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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)

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