etymologies and the Oxford English Dictionary attributes it to the Christmas box the verb box meaning: "To give a Christmas-box (colloq.); whence boxing-day."

As India starts a much-anticipated series on 26th December 2007, it should not expect any such goodies or boxes from Australian team, even though in terms of cricketing prowess, they, along with most other teams, still count from amongst the ‘poor’ or the ‘lower social class’.

With its newly acquired muscle (read money) power, India has succeeded in forcing Australia (probably for the first time in years) to change its cricketing calendar and start the series on a ‘Boxing Day’. It bodes well, especially for the fans in India. Imagine a regular schedule, so, by the time the Aussie juggernaut reaches Melbourne, the series more often than not, is a dead one. Such has been Australian domination over the decade.

From my recollection, I cannot think of any team in last decade, that has gone into a Boxing day test with its slate clean, let alone being in the lead. India did that on their last tour, only to trip at the goal post.

Here’s something that might help them avoid a repeat:

Unlike ‘Boxing Day’, which had no connection whatsoever with the game, but has become a cricketing folklore since, ‘Patiala Peg’ actually owes its origin to cricket.

In its early days, cricket used to enjoy princely patronage in India. Maharajah of Patiala was one of the few royal bloods, who played the game on the field too. It was commonplace for the visiting English teams to play a friendly match against the ‘princely’ states. But the Maharajas simply loathed losing and so the visiting Irish team, supposedly stronger than the local team, was treated to extra large pegs of whisky on the eve of this match. Needless to say, the locals won the tie with ease, and Maharaja’s famous reply, "Yes, in Patiala our pegs are larger" became a part of cricketing history.

Indian team’s support staff has couple of days more to work behind the scenes and ensure the lead Aussie players guzzle a few ‘Patiala pegs’ on the test match eve.

Therein lies India’s best chance.