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March 14, 2001

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Silent assassin strikes Aussies

Prem Panicker

This is what I wrote yesterday, in my match report: "India are still 20 short, with the last recognised pair at the crease between the Aussies and the Indian tail. It is possible for India to wipe out that deficit, then put another 250 on the board, and really push the Aussies against the wall, in the fourth innings. It is also possible for me to walk on water, and then convert a jugful of that same water into sparkling champagne."

India managed to do the impossible quite comfortably. I, for my part, failed -- glub! -- my own bid to walk on water. Heck, never mind -- the first miracle was the one that really mattered, right?

Flippancy aside, the fourth day's play at the Eden Gardens needs to be shaped into a talisman, and hung around the necks of every single Indian who plays, or aspires to play, for the country. For in course of a marathon batting effort, the Indians dusted off a few cobweb-entangled corners of their own minds, faced down a few demons, and fanned into flames that that tiny spark of self-respect.

The story of the day was the story of two men -- and ah, what joy to use the word 'man' to a member of this team, and be able to mean it! In a little touch of irony, one of them happens to be the long-time number three who, under the weight of repeated failures, was pushed as low as down the order as it was possible to push him. And the other was the man who, having spent most of his career yo-yoing into and out of the side, had unceremoniously shoved his way into that slot.

Laxman and Dravid Together, the two took everything Australia's famed attack, riding on the back of 16 straight Test wins, had to throw at them. To survive was good enough -- but to counter-attack in glorious fashion, to make this attack wilt, to force Steve Waugh to spread his field as wide as he could, to call on the likes of Ricky Ponting and Mathew Hayden to provide his lead bowlers some succor and, towards the end, to almost have to look for volunteers to bowl, was as delightful as it was unlooked for.

Check out, first, VVS Laxman. When he smashed the Australian attack for 167 in Sydney, it was deemed a fluke. For the fans to say so was one thing, for the selectors to not appreciate that effort was something else again. Laxman went back to the drawing board and, to his tensile wrists and all-round strokeplay, added a steely determination to bat on and on and on, every chance he got.

Check out his recent scores in domestic cricket -- a 353 against Karnataka, 167 against Mumbai, 179 against North Zone, 217 against West Zone, an unbeaten century for Rest of India versus Karnataka...

He had got them against the best of the domestic attacks. Beginning sometime on the evening of the second day, he faced up to the most successful international attack in contemporary cricket -- and batted on. And on. And on.

How do you tell the story of his innings? Take all that was said yesterday, then double it -- and you haven't come close. He has now given McGrath, who was in his own words targetting Tendulkar and Ganguly, a gentle hint that those arrows were a bit off the mark. But then, McGrath can be forgiven for not having considered Laxman, till yesterday -- unlike the 'Big Three', 'Fab Four' and other groupings that the sponsors, hypemeisters and indeed all of us have created, Laxman is quiet, subdued, self-effacing, silent -- and deadly! Laxman, too, showed Shane Warne -- and more importantly, his own highly-hyped mates -- that bowling two feet outside the leg stump is no answer to a batsman possessed of two feet, both of which can move like a ballet dancer's.

Gillespie What the Indians -- and a few other international sides besides -- have lacked when facing this Australian attack is confidence, and self-belief. Laxman restored it, with just one shot -- a shot that perhaps was lost in the plethora of shots that were hit this day, but one that deserves to be shown in every batting school around the country, if Indian batsmen want to get back the name of being master-players of the turning ball. Warne went round the wicket, with a packed onside field. Laxman on drove, for four. Steve Waugh and Shane Warne consulted, then took a man out of the off side, and reinforced the onside cordon. In came Warne again -- and bowled a curving delivery, about a foot and a half outside leg. Laxman danced down the track, covered the line then moved outside in and with the minimum of effort, executed as perfect an extra cover drive as most batsmen manage to play to deliveries outside off.

That little moment is enough, really, to put Laxman's achievement in perspective -- the rest, can be left to statistics, which in turn can be left to Mohandas Menon.

There are, though, two aspects that merit mention. The first relates to the wagonwheel -- 41 behind point, 84 square on the off, 24 in the V on off, 36 behind square leg, 56 square on the on, and 34 in the V on the onside -- a picture that, in words, spells c-o-m-p-l-e-t-e.

A c-o-m-p-l-e-t-e batsman And the other relates to his final score -- 275, unbeaten, and looking fresh as a daisy at the end of it all. By then, he had buried, by a healthy margin, the unbeaten 236 scored by Sunil Gavaskar against the West Indies, which for 18 years had been preserved as some kind of historical monument, a Taj Mahal erected to Indian batsmanship at its best. Look at the names that have come since 1983 -- contemporaries like Vengsarkar, Amarnath, Vishwanath, and the ones who have followed, like Sanjay Manjrekar, Vinod Kambli, Mohammad Azharuddin, Rahul Dravid, Saurav Ganguly, not to forget Sachin Tendulkar. Big names all -- yet, it took a soft-spoken, unassuming gentleman to beat that mark.

At the other end, was Rahul Dravid. 155 off 318 balls. 56 singles in that score. Like Laxman, unbeaten at the end of a day of combating the best of pace and spin that Australia had to offer.

It was an innings that was long overdue -- not to the team, or the country, but to himself. For too long, has Dravid been a captive to the demons of his own mind. For too long, have those who know his ability wondered about his penchant for setting up some opposing bowler as a bogeyman, and tying himself down. If it took the shock of being demoted in the batting order for him to break free of those mental chains, then there is much to be said for taking him aside, before every innings, and telling him that if he doesn't deliver, he will be pushed down to number 11 next time.

Appropos, one gesture was worth noting -- when Dravid took the single that got him to his first century against Australia, he first raised his bat to the heavens. Then, in a gesture that unmistakably said 'Take that', he gestured in the direction of the Indian dressing room before acknowledging the applause of the packed stands. Did someone say something that fired him up? That finally touched the nerves of pride and self-respect?

Two aspects of his batting today merit mention. One stems from his wagonwheel -- 109 of his 155 runs came on the on side, a clear enough indication that his onside play, which has been letting him down badly of late, was back on track. And the other relates to a point from the first session of play today. Laxman and Dravid had seen off the threat of pace. Shane Warne was introduced, and Laxman, to a defensive field, took a single first up.

Warne, having scalped Dravid seven times in eight Tests, ambled in to Dravid. Down the track, first ball, the on drive, four. Ball two, wider of leg, driven this time through midwicket, four. A ball later, Warne landed one on off spinning dramatically away, Dravid rocked back, and smashed him through coverpoint, for the third four of the over.

It looked like Dravid had, finally, left his pads back at home.

Laxman raises his bat in acknowledgement Shane Warne ended with figures of 34-3-152-1. Figures that beg a question -- last time round, we were told, repeatedly at that, that a dodgy shoulder plus the lack of two good frontline seamers was behind his taming at the hands of the Indian batsmen. And today? With Glen McGrath and Jason Gillespie to front him, and his shoulder in mid-season form?

This is not to trash a great bowler -- merely a reminder for the Indians themselves, that no bowler, not even Shane Warne, deserves a wicket simply because he is Shane Warne.

For the Australians, it was an unremitting leather-hunt. The first hour of play produced 51 runs off 15 overs. Yet, in a remarkable display of spirit, mental strength and endurance, every single one of the 11 on the field stuck to their tasks in a way that was awe-inspiring.

Two instances, among many, are worth recalling. The first relates to the brutal spell of quick bowling that Jason Gillespie produced today. One ball in particular stands out in memory -- an off break bowled at 148.2 kmph, easily the fastest ball bowled on this tour, that darted back in at speed to bang a well-set Rahul Dravid in the box and double him up. It was a display of fast bowling, on a track not really suited for it, that merits the highest praise.

The other relates to the penultimate over of the day. Dravid -- who batted with cramp throughout the third session -- pulled. And Ricky Ponting ran around, from a very wide midwicket to square leg, dived headlong, just got his fingertips to the ball and when he saw it cross the ropes, banged his hand on the ground in frustration. That level of commitment was on view by all the Aussies, all day -- and when looking for reasons why this team is so good, underline this aspect, as bold as you can.

They never, ever, let up, they never flag.

So, what now? India are ahead by 315. 90 overs remain to be played. The way to go would be to declare now, and send Australia in, knowing that they face defeat at worst, a draw at best, but in either case, their winning streak has ended at 16. This will be the first time they face that kind of pressure -- you just never know what could happen, given one flat out, committed effort by the Indians on the final day.

It is, of course, possible that Australia can knock off those runs in the final innings. It is possible, too, that I could walk on water and turn a .... heck, no, let's not even go there!

Postscript: I saw something on the giant Eden Gardens score board that I do not believe. Laxman was batting 204, when a message flashed. "1000 for every run between 200 and 236, 2000 for every run over 236".

Apparently, someone was making the offer, and the news was being flashed -- to Laxman, and to the crowd.

What are we trying to do, give "crass" a new dimension? The man out there, batting his heart out for his country, is a professional sportsman, for god's sake. Encouraging him is one thing. Giving him a reward, after the day, is one thing. But this? Which bright spark thought of it? And is said bright spark so used to frequenting the dancing halls, where you throw fistfuls of notes at half-naked performers, that he had to carry that mindset onto a cricket ground?

For god's sake -- can't we treat our sportsmen with some dignity? Allow them a shred of self-respect?


Adam Gilchrist in Real Audio: Day 4

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