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Home > India > Cricket > Columns > Prem Panicker

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Blog: Echoes of victory

November 11, 2008

Is it just me, or do you get the feeling that the morning papers have been surprisingly unimaginative in celebrating a 2-0 series win over Australia [Images]-the first such instance since Clive Lloyd's [Images] marauders blanked Australia 3-0 in the late 1980s?

In Cricinfo, George Binoy looks at Ishant Sharma's man of the series-winning performance and points at a sea change that has gone largely unremarked: India no longer has to rely on spin to win matches at home. It's a good time for change: Anil Kumble [Images] is the last in a line of great Indian spinners who was unplayable in home conditions; India's discovery that it can use seam, swing and pace as potent weapons even in Indian conditions could not thus have come at a better time.

The real advantage, which should become increasingly apparent in time, is that this makes India a strong unit at home and abroad: the playing squad will almost invariably comprise of four seamers and two spinners, giving the captain the option of going in with a 3 seam, one spin combination, or two-seam one-spin, or even three seamers and two spinners or no spinner at all in a four-man attack, depending on the conditions and the nature of the opposition.

Ishant comes in for high praise from Steve Waugh in the Hindu:

However, the true superstar in the making is Ishant Sharma. India has unearthed a superb bowler in him. He has incredible accuracy, is fast, has height and is a quick learner. He reminds me of Glenn McGrath in his accuracy and of Jason Gillespie in his hand speed.

Cricketing transition is on Suresh Menon's mind, as he points out that in MS Dhoni [Images] and Amit Mishra, we have found the inheritors of the legacy of Anil the captain and Anil the bowler.

Steve Waugh underlines Ponting's day four captaincy with this pithy comment:

"Winning the Test match is what mattered. You have just spent six weeks in the subcontinent. You just don't take your foot off the gas."

Peter Roebuck is none too enamored of the tactics employed by the Indians in pursuit of the win:

But India stooped to conquer. Only 21.3 overs were bowled in the morning session, a ruse designed to slow the scoring and to bring bad light into play in the event of the Australians putting up a sustained fight.

Fieldsmen dawdled, the drinks break lasted seven minutes, balls were thrown over bowlers' heads, leather-flingers trudged back to their marks, an inexperienced captain took an eternity to set his field. Deliveries came along about once a week - an acceptable rate from Woolworths but not the stuff of positive cricket. In short, India went to the very edge of the laws of the game. Supporters may argue Australia have long followed this strategy but new champions must adopt the strengths of the deposed, not their faults.

If this is the best Test cricket has to offer, then it is not worth the bother. For all the weight it carries, it is still a game. Slow over-rates are a blight and an insult to the paying public. Hereafter, lunch must be taken not at a set time but once 30 overs have been bowled, with play to resume on schedule. That'll hurry things along.

I am not personally a fan of this 30-overs-a-session-regardless theme that has cropped up in the wake of the Nagpur Test. To mandate 90 overs a day is not just fair but necessary, and while on that, Steve Waugh has a point when he says it is time to crack down on the practice of batsmen whistling up drinks at will, under the pretext of getting a new pair of gloves or whatever-if the argument is that slow over rates bore fans, then imagine how it feels for the spectator to sit in the blistering sun watching a bunch of layabouts slowly sipping energy drinks out in the middle, about 10 minutes before a scheduled break in play.

But to insist that a team bowls 30 overs each session is to deny captains the proper use of the new ball. There is an electricity to watching fast bowlers with the shiny ball steaming in off a long run and letting fly; the contest between new ball-wielding fast bowler and opening batsmen is part of cricket's circadian rhythm and IMHO should not be disturbed. True, savvy captains will then manipulate the rules to bowl their overs slowly in, say, a situation where the opposition is likely to declare in course of the day-but that can be legislated against without creating an absolute session cap.

Greg Baum argues that by going micro in its thinking, Australia stifled its own imagination and with it, its chances.

Process is everything in modern sport. You don't kick a goal, you go through the process. You don't hit a cover drive for four, you go through the process. You don't consciously aim to shape a seven-iron left to right around a tree and stop it on the green, pin-high, you go through the proper damned process.

The theory is that if you follow process correctly, the result will look after itself. It is valid only to the extent that sport can be seen as a mechanical exercise: press this button, pull that lever, get a result. No instinct, no emotion, nothing visceral.

But sport at its best is organic, not mechanical. It is an experience, not a process, powered and animated as much by mental dexterity as muscle memory. When the Australian cricket team was at its best, it followed process, but also hunches and inspiration.

In concentrating all its thinking on its incredibly slow over rate on Sunday night, Ricky Ponting's [Images] team appeared to obsess itself with crossed Ts and properly dotted Is and neglected the essence of its mission in India. It failed where it was once infallible, in its imagination.

Gideon Haigh argues that a game of cricket needs to be judged in totality, and not on arbitrary statistical measures such as X overs per session or Y runs scored equals boredom. An extended clip:

Saturday's first session contained only 46 runs, but once the Indian tactics and Australian response were clear, each ball was loaded. A wicket or two would change everything. On the stroke of lunch, a reverse-swinging yorker from a toiling fast bowler in the eighth over of a persevering spell; an hour later, an acrobatic save and return by a tyro on his Test debut.

For the rest of the afternoon Australia's batsmen were like all the king's horses and men after Humpty-Dumpty's fall.

For the media to complain about the entertainment value on the basis of the runs scored was like a complaint against Picasso for using too few brush-strokes.

It betrays an unconscious imbibing of the crude assumptions behind Twenty20 [Images]: that cricket is only exciting when fours and sixes flow in endless profusion, and that people are too dumb to know better.

Sunday's final session turned the Test upside down, then inside out. Australia had chipped away at India in the afternoon and retrieved the initiative.

This they proceeded to hand back by referencing something beyond the boundary - the playing conditions of the International Cricket Council [Images], which hardly anyone need trouble to consult, but a small elite must know.

Onlookers felt the pressure escape like steam from a leaking valve. We were also granted an insight into the extraneous factors that play on a captain's mind, which require from him instant decisions, and expose him to blame and ridicule.

The criticism now came from a quite different quadrant - the notion that Test cricket is a matter of national honour and sporting pride; that one must risk defeat, or at least be prepared to incur expense, in order to win.

Here is a tension. We are anxious that Tests justify themselves as spectacle, but can't abandon the idea that more is at stake. It is a neurosis rooted in Twenty20's intimidating popularity, and Test cricket's abiding hold on our imaginations. In fact this Border-Gavaskar Trophy has given great value. Two exquisitely-matched teams with a lot of history and good cause to distrust one another have shown a ton of courage, skill and even civility.

Simon Barnes reframes the question: Are crowds or the lack thereof the true measure of the popularity of Test cricket?

The only thing that has marred the series has been the absence of anyone watching it at the grounds. These fraught matches, the frenzied appeals, the furious blows, the stupendous efforts have taken place against an eerie silence, the ball rocketing in among empty seats and the occasional abandoned bottles of the Indian soft drink Thums-Up.

It is like the tree that falls in the deserted forest: does it make any sound at all if there is no one there to hear it? I have no idea, that's the point of the question. The question of the primacy of Test cricket, then, is nothing to do with public demand. It is, as much as anything, a question of player demand.

Most players are agreed that the complexity and infinite variability of Test-match cricket make it the highest form of the game. It's just that fewer spectators are interested in the higher form of the game, at least as a paying spectacle. The primacy of Test cricket is being maintained, but it is for reasons other than spectacle or money.

Is it legitimate to run a professional sport for the pursuit of excellence? Is this pursuit more important than the pursuit of money? Is player satisfaction more important than the gratification of your clients? Do the beliefs of your core constituency matter more than the fleeting thrills of the floating voters? After England [Images] have played the one-day matches in India, they will play a Test "series" - two matches - which will be be much richer and more satisfying. It will also be poorly attended.

And that larger thought is the perfect grace note to end the Nagpur segment of this round-up with, and to move on to another: the exit of Sourav Ganguly [Images].

The front page of The Telegraph yesterday that goes well with this Soumya Bhattacharya piece on the ultimate Bengali icon; an extended interview in Outlook magazine; a collection of the best Ganguly articles published on Cricinfo; a rare VVS Laxman article celebrating his mate, circa 2004; and a post from Great Bong I remember from way back, that to my mind underlined the schism Sourav's arrival caused in India's cricket following public and more importantly, the media, which was divided into those who dared to criticize the player and captain, and those who would brook no criticism and who, at the slightest attempt to query, would launch into a defense based on cultural tropes coupled with a series of ad hominem attacks on the critic. To my mind, that was the essential irony of Sourav's cricketing career: On the cricket field and in the dressing room, he was in his prime the unifier India badly needed; off the field, within the media and the public, he was the divisive figure. The former was entirely his doing; the latter is in no way his fault.

I was tempted to write an addendum to this post. It is the fashion to rate captains on the basis of their win-loss record, but IMHO that is to take a narrow view of captaincy. MSD has just become the first Indian captain to win three straight Tests; add that to his ODI and T20 wins, does that make him our best captain ever? Not by a long chalk, not yet at all events.

The statistical measurement ignores the 'leadership' aspect of captaincy-and IMHO that is the most important-and lasting-attribute. A captain can have a good record, but the best of records will be subsequently broken by others. To my mind, the truly great captains bring an intangible to not just their teams, but to their country's cricketing mindset-something they alone are uniquely fitted to provide; something that gets enshrined in the dressing room, and is emulated, and even built on, by their successors.

In that sense, Sourav Ganguly's contribution was way more than those of other Indian captains I've followed, dating all the way back to Ajit Wadekar and including Azhar, Sachin, Rahul and Anil.

I could elaborate on that theme-but I had done a piece on this aspect when it was most fresh, and I'd rather leave you with that one, than recreate it all over again.

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