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India's problems of its own making
December 30, 2006
And so, after a hiatus of two days, on to Newlands, Cape Town.
After four days of largely attritive cricket, India go in to the final Test of the series with more minuses than pluses from this game -- and, ironically when you consider that India's batting is the more hyped facet of its cricket, the few pluses came from the bowlers.
On balance, you had to say India had the better of the exchanges on day one, when it was asked to bowl first and ended the day having reduced the home side to 257 for 8. And you can, with some justification, blame the umpiring for the fact that India was not in an even more dominant position.
But that was it -- India was very much an also ran on days two and three.
First with the ball, when the lead seamers in particular for once lost focus, and allowed the South African tail to add 71 runs for the last two wickets, in company of Ashwell Prince. And then with the bat, when it lost the openers cheap yet again, revived briefly through Tendulkar and Laxman, then collapsed for a sub-par 240. The pitch was better for batting than the one in Johannesburg; the team, however, failed collectively to show the application of the first Test, and surrendered the advantage.
Briefly, on the fourth morning, India fought back to cut the legs out from under the home team, a slew of six wickets in the extended pre-lunch session taking South Africa from a commendable 98 for no loss to 143 for six. Complacency seemingly set in, however, and India yet again surrendered a potentially winning advantage with the seamers bowling too short too often, and letting Shaun Pollock add an invaluable 122 with Andrew Hall and Morne Morkel.
That perhaps was the worst aberration: When Mark Boucher fell with the score on 143, the cumulative lead was just 231; there was the very real possibility that India could bowl South Africa out cheap, then go in to chase a target anywhere between 250-260.
In surrendering a potentially winning advantage, India underlined that its traditional problem -- an inability to maintain focus and to ride the momentum, that has in the past seen the team lose a Test immediately after winning one. Captain Rahul Dravid said at the end of the Johannesburg Test that the team was ready for the expected Proteas backlash; the pity was, there was no real backlash -- India's problems were of its own making.
The sole silver lining has been the bowling of the lead seamers. S Sreesanth ended the Test with eight wickets, four in each innings; his performance was marred only by a lapse of concentration (and line, and length, and direction) on the fourth afternoon, when SA got out of jail.
Zaheer Khan managed just three wickets in the Test; he has in the past bowled much worse for much better results. More than the figures in the wickets column, what was heartening was that he kept up his intensity throughout the game, remaining sharp and focussed in each of his spells.
Add to that the certainty that Munaf Patel will play the third Test (the caveat here is that after a month on the bench, his match form is an unknown quantity), and the bowling looks good, with Anil Kumble reverting to his patented role of bottling one end up, allowing the strike bowlers to rotate at the other.
The downside is, the batting does not look in as good a shape as the bowling -- and the problems begin at the top. Wasim Jaffer, in his two knocks in this Test, has shaped better, but it needs mentioning that the South African opening bowlers, with their insistence on bowling short, played into the hands of the predominantly back-foot opener, and failed to Test him with the fullish length that is his major vulnerability. Give the devil his due, you can't blame Jaffer for the lengths the opposition bowled; he can only play what he gets, so the jury will need to stay out on that one for a bit.
The case of Virender Sehwag is more clear cut. His form is woeful, his hand-eye coordination -- the biggest strength of a batsman who is not overly reliant on foot work and technique -- is at its worst, and his body language is that of a beaten man who doesn't know where, or how, his next run is coming from. Given the crucial importance of the Cape Town Test, the management will want to seriously consider benching the former vice captain, and letting Gautam Gambhir walk out with Jaffar; after all, the southpaw will be hungry enough, he could do better than Sehwag and god knows, he can hardly do worse.
Jury deliberations on Rahul Dravid will need to wait, too. Clearly, the Proteas are bowling to a plan; even Nel and Ntini abandon their short lengths and switch to the fuller ones as soon as he takes guard, indicating that they have identified Dravid's penchant for falling over as he plays around his pads as an exploitable weakness. We need, though, to see bowlers take him out to figure if that is true or not; in both innings this Test, the umpires have done all the hard yards.
Sachin Tendulkar, like the proverbial curate's egg, has been good in parts. Throughout the ODI series, the Indian number four had remained perched on top of the crease, seemingly reluctant to get that front foot out into line. He paid for that, and seemingly learnt his lesson: in the first innings of both Tests, the most noticeable facet of his batting has been a pronounced, early movement onto the front foot and immediately, he has begun stroking the ball with far greater assurance.
Just by way of underlining that point, in the second innings Tendulkar stayed half-cock to a ball not particularly short in length, and again paid the price, bent double in trademark fashion after being hit on the pad by an incoming ball from Ntini.
VVS Laxman played a very large hand in getting India into a winning position in the second innings of the first Test. His knock in the first innings at Durban was, in contrast, dour; the antithesis of his usual assured elegance.
What changed, was the opposition game plan: against a batsman who is very happy to come forward and drive, punch and flick, Ntini, Nel and Pollock took to peppering him with short stuff largely outside off, a ploy clearly aimed at forcing the batsman into strokelessness. He showed a lot of heart while gritting it out; the runs he made in the first innings helped narrow the lead; but on balance, he will need to find a way to counter the short pitched ploy to be a force in the third Test.
Rapid readjustment of bowling plans has been the leitmotif of the Sourav Ganguly story too, thus far. In the first innings of the first Test, the Proteas bowlers sent down a lot of deliveries that were short, and slanting across the southpaw: just the right line to provide the width Ganguly loves for his cuts and drives.
The bowlers tightened things up a bit in the second innings; here, in Durban, the change is complete, with the bowlers focussing on the short lifting delivery landing on off and either holding its line or jagging back in to cramp the batsman and threaten his body parts. As with Laxman, Ganguly will need to readjust his own game to cope with the altered strategy; much interest lies in watching whether, and how, he does that.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni's game is perhaps the hardest to get a handle on. When it is up, he is in his elements; when it is short, he is not. Fair enough, that also describes batsmen with far greater credentials, and experience. The problem, for Dhoni, has primarily been a lack of patience against the short stuff.
The South African game plan was clearly spelt out by coach Mickey Arthur: Choke up the runs, let that add to the pressure, and wait for the pressure to take wickets. Dhoni's best plan seems to be to turn the tactic back against the Proteas: How long, he can ask them in effect, do you want me to let balls go harmlessly over the stumps, or outside off? If you bowl there forever, I'll do it forever -- and you are the team that is behind in the series, so the onus is on you to try and change tack. In other words, patience is a game two can play -- and, in this case, should.
In three innings thus far (this is being written before close of play -- and irrespective of the result of -- day five of the second Test), Zaheer Khan has scored 48 with a high score of 37; VRV Singh 44 with a high of 29; Sreesanth 34 with a high of 28 and Kumble -- the sole disappointment in this regard -- a mere 7 with a high of 6.
In what has been a low-scoring series, there really is no need to elaborate on how vital runs from the tail is; it might help to drop a word, particularly, in Kumble's ear about this; the veteran can be very sticky when he is in the mood but thus far this series, said mood has been missing.
One final point: in Jo'burg, the fielders looked hungry, intent; they buzzed around, threw themselves at everything, and created pressure by their sheer energy. Here, the fizz was missing, so was the intensity -- and when you sleep-walk in the field, the results are predictable. They caught everything in the first Test, including some that had no business being caught; here, they spilt chances, threw shabbily, and in general failed to provide the bowling that extra edge.
Somewhere over the next couple of days, the Indian team will need to find time, in between the New Year's Eve revelry, to work on a whole laundry list of problems. And if winning an away series in South Africa isn't incentive enough to induce that effort, damned if I know what is.
PS: Newlands for me is unforgettable for one reason. We were still in the early days of doing live ball by ball commentary; it was agonising to detail the mauling in the first Test of the 1996-1997 series, and when India slumped to 50-something for five in the first innings of the second Test, the vu was very deja.
And then, out of the blue, came what Proteas legend Barry Richards, at the time, called the most sensational session of batting he had ever seen: The 222-run partnership between Mohammad Azharuddin (113) and Sachin Tendulkar (163), with 176 of those runs coming in a frenetic session between lunch and tea. Type as fast as you could, you found yourself a few deliveries, and as many fours, behind the action -- one of those rare moments in covering Indian cricket that you can think back on with unadulterated pleasure.
Predictably, the denouement was dismal, with India getting bowled out for 144 in the second innings (there we go again) to lose by 282 runs. Ah well -- as any Indian fan will tell you, the national team doles out joys in small doses, perhaps fearing that surfeit would jade our appetites.
India's tour of South Africa 2006: The Complete Coverage
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