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A drawn series this time is disappointing for India

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When South African captain Graeme Smith has to make a cheeky comment he usually goes ahead and makes it. At the post-match presentation in Newlands though he was a man at sea and he struggled for the right words. He rumbled about this and that in a hasty manner and was unsure whether to go forward or back. Then he said something to the effect that as a team we’ve managed to compete well with the best team in the world.

Begrudgingly, but he did sound like he meant it. Maybe he had to say it on a day when his bowling attack toiled for 82 overs on a fifth day wicket for three measly wickets. What was worse was they never looked like taking a wicket.

Disappointment was a word he chose not to dwell on. In 2008 in India he was more precise. Sample this from a news story: It must have been disappointing to lose at the brink of a major upset, but Smith said 1-1 was a result the hosts will be more disappointed with. “If we were playing India at home, and it was 1-1 we would be sitting in our dressing room a touch disappointed. Both teams are strong at home. We would obviously have loved to win the series, but we have played some terrific cricket so far in this season.”

When South Africa won the first Test in Centurion, Smith didn’t shy away from his customary verbal barrage. Check exhibit II: MS Dhoni, India’s captain, placed a lot of importance on the toss and the way the pitch played during the first two sessions on day one but Smith thought it was a case of too much hype. “I don’t think the wicket actually did that much. For a wicket that was under covers for four days, I thought it would do a bit more.” He added that the expectation of a bouncy wicket, and not the wicket itself, may have been what undid India. “In my mind, I think India expected more from the wicket than what actually happened. They were tentative and were on the back foot a lot of the time.”

Then Smith tried to rub salt on India’s wounds when he said that he expected more of a fight from India on the final morning and was surprised at how easily the last two wickets came. He was pointing to the fact that Sachin Tendulkar didn’t try to farm the strike and exposed the tailenders to the South African quicks.

Smith also took a dig at Harbhajan Singh when rating Paul Harris’ performance. “If you compare him to Harbhajan, the way he controlled the game for us was brilliant. Paul gets written off every series, whether it is the opposition, or the media, everyone seems to bad-mouth him or write him off. He always seems to find a key way to do something for us, to allow other people to do big things. In our dressing room, too, he plays a big part.”

For starters let’s give credit where it is due. The South African team has been the only consistently-competitive international team to tour the subcontinent in the last decade; and this despite the fact that they’ve never really had a genuine spinner. They won a two Test series in 2000 when India’s batting was insipid and South Africa’s attack had bite. This was prior to Graeme Smith entering the South African dressing room. India won the two Test series in 2004 but the fact that South Africa managed to draw a Test was also considered an achievement as at that time a result of 2-0 in favour of the hosts was the pre-series expectation.

In 2008 and in 2010 the South African team was leading the series before the final game and on both occasions India came back and squared it. On both the occasions South Africa won the toss in the deciding game yet could not manage to prevent India from winning. At the Eden Gardens in 2010 they were sitting on 218 for 1 and there were no gremlins in the wicket. South Africa was one up in the series and AN Petersen and Hashim Amla had scored flowing hundreds at a strike-rate of over 60. Then followed a passage of play that is hard to describe on a benign first-day surface and nine wickets fell for the addition of 78 runs—thirty-five of them courtesy the last wicket partnership. That’s where you say that the wicket didn’t do too much and it was all in the mind.

Eden Gardens can be intimidating and in the din that day the South African batsmen froze. Ashwell Prince and J.P. Duminy went to successive and identical deliveries and A.B. de Villiers ran himself out. India made 643 for six and scored at a rate of 4.20 runs per over. Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel combined gave 230 runs and shared three wickets but not one of them was that of a key Indian batsmen. South Africa tried batting time the second time and Amla scored an unbeaten hundred but no one else crossed 25 and India won by an innings and 57 runs. It wasn’t even a rank turner of the kind they got in Kanpur when India squared the series in 2008.

The wicket was damp in Centurion and India had not played a tour game and when they lost the toss it was tough going on their first outing in South African conditions. India backed this claim with performance and got 459 runs in their second outing in Centurion. They again lost the toss in Durban but applied themselves better to get 205 and then on a distinctly South African surface bundled the hosts for 131 in better batting conditions. The series was levelled in Durban.

Compare this to South Africa in India in 2010. They won the toss in both the matches and had scored 558 runs in the first Test in Nagpur and won it by an innings and six runs before they came to the Eden Gardens. You would have to say that they were acclimatised. The pressure was on India yet it was South Africa that wilted. Ditto in 2008 in Kanpur.

In Centurion India also missed the leader of their attack Zaheer Khan and the impact of it cannot be overstated. It is the same as Steyn missing for South Africa. Had Steyn missed the first or the third Test the series would have gone in India’s favour as he broke crucial partnerships in Centurion and brought the game to an even keel in Cape Town with his brilliant burst with the second new ball.

Dhoni has had an exceptional home leg where India has beaten virtually every team they’ve played. If you ask him he’ll perhaps tell you that India is more disappointed with the 1-1 result than South Africa as in Cape Town only India was in a position that could have resulted in a win. The South Africans had no scent of it.

In Cape Town India missed the moment whereas South Africa never had that moment. There is no such thing as over attack when a team is at 130 for 6 or even at 64 for four. With the series on the line India should have gone for the kill but unlike Durban they allowed the game to drift.

South Africa has failed to register a series win at home for the third successive season but that was not something that Smith was worried about. He instead rued the fact that the wicket didn’t do much on the fifth day though it was the same one where South Africa were six down for 130 on the fourth day.

At the end of the series Dhoni said if the side had applied itself a little better in Centurion, where they disintegrated on a damp pitch, the series would have looked completely different. There is every reason to believe that what he says has merit because India had the better of South Africa in both the Tests after that. Deep down Smith would know that a 1-1 result this time around is a lucky escape for him but he wouldn’t be cheeky enough to come out and say it.

This piece was first published in The Sunday Guardian, Delhi’s only Sunday newspaper, on January 9, 2011 and can be accessed via this link to the paper’s website.

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The Cobra Strikes In Mamba Land

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Durban will no longer be synonymous with a meek Indian capitulation. That India came out and defied all odds to leave South Africa in tatters at Kingsmead is perhaps the biggest confirmation of the fact that this team never gives up.

Durban has not been a happy hunting ground for India. Back in 1996 the Indian team had one of its worst defeats at Kingsmead where the fiery Allan Donald supported by the menacingly-accurate Shaun Pollock ran through the Indian batting line-up in both the innings. India could not last 40 overs in either innings and collapsed to 100 in the first and 66 in the second innings. It was not a high scoring game and yet India lost by a massive 328 runs.

On India’s last tour to South Africa in 2006, they came to Durban for the Boxing Day Test after having won the first Test comfortably at the Wanderers in Johannesburg. Almost a day’s play was lost to rain and bad light and India just had to survive about two sessions to eke out a draw and head to Cape Town maintaining their lead. South Africa hustled India in under two sessions on a rain interrupted day where a little more resistance from the top order would have made it much easier for the lower order to hang in there when the light was fading fast.

This time India came to Durban with not just its past history of struggling against the bounce of Kingsmead but also after a drubbing in the first Test at Centurion. There is no denying the fact that India got the worst of the conditions at Centurion. With a wicket that did much more on the first day than it did on any of the subsequent ones and despite a good batting performance in the second innings India lost by an innings and 25 runs.

Shaun Pollock was asked after Centurion: “One up, two to play. How difficult would it be for India to come back from here?” Pollock replied, “It’s massive. I really can’t see them coming back. When you watch their performance, just the four test wickets that they got in this match, I am not too sure where they are going to get the 20 wickets from.”

The South Africans can’t complain that India didn’t give them enough warning that things could change and that they could change drastically. In Nagpur earlier this year South Africa won the toss and put 558 runs on the board. Dale Steyn ran through the Indian line-up picking 7 for 51 in India’s first innings and then another three in the second to set up South Africa’s win by an innings and six runs.

The action then moved to Eden Gardens in Kolkata with India’s number one Test ranking at stake. South Africa won another important toss and they were coasting at 218 for 1, looking set to bat India out of the game. South Africa may have heard about and prepared for an Indian comeback in Kolkata but then nothing prepares you for the kind of madness that took place that day. South Africa slumped to 298 all out; at a crucial juncture they lost five middle-order wickets for the addition of four runs. Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar, V V S Laxman, and M S Dhoni scored centuries as India declared at 643 for 6 and then bowled South Africa under 300 again to win by an innings and 57 runs.

That was in familiar conditions at home and this has been in alien conditions suiting the South Africans completely where India was also pegged back having lost another vital toss. Smith smiled on his luck and South Africa decided to insert India in. In overcast conditions India came out to combat the swing, seam and bounce that Steyn and Morne Morkel got on a fresh wicket that had a bit of moisture. It was a better batting effort but not enough to be out of the woods till the bowlers came and ripped open the Test.

If Centurion wasn’t a 136-run wicket, as the South Africans kept saying, then was Kingsmead a 131-run wicket on a sunny day when the bowlers got less assistance? Zaheer Khan led the attack brilliantly and the Indian team caught fabulously to take a very handy 74-run lead. The game, once again, seemed to be on an even keel when India was reduced to 56 for four. And then, like a colossus, V V S Laxman stood up and steered India to a lead of over 300 with his brilliant 96 on a wicket where the second highest score from either team in both innings was 39.

The way the Indians bowled as a unit is something South Africa would be wary of before heading to Cape Town. It was on the fourth morning when they gave nothing away that the South African team wilted under pressure. Runs were plugged from both ends as Sreesanth bowled his best spell of the tour and Harbhajan Singh bowled with such control that one wondered if he had the ball on a leash.

The abiding memory of the Test would be the dismissal of Jacques Kallis. Sreesanth got the ball to dart in from a length and venomously leap like a cobra towards Kallis’ head. Kallis was airborne and like a supreme athlete his body was arched like a human C but he couldn’t do anything but glove the ball with sheer survival instinct. The ball ballooned to Sehwag at gully and Kallis was on his way. Allan Donald said on television that it was a ball that had Kallis’ name on it and what made it such an impossible one to deal with was the fact that it did so much so quickly that the batsman had absolutely no time.

South Africa was a cock-a-hoop after Centurion and they were undone by an absolutely brilliant performance by the Indian team at Durban. All this bodes well for Cape Town, where the South Africans will be smarting from the defeat at Kingsmead and the Indians will be well aware that this could be their opportunity to finally win a test series in the African nation. The return of Gautam Gambhir augurs well for the visitors and this time it will be the South Africans who’ll need to do a bit of soul searching.

(This piece was first done for The Sunday Guardian website on December 30, 2010)

Magical Durban Test On A Knife’s Edge

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It’s still anybody’s game. Although India are certainly better placed having accounted for three wickets and still having a cushion of enough runs (South Africa need 192 more to win) to get the remaining seven. The pendulum would have swung heavily in India’s favour had Cheteshwar Pujara been able to hold on to a very tough chance when Kallis was yet to open his account and South Africa were 86 for three.

In the 11 balls that Kallis played before getting off the mark he survived three anxious moments. After that tough chance Zaheer Khan was pretty close to getting his man when Kallis almost nicked the first ball of the 21st over of the innings and was then lucky that his mistimed pull on the fourth ball did not carry to Tendulkar at mid on.

South Africa had earlier got off to a flying start with Smith in particular finding the boundary easily. The new ball did not work for India and South Africa raced to 60 for no loss in 12 overs. The 15 overs after that were fruitful and three wickets fell for the addition of 51 runs. For India it is a game of patience now and they would need to bowl in good areas consistently and then take their chances. If they stick to a plan and make it difficult for South Africa to get runs then they have a better chance of making the batsmen commit errors. The first hundred runs have come rather easily for the South Africans and India can take better control of proceedings if they can stem the flow of runs.

In the morning South Africa got off to a perfect start when Morne Morkel removed Pujara in the first full over of the day with just a run added to the overnight score. MS Dhoni walked to the crease and played with the same assuredness that he has displayed throughout in this series. VVS Laxman, who was looking in supreme touch, and Dhoni put on 48 quick runs to extend the lead above 200. South Africa again came back in the game strongly with two quick wickets and Laxman on 47 was again in the difficult situation of taking his team to some kind of security. And once again Laxman did the business brilliantly.

It was just a matter of finding someone to give him support and Laxman would have done the rest and this time that support came from Zaheer. The partnership started with Zaheer trying to heave a couple of deliveries in typical cross-batted and lower order style. Then he calmed down and there is all the reason to believe that it was the presence of Laxman that led to Zaheer applying himself. The partnership added 70 invaluable runs before Zaheer perished in the post lunch session. Ishant fell in quick succession and running out of partners Laxman was the last to go four runs short of his century but having taken his team a couple of runs over 300. It promises to be a match winning and series levelling innings. If that happens then it will be another addition to the priceless gems that he has produced with amazing consistency.

India have been at the top of the ICC Test rankings for almost a full year now but having played most of their cricket in the subcontinent South Africa was always going to be their first real test. No matter what they say India needed a couple of good tour games and then some luck. Their plight was exacerbated by the fact that they got to bat when the wicket was at its liveliest in Centurion and perhaps in Durban as well.

It no longer sounds like an excuse because now India have bowled South Africa out for 131 when the sun was out and the wicket was playing much better than what is was when India got 205 in their first innings in Durban. Harbhajan Singh saying that India was well-prepared for the series but not for a wet wicket has much more weight now as they batted well in the second innings in Centurion and have bowled and caught spectacularly in Durban on Monday. Whether India was undercooked is now debatable. Monday’s performance in the field was worthy of their number one ranking. They’ve come from being miles behind after the hammering in Centurion to sting South Africa badly. It remains to be seen whether they can turn the wound they inflicted in the first innings into a fatal blow in the second but regardless they have at least maintained their reputation by bowling South Africa out for 131 in decent batting conditions.

The bowling performance in Durban on Monday was delightful. It was as if Durban had turned into Eden Gardens where India squared the series after being blown away in Nagpur the last time the South Africans travelled to India. As has been the case with most of India’s superb bowling performances in the last few seasons it was Zaheer who gave a lion-hearted performance. For the first hour or so he toiled single-handedly taking out both the openers and being miserly with runs. The runs leaked from the other end though as Sreesanth was all over the place in his first spell. Then came the piece of luck that comes when whatever you touch is turning to gold and Jacques Kallis was short of his crease at the non-striker’s end when a firm hit from Amla brushed past Ishant Sharma’s hand and dislodged the bails. The short session became sweeter as Sreesanth produced a ripper of a delivery to get rid of de Villiers for a duck. The score at lunch read 74 for 4.

The magic started post lunch when Zaheer came to bowl his second spell and Harbhajan his first. Pressure was building from both ends and four runs came in three overs. Harbhajan struck with the first ball of his second over and trapped Amla leg before with a straighter one. From the other end Zaheer bowled two top quality overs to make Ashwell Prince unsure before nailing him in the third. Two more tight overs followed and then Harbhajan produced a magic over, the kind he does when he gets a wicket early in his spell. Steyn nicked a straighter one and Dravid took an unbelievably good catch at first slip. Four balls later Pujara at short leg took a sharp chance to send Harris back; South Africa sank to 103 for 8.

Then Harbhajan took a beauty at fine leg off Sharma’s bowling to end a small partnership between Morkel and Boucher. Next over he completed the formalities by getting Tsotsobe. South Africa 131 all out in 37.2 overs.

In the second innings India was coasting at 42 for no loss after nine overs and the South African bowling was looking flat. Steyn was out of the attack having conceded 21 runs in three overs and the openers were looking settled. Sehwag then went for a tempter well wide of his off stump and edged it to Boucher. Next over Vijay got a nasty ball from Morkel that reared up towards his head from a tad short of a length and had him fending in an awkward fashion. The ball ballooned up and Amla took an easy catch at short leg.

Then there were two moments of indiscretion from India’s most-experienced campaigners. And it was disappointing to see. The very next over in rather uncharacteristic fashion Rahul Dravid chased a wide one from Tsotsobe and nicked it to the keeper. From 42 for no loss and South Africa looking hapless it became 48 for 3 with India under pressure. Laxman walked out to join Tendulkar who was batting on four having cracked a short delivery from Morkel to the point boundary to get off the mark.

Tendulkar does not have a good record in Durban and it is his poor performances in Kingsmead that are mainly responsible for his overall record in South Africa being below par. The partnership lasted just 16 balls and Tendulkar was snaffled at third slip of the first ball of Steyn’s second spell. It wasn’t an edge it was rather an uncontrolled steer from the face of the blade. Steyn did him in with pace as Tendulkar was late for the stroke and couldn’t get on top of it for the drive. The shot was on but with just a few deliveries under his belt Tendulkar was not accustomed to the wicket that had quickened up a bit.

Laxman and Pujara took the score to 92 at stumps on day two with some sensible batting. Tendulkar has had a poor Test with the bat after a long time and with the kind of form he is in his presence would have made a lot of difference to the team in either innings. That’s why they say that sometimes good form can be your undoing as you tend to play aggressively without first getting used to the wicket.

Despite the great bowling performance on Monday the argument for poor preparation for the tour remains. Teams come with detailed plans and they plot well in advance on how to bring down the opponent in his own den but India seems to be an exception. It is only the television channels who seem to do the preparation by building the series up as India’s Final Frontier. How on earth do you otherwise explain the inclusion of journeymen like Jaidev Unadkat, Wriddhiman Saha, and Umesh Yadav. Was this really a tour where two uncapped players and the third a veteran of one Test had to be unleashed?

Tendulkar’s 50th century is definitely a landmark to be celebrated in isolation but it does nothing to ease the pain of a complete drubbing in the first Test. The wicket at Centurion was a perfect surface when India batted second and they got off to a great start before throwing it away. Having seen off the new ball threat Sehwag blew it away by being rash. Gambhir, Dravid, and Dhoni were wickets South Africa earned by their brilliant bowling but India was dented by a couple of casual dismissals.

Pujara should ideally have been drafted in during the New Zealand series and he would have been battle ready come South Africa. From the looks of it he seems to have both skill and temperament and he needs an extended run to be judged. MS Dhoni has shown guts in all his outings and the top six should take a leaf out of his book.

If India square the series in Durban then both teams will have all to play for in Cape Town. And if South Africa manage to chase the total then the series would be sealed in Durban and Cape Town would be a battle for the Number 1 ranking.

Why Cricket Needs A New Game Plan

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They are as sick that surfeit with too much, as they that starve with nothing.
— The Merchant of Venice

When Christopher Martin-Jenkins used this Shakespearean beginning to cry out for less cricket in 2003 the world was not going through as acute a food crisis or as humungous a surfeit of cricket entertainment as it is now. Twenty20 was not even in the womb and a private enterprise like the IPL was nowhere in the distant horizon.

“The media have to take it on the chin: we make a lifelong living from the game and there are ways of sharing the load. But for players there is sometimes no way off the treadmill,” Jenkins wrote. In six years after that we have crossed many oceans and packed double the amount of cricket in half the time and the ‘whole cricket system is blinking red’ and needs urgent attention and a solid roadmap.

What Cricket needs is a convention that considers all issues and takes a comprehensive look at the state of the game; something that can be metaphorically-likened to world leaders trying to grapple with global warming and the threat it poses to our planet. Left unattended the game would flow towards instant gratification and instant super-stardom as the pot of gold for new generation fans and the younger players respectively.

Just see the number of injuries on the circuit and the number of careers that could have been great but are just footnotes now and you’ll get the point. Are the administrators in their hurry failing to take care of the goose that lays golden eggs? Fast bowlers are fast becoming a dying breed and we’ve already seen a few express ones bowing out of Test cricket.

In this milieu the discussion between Harsha Bhogle, Sanjay Manjrekar, Lalit Modi, and Gideon Haigh in Time Out for Cricinfo has been refreshing and heartening. Lalit Modi spoke about just a seven-week window for the shortest form and how Test cricket is the most important form of the game.

“Test cricket is, actually, the highest-paying entity for the board. Test cricket is actually our bread and butter, which people don’t understand. We are never going to compromise on Test cricket. In fact, our viewership is high for Test cricket. When I talked about doing something for Test cricket, it’s for other countries where Test cricket is going down. In India, our ratings are going up. We are tracking that year by year, it’s going much better for us, and in fact we get paid highest for Test cricket,” said Lalit Modi.

As surprising as the Modi quote may seem it can’t beat the one given by Sanjay Manjrekar: “The fact is that the IPL, at the moment, is the most popular cricket product we have. And it’s something we’ve got to respect. It has also shown Test cricket and 50-overs cricket what they are lacking.

I think it’s important to have more and more people getting interested in sport, more and more countries getting interested in the sport. For the last 10-15 years, we haven’t seen too many countries seriously getting into cricket. So that tells you a bit about 50-overs cricket and Test match cricket. Maybe Twenty20 and IPL can start doing that.”

That tells me just one thing: Sanjay Manjrekar has lost it.

Is cricket a trade that more and more people and countries should get interested in it? Maybe Twenty20 can foster greater understanding between the US and Afghanistan or between US and Iraq. And it would be great for humanity if the Taliban and the Coalition Forces meet each other on a cricket field and leave the battlefield for good. If that happens then I’ll be the first person to celebrate and embrace Twenty20 as the global unifier.

For the sub-continent it may prove to be the biggest boon—the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline project can be negotiated at the toss— as Twenty20, generally, and IPL, specifically, may bring Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India together. You’ve also got the perfect advertisement ready: IPL achieves what the IPI could not.

The circle was complete when the US joined the league and thus brought all stakeholders in the War on Terror together under the gospel of Twenty20. Europe is easy with England, Ireland and Holland already playing cricket and the ECB can be given the responsibility to get new recruits. Afghanistan has already played the United States in a Twenty20 game on February 11, 2010. Maybe IPL is the way out from the human condition. Maybe.

Manjrekar sees the last 10 to 15 years as bleak for cricket because there have been no serious new converts but he forgets to check that cricket history is over 132-years-old and we all know why eight countries are seeped in a cricketing culture.

When people who have played Test cricket start saying things like we need more countries getting interested in the sport and when Test cricket’s premier bowler of the last two decades lavishes praise without context then it makes me wonder just how much money is the IPL generating for everyone to say it is the greatest thing to happen to mankind since the wheel.

Even if the shorter form is good and caters to the taste of the majority it would be worth considering that Shakespeare hit the nail on the head when he said: An overflow of good converts to bad.

The Unrivalled Tendulkar And The Pugnacious Ponting

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Daryll Cullinan during commentary in the first Test at Nagpur brought out an interesting statistic and shared it with L. Sivaramakrishnan and asked the former India leg spinner what he thought about it. Cullinan said that when Ricky Ponting scored his first Test hundred Sachin Tendulkar had 11 and since then Ponting has scored 38 hundreds while Tendulkar has made 35 (now 36) so who do you think is the better batsman.

Interestingly Cullinan did not say anything explicitly but made his choice apparent by his line of questioning in which he challenged the assertion of Siva, who picked Tendulkar, by things like match-winning knocks and scores on bowling-friendly wickets and performance in big matches etc.

It is essentially a subjective judgement, with all due respect to statistics, but one can use facts to build an argument like Cullinan did. I’ll pick the Test Cullinan spoke about, where Tendulkar got his 11th Test match hundred, and use a way different to the one he used to make a comparison. It was a Test match that started on January 2, 1997 and Cullinan played in that game which South Africa won by 282 runs at Cape Town. Tendulkar was a ‘23-year-old veteran’ and the captain of his team and he made 169; an innings that began in complete crisis and helped India avoid a follow on after SA had put 529 on board.

After the Cape Town Test, Tendulkar had 3284 runs in 47 Tests (72 innings) at an average of 50.52 with 11 hundreds and 15 fifties and 179 as his highest score. At the same juncture of 47 Tests (74 innings) Ricky Ponting had 2830 runs at 42.87 with 8 hundreds and 14 fifties and 197 as his highest score.

The age is an important issue here and Ponting was just a month or so shy of being 21 when he made his debut while Tendulkar was 16-and-a-half. Why is age an issue? At 21, the body of an athlete is better prepared for the rigours of international cricket and at 16 it is more vulnerable to them.

My point here is not destiny but the simple observation that cricket at the junior level is organised age-wise, unless someone is exceptionally-talented—a 22-year-old, in all likelihood, would hammer the attack if clubbed with the under-16 team. Shouldn’t the first 47 Tests of the career of Tendulkar, where he grew from being 16 plus to 23 plus, compare unfavourably with the first 47 Tests of Ponting, where Ponting grew from almost 21 to around 27? The records present a totally-different picture. Tendulkar took only a couple of seasons to dazzle like an exquisite, polished and rare diamond; a Kohinoor. And he got world-wide recognition early in his career. It is difficult to choose between Brian Lara and Tendulkar as they are both natural and brilliant in their own way.

Ponting was a late bloomer and an average player till as late as about the end of 2001 and it was only in 2002 that his batting started to flower. In 2004 Tendulkar had a freak injury and then another one and he went under the knife twice and that cost him the better part of three seasons—the comparison started only when Ponting began scaling the Everest and Tendulkar began falling in a bottomless gorge.

Coming back to international cricket after lengthy breaks and to get going again is a very demanding task and though Tendulkar found his mojo in 50-over cricket he looked a pale shadow of his former self in the Test matches. The rub of the green also went against him a few times and on one rare fluent day he got a howler from Steve Bucknor at the Eden Gardens; he had got a reprieve in the previous match in Mohali so it did even out in that sense. What caused Tendulkar and his fans the anguish was the fact that he was getting his rhythm going after a long period? There was an outcry in India with the 2003 decision that Bucknor gave in Brisbane also boomeranging. A newspaper summed up the mood with a big bold headline saying ‘BUCKNORED’.

Christian Ryan wrote an evocative piece headlined ‘An Australian sort of hero’, when Tendulkar completed 20 years in international cricket, describing the maiden first-class innings of Tendulkar in Australia: “From the beginning, the relationship was about something bigger than admiration and affection. When Sachin Tendulkar set foot in Australia he brought with him rain.”

Lismore, on the far north hippie trail of New South Wales, was the strange location for Tendulkar’s maiden first-class innings in Australia. Lismore had not seen heavy rain in months. And when the Indian team arrived on a Friday, November 1991, it poured all morning. The net session was cancelled but the three-day match began on the scheduled Saturday, November 23: “Conditions were grey overhead and green underfoot, which made predicting the ball’s flight path tricky. The bowling was top-shelf—Whitney, Lawson, Holdsworth, Matthews, Waugh, Waugh—and the batting a little gormless, all except for the one who was 18.
Under the Oakes Oval pines he took careful guard, his head still, his footsteps like tiny, precise pinpricks, going backwards mostly, unless the bowler overpitched. Fifteen hundred people saw this, the great Alan Davidson among them. Davo was dumbfounded: “It’s just not possible… such maturity.”

Tendulkar hit 82 that afternoon, when no one else passed 24, then 59 out of 147 in the second innings. When Australians hear Indians grouch about their hero going missing in an emergency and having no appetite for a scrap, it always comes as a shock.”

What would be the position of Cullinan if asked to comment on whether Australia had the best bowling attack for the better part of two decades; an attack having phenomenal bite. It is an answer that Ponting can’t give because for no fault of his he never had to face up to them. For that answer we can look at Tendulkar; and much as I hate doing this at Cullinan as well.

Cullinan has a batting average of 12.75 against Australia and against Australia in Australia it further dips to 4.42 with 10 as his highest score. Harbhajan Singh has a better record than that with four fifties and an average of 21.83 against the Aussies; Cullinan missed having a fifty against the Aussies by 3 runs. The Aussie attack had his number and was just too good for him.

The first time he came up against them Craig McDermott nailed him for a duck; the same McDermott who told South African fast bowler Allan Donald that Tendulkar was going to be the best. And the same Donald who first bowled at Tendulkar in an ODI at the Eden Gardens and said that it was blatantly clear (Tendulkar made 60 plus) that he was going to be a player to remember.

“He is No. 1 in my book—the best player I have ever had the privilege of bowling to. There’s Steve Waugh and there’s Brian Lara, who was wonderful in 1995, but Tendulkar is a class above, consistently special,” Donald said.

Sachin Tendulkar averages 56.08 against Australia with 10 hundreds and 11 fifties; and against Australia in Australia his average goes up to 58.53. The bowler who tormented Cullinan the most admitted to having nightmares about Tendulkar stepping out and hitting him for a six over his head from the rough outside the leg stump on wickets suited for spin bowling.

The genius leg spinner paid the ultimate tribute: “Sachin Tendulkar is, in my time, the best player without doubt—daylight second, Brian Lara third.” What can be bigger than what the Australian captain Mark Taylor said after the three-Test series in 1998 and the ODI series after it in Sharjah: “We did not lose to a team called India…we lost to a man called Sachin.”

On the instinct of Tendulkar, Ryan wrote: “Every bolt and screw in the Tendulkar technique seemed put there to aid the getting of runs. Tendulkar was a run-getting machine, except no machine could also be so graceful—or instinctive, for that’s what it was, instinct, which told him that the way to bat was to attack. He didn’t learn this. He knew it, inside himself. Runs were what counted.

…You occasionally hear it said wistfully that Tendulkar is the Australian Shane Warne could have been. It is a neat line but it undersells what they have in common. For if any two modern cricketers might be soul mates, it is Warne and Tendulkar, grandmasters of their arts. Bowling legspin comes as naturally to Warne as batting does to Tendulkar, which is to say, as naturally as the rest of us find breathing.”

Tendulkar now is a batting sage. To see him build an innings brick by brick, by keeping the good balls out and dispatching the bad ones to the boundary, is a deep and fulfilling joy that no amount of slam bam cricket can give. He is solid in defence but not dour; that phase where he just hung around and looked purposeless is long gone.

In the 50-over game he can still play the innings of a lifetime. Just look at his masterful performances after the 2007 World Cup; after six scores in the nineties he broke the jinx by an unbeaten match-winning 117 in the first Commonwealth Bank Series final in Sydney while chasing and made 91 in the second final at Brisbane to beat Australia at home. He made 163 not out and left the crease when he had a chance to get to a double hundred against New Zealand as he did not want to take a chance with a minor niggle flaring up before the Test matches. Then he made 138 in a final against Sri Lanka in Colombo.

Four match-winning knocks and three of them in tournament finals but it didn’t stop there and he produced another magical innings of 175 against Australia in Hyderabad that almost single-handedly carried India to the mammoth target of 350 and with a little more support it was an innings that would have seen India through.

Sunil Gavaskar, the other genius in the history of Indian batting, described how Tendulkar just practised the cradle movement on the morning India was to bat at the Eden Gardens; just the forward and back foot defence. Just that. Apart from the brief period, where physical injuries perhaps hampered the ‘psychological’ approach of Tendulkar, scoring runs comes as naturally to him as maternal affection to a new mother.

Ricky Ponting, the best exponent of the pull shot, has done much better in South Africa and in the middle part of this decade. Tendulkar has not had that kind of success against South Africa. The Little Master, though, is in a league of his own; a league that even the great Sir Donald Bradman didn’t mind sharing.

Back To Where It All Began

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The South African cricket team has always done well in India after their return to international cricket at a packed house in Eden Gardens, Calcutta on November 10, 1991. It was an ODI that India won while chasing 178 but the result of the game was insignificant compared to the significance of the occasion.

In subsequent years South Africa has given India the toughest challenge at home in Test cricket. After the last Test in Nagpur the South African team is up 5-4 in their overall record in India in 11 Test matches. In contrast, India’s record in South Africa becomes worth mentioning only because in their last tour India managed to win a Test; their first and only one at the New Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg. The overall record in 12 Test matches is a dismal one win against six losses.

In year 2000 South Africa registered their first series win in India by winning the Tests in Mumbai and Bangalore. India won the 2004 series 1-0 after the visitors managed to draw the first Test in Kanpur with Andrew Hall opening the innings and making a resolute 163. Harbhajan Singh bowled India to victory at the Eden Gardens taking seven wickets in the South African second innings.

The 2008 series was a three-Test series that started with a high-scoring draw in Chennai. South Africa batted first and made 540 and India replied with 627; on the back of Sehwag’s second triple hundred (319 runs in 304 balls; his was the second wicket to fall with India’s total at 481). South Africa took a 1-0 lead in Ahmedabad where India was dismissed for 76 in the first innings that lasted exactly 20 overs; Dale Steyn picked 5 and Ntini and Morkel 3 and 2 respectively.

South Africa made 494 with Kallis getting a hundred and de Villiers an unbeaten double hundred. India lost by an innings and 90 runs after getting 328 in the second innings. It was India’s worst home defeat in 50 years and if there was any positive to come out of it then it was an 87 by Sourav Ganguly, whose fate was hanging in balance after a duck in the first innings and not much in the three Tests prior to Ahmedabad. The innings ensured that Ganguly would live to fight another day.

It proved to be the vital difference for India as it was the defiance of Ganguly that went a long way in helping India level the series at Kanpur. The wicket was a rank turner and South Africa made 265 batting first. Ganguly made an attacking 87 in India’s first innings with one senior and neutral commentator calling it as the best innings he had seen on a turning wicket. Ganguly ensured that in his last Test against South Africa he played a stellar role just like he had in his return to the fold during his warm-up 83 in Potchefstroom; an innings that paved the way for his remarkable Johannesburg comeback.

The 2006-07 Indian tour to South Africa is a perfect example of how to throw the advantage without resistance. After Johannesburg came the debacle of Durban; where at one point India could have pushed for victory and at all points could have fought for a draw but South Africa prevailed despite almost a day being lost to bad light and rain. India was all out in 55.1 overs as the light was dropping sharply on the fifth and final day of the Test. Half-an-hour of defiance from the top order would have made it so much easier for those in the lower order who went down fighting.

If Perth has become the symbol of prevailing in adversity then Cape Town and Durban are inexplicable debacles showing lack of self belief and failure to build the advantage for a historic away win. Dinesh Karthik opened the innings in Cape Town with Wasim Jaffer and Sehwag batted lower down the order. The move was a great success as the pair added 153 before Karthik fell for 63. India made 414 with Sehwag getting 40 in 50 balls at number 7. What could have been a decisive lead was whittled out by Boucher and Pollock combining towards the end and SA finished with 373 on the board. Sehwag had repeatedly failed at the top of the order and did reasonably-well when used at number 7 in the first innings yet the ploy was not used the second time around. The second innings woes of Tendulkar didn’t help the Indian cause though he scored runs consistently in the first innings. More than the runs and the wickets what separated the two teams was hunger and doggedness and South Africa did better on both counts.

Having come out of a match where they were comprehensively beaten in all departments of the game India now go to the Eden Gardens with a series loss at home and the number one Test ranking at stake. They have everything to play for and they could do well to remember that this ground produced a cricketer who many a times produced a gem when the odds were stacked against him and the team’s fortune was hanging by the width of a thread.

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