||Home > Cricket > The Challenge of Australia|
Faisal Shariff and Rajeev D Pai
India drew the four-Test series against Australia one-all and thus retained the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, having won the last series between the two sides back home in 2001.
Three Indian bowlers, Ajit Agarkar, Zaheer Khan and Anil Kumble, took five-wicket hauls in the series -- Kumble, in fact, repeated the feat in successive Tests -- but the Australians failed to pick even one.
For the first time in a decade, the Australians were 0-1 down in a home series, and without the experience of strike bowlers Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, who have more than 900 Test scalps between them, the Aussies were in real danger of being defeated.
In the event, they must consider themselves rather fortunate to have escaped with a draw in the series.
We assess the challengers who gave the world champions the fright of their lives:
Akash Chopra and Virender Sehwag | Rahul Dravid | Sachin Tendulkar | V V S Laxman
Sourav Ganguly | Parthiv Patel | Ajit Agarkar | Zaheer Khan | Anil Kumble | Irfan Pathan
Ashish Nehra | Murali Kartik | Harbhajan Singh
Akash Chopra and Virender Sehwag: A
The opening pair was considered the weakest link in the team that set sail for Australia. But after opening stands of 61, 4, 66, 48, 141, 5, 123, and 11, it turned out to be one of the strongest points of India's showing Down Under.
The last time the Indians were in Australia, the opening partnerships in three Tests were 7, 0, 11, 5, 10, and 22. And since that abysmal series in 1999-2000, India's average opening stand in away Tests has been 22, with the first wicket falling inside the first 10 overs 78 per cent of the time.
Though Chopra failed to register a single half-century in eight innings, the time he spent at the crease upset the Australian game plan of making early inroads into the Indian batting lineup and exposing the best middle order in the world to the new ball.
With Sehwag attacking from the other end with a strike rate of 79.31, the highest of any batsman on either side, Chopra's vigil fit the Indian plan to the T.
With Sadagoppan Ramesh waiting in the wings as the third opener in the side, the Indian team will have one less worry now for a while.
Rahul Dravid: A+
What can we say?
With a total of 619 runs in eight innings at an average of 123.80 and including a double century and three fifties, two of which were nineties, Rahul Dravid, for the first time in his career, put his more flamboyant teammates in the shade.
Dravid's 305 runs at Adelaide helped India register their first win on Australian soil in 22 long years. It was sweet revenge for Dravid, whose batting average had been messed up by the Australians on India's last tour Down Under.
In the second Test in Adelaide, Dravid batted on four of the five days, a rare feat that speaks volumes for his endurance and powers of concentration.
At the start of the series, his career average was 54.67; after the second Test it had risen to 56.54 -- more than that of Sachin Tendulkar (55.86) and Ricky Ponting (54.61) at that point.
"Rahul batted like god," skipper Sourav Ganguly said after the Adelaide win.
Who can disagree?
Sachin Tendulkar (Batting): B+
What do you call a man who scores just 82 runs from five innings in three Tests, yet ends a four-Test series with an aggregate of 383 runs at an average of 76.60?
Written off by everyone after failures in the first three Tests, Tendulkar signed off the series in great style, putting up his highest Test score yet -- an undefeated 241 -- and a match aggregate of 301 runs without being dismissed at Sydney. He thus became the first Indian and only the fifth batsman in history to score more than 300 runs in a Test without being dismissed.
His 241 was not the most fluent innings one has seen from Tendulkar's willow, but it was an innings carved out of sheer grit and determination.
Tendulkar's Test outings in 2003 were ordinary, with even Sri Lanka's Muthiah Muralitharan averaging higher than him. But with a thunderous start to 2004 and series against Pakistan, Bangladesh, Australia and South Africa in the pipeline, India could well be on its way.
Tendulkar the bowler was probably underused in this series, but he played a crucial cameo in the second Test in Adelaide. The two wickets he picked up in the second innings, those of Damien Martyn and Steve Waugh, were not only a leg-spinner's classics, but also helped the team break through just as the Australians looked to be repairing the early damage. A pity he wasn't used much in the decider on a turning track in Sydney.
V V S Laxman: A+
V V S Laxman just loves the Australians. Each time India has been cornered by the Aussies, Laxman has delivered.
On the eve of the tour Down Under, Laxman had said, ominously for the hosts, that he wanted to score a triple hundred. That didn't happen, but the elegant Hyderabadi was involved in two triple-hundred stands with Dravid and Tendulkar in Adelaide and Sydney, respectively.
On the last tour of Australia in 1999-2000, Laxman had blasted the bowlers for 167 runs in a total of 261 in a losing cause in the second innings of the final Test at Sydney. This year he scored 178 runs at the same ground and helped India register the highest Test score by a visiting side on Australian soil. He was also the only Indian batsman to score two centuries in this series.
Laxman's showing in Australia forced his captain Ganguly to admit that they had erred in dropping him for the 2003 World Cup.
Despite all his achievements, Laxman remains a humble, simple man, as reflected by his gesture of dedicating his innings of 178 to Australian skipper Steve Waugh in his farewell Test.
Sourav Ganguly: A
The Prince of Calcutta scored half his runs of the series in one innings at the 'Gabba in Brisbane in the very first Test.
When Ganguly walked out to bat on the fourth morning in Brisbane, the slips and gullies filled up. Four hours later Ganguly had smashed his maiden Test hundred against Australia on the bouncy wicket, exorcising many ghosts along the way.
Australian legend Greg Chappell later said, "His innings at Brisbane set the theme. The biggest difference is that Ganguly has shown real leadership and commitment towards improving his team's record away from home."
As a batsman, Ganguly did little of note in the rest of the series, barring a half-century in the Melbourne Test, but that 144 at Brisbane stirred his other illustrious teammates to believe that the world champions could be humbled.
Parthiv Patel: B
The cherubic Parthiv Patel was good in patches. In front of the wicket he revelled with the bat scoring a crucial fifty in the final Test at breakneck speed. He aggregated 160 runs for the series, just 26 short of Akash Chopra, and also helped the Indian tail wag a while longer than it usually does.
But behind the wickets, Patel clearly failed. Dropping regulation catches and stumping chances at crucial junctures, the 18 year-old cut a sorry figure and let his bowlers, mostly the spinners, down. He is probably not the answer to India's wicket-keeping woes yet and a season or two in domestic cricket may help this undoutedly talented cricketer.
Ajit Agarkar: B+
As the second highest wicket-taker in the series on either side, Agarkar should have been a candidate for an A, if not A+, especially because his career-best haul of six wickets for 41 runs in the second innings of the second Test in Adelaide was critical to India's only victory on the tour.
But the sorry fact remains that overall Agarkar, for the nth time in his six years in international cricket, only flattered to deceive. While he invariably gave India an early breakthrough by dismissing his bunny Justin Langer, he failed to keep up the pressure thereafter.
His most glaring failure, however, came in the final Test at Sydney, where, with just two fast bowlers in the side, he failed to pick a single wicket in the entire match, leaving rookie Irfan Pathan to shoulder the burden of backing up strike bowler Anil Kumble.
Zaheer Khan: B
With Javagal Srinath announcing his retirement, all hopes were pinned on Zaheer Khan. And the left-arm fast bowler delivered quite nicely in the rain-interrupted first Test at Brisbane, where he picked up his third successive five-wicket haul on foreign soil. But a hamstring injury in the second innings hobbled him and ruled him out of the historic Adelaide Test, where India won a hard-fought duel.
Zaheer would probably have played a crucial role in the deciding Test if only he had not been in a tearing hurry to return to the side after Adelaide. In the event, he failed to pick up a single wicket in the Melbourne Test and only aggravated his injury, bringing a tour that had begun in dream fashion to a rather sorry end.
Anil Kumble: A+
If a rating higher than A+ were available, the lion-hearted lone warrior would have claimed that too!
When the team for the tour of Australia was selected, many were the sceptics who questioned Kumble's place in the side. After all, he had never really lived up overseas to his rating as India's weapon of mass destruction.
But when Kumble got his chance in the second Test, thanks to a lacklustre performance in the first Test by Harbhajan Singh, who was subsequently sidelined through injury, he showed what a true champion he is by grabbing it with both hands and feet.
From then on, Kumble was transformed into India's leading strike bowler and, surprise of surprises, ended up as the leading wicket-taker of the series, putting all the quick bowlers in the shade. If only he had received decent, consistent support from the other end, the series may have ended differently.
Irfan Pathan: A
At the start of the tour the teenager would never even have dreamt that he would play a Test match in Australia this time, let alone the winning Test. It was supposed to be nothing more than a learning trip for him. But an injury to strike bowler Zaheer Khan meant that his Baroda teammate suddenly found himself in the playing XI for the Adelaide Test.
Pathan made up for his lack of experience with his talent, a big heart, and an eagerness to learn, even approaching the guru of left-arm quick bowling, Wasim Akram himself, for tips. And while he did not exactly set the Chappell stands alight, he gave enough evidence that over time he will become an able foil to Zaheer Khan. So much so that when the team management had to select just two fast bowlers for the final Test, the youngster made it ahead of his more experienced colleague Nehra.
Ashish Nehra: B-
Much was expected of Nehra, the hero of India's World Cup campaign. But the left-arm fast bowler proved to be a shadow of his former self. While fellow left-armers Zaheer Khan and Irfan Pathan put up inspiring performances whenever they got a chance, Nehra was mostly a passenger in the series, trundling along at three-quarters pace and without the in and out swing that had made him such a dangerous customer earlier.
For a brief while in the first innings of the second Test, it looked as if the Nehra of old was coming back, as he bowled a great spell and troubled the Aussie middle order to snap up the wickets of Damien Martyn and Steve Waugh, whom he thought out in brilliant fashion. But that was about all you could remember of Nehra's campaign Down Under.
A return of four wickets from six innings is hardly the stuff legends are made of.
Murali Kartik: B-
The Railwayman was believed to be a shoo-in for the Australia tour after his performances in the TVS Cup Tri-series back home, where he had the Australians, particularly captain Ricky Ponting, in all kinds of trouble. But the selectors thought otherwise, until Harbhajan Singh was rendered hors d'combat.
Kartik, however, did not get much match practice in Australia before he was pitchforked into the deciding Test as the second spinner to support Anil Kumble. And the Australians, in no mood to let him settle down and go for their throats, decided that attack was the best defence and did their utmost to smash his confidence in the first innings.
Considering the pounding he received in the first innings, Kartik made a decent comeback in the second and even picked up a gift wicket, that of Justin Langer. If only Parthiv Patel had not muffed the simple stumping of Ricky Ponting. That wicket would have fired Kartik up and who knows what would have happened thereafter?
Harbhajan Singh: C
The Turbanator, as Harbhajan Singh has been called ever since that magic home series against the Australians in 2000-01, was believed to be India's best spinner, ahead of Anil Kumble. What's more, the Australians were supposed to have a mental block against him and, as a result, the Sardar from Jullundur was seen as the Indian team's spearhead Down Under.
In the event, it took just one Test for the spearhead himself to go down under. Aware of his reputation, the Australian batsmen went hammer and tongs at Harbhajan Singh in the Brisbane Test. And a recurrence of an injury to his spinning finger, for which the off-spinner, fearful of the surgeon's knife, had put his faith in physiotherapy, meant that he spent the rest of the series watching from the sidelines.
The good thing was he eventually confronted his fears and got the finger operated upon in Melbourne.
Email: The cricket team
©1996 to 2004 rediff.com India Limited. All Rights Reserved.