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Paying the price for a rushed schedule Down Under

January 01, 2008 15:57 IST

It is doubtful whether proper thinking or planning ever takes place before the Board of Control for Cricket in India commits itself to sending the Indian team on foreign tours, particularly to Australia and South Africa. If the ongoing jaunt Down Under is any indication, the answer is certainly not in the affirmative. A pity!

One wonders why the BCCI agreed to a rushed schedule, in the first place, with only one practice match before Team India had to take on mighty Australia in the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne. The result, a humiliating defeat for the visitors, did not come as a surprise to those aware of India's past performances Down Under and its itineraries.

Surely, you did not expect Anil Kumble's squad to crush the Kangaroos straightaway, especially when all they had was a solitary, washed-out match against Victoria to attune to the usually fast and bouncy Australian wickets and different weather and 'other' conditions.

Of course, even the best of teams find it difficult to chase a 400-plus fourth innings target regardless of the status of the opposition and the quality of bowling.

What was embarrassing, even pathetic, was the fact that not a single Indian gave glimpses of offering even a token resistance.

Maybe, just maybe, the margin of defeat, if not the actual result, would probably have been slightly different had the Indians had more than just one first-class match to acclimatise themselves before the start of the serious business of Test cricket. 

As if that were not enough, the rain disrupted the proceedings, leaving many Indian players without adequate match practice.

It may be unfair to put the blame squarely on the Indian team for the disaster in Melbourne. Much of the blame for the inadequate pre-Test programme ought to be apportioned to the BCCI, which has been paying such scant respect to Test cricket for the last two decades or so.

In comparison, the itinerary for the India's 2003-04 tour was better. There were two first-class matches, against Victoria and Queensland Academy of Sport, before India and Australia met in Brisbane for the first Test. Though the matches ended in draws, most of the Indian players had a good dose of match practice, which mirrored in their performances in the subsequent Test series.

They drew the first Test but humiliated the Aussies in the second in Adelaide, thanks to the tours de force of Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Ajit Agarkar. The hosts bounced back in the third Test in Melbourne and squared the rubber.

But for Steve Waugh playing a captain's innings and rescuing Australia in the nick of time in the fourth and final Test in Sydney, India could well have won the series. However, more than the Australian skipper, it was the wretched wicketkeeping of young Parthiv Patel almost throughout the tour that probably robbed the Indians of a golden chance of winning their maiden Test series Down Under.

On the ill-fated 1999-00 tour, when Sachin Tendulkar led the side, India played three matches, including two first-class fixtures, before the commencement of the three-Test series. Queensland handed a10-wicket defeat to the Indians in the very first match. Laxman (113 and 73) was the sole consolation for the visitors.

Sourav Ganguly (38 and 81) was the top scorer in both the innings in what was a low-scoring second match against New South Wales (NSW) in Sydney, which India won by 93 runs. Anil Kumble (4 for 50 and 4 for 38) was the wrecker-in-chief on a pitch that suited his bowling.

But the Prime Minister's XI beat India by 164 runs in the third game, a limited-overs match, before the start of the Test series. The Indians never recovered from the shock and, as predicted by the then BCCI secretary Jaywant Lele, a la Cassandra, lost the rubber 3-0. But then a not-so-strong Indian side, in complete disarray because of bizarre selection, was up against Steve Waugh's all-conquering Australia.

There were three one-dayers and a first-class match before the five Tests on the 1991-92 tour. The itinerary also included the triangular one-day series featuring the host Australia, India and the West Indies; and also the fifth World Cup in the Antipodes.

It was, of course, a disastrous tour for Team India under Mohammad Azharudin. We lost the opening match to the Australian Cricket Board Chairman's XI by 29 runs at Lilac Hill Park. But this was nothing compared to what happened in the next match against Western Australia at Perth.

Invited to bat first, the Indians were bowled out for 64 in 31.5 overs against a fiery pace attack spearheaded by Bruce Reid and Terry Alderman. The hosts won the match by 9 wickets in just 13 overs.

Then came some consolation when India beat the NSW Country XI by 8 wickets at Wagga Wagga.

The only first-class match, against NSW at Oakes Oval, Lismore, prior to the first Test in Brisbane reflected the state of India's batting.

The manager, Abbas Ali Baig, had made a startling statement on landing Down Under -- that the hosts could not bowl India out twice in a Test match. NSW gave a fitting reply to Baig's bravado when it routed India by an innings and eight runs. Young Tendulkar, who scored 82 and 59 in India's two dismal innings, was the sole redeeming feature for the tourists.

The Indians subsequently received a 0-4 drubbing in the five-Test rubber.

Although preparation-wise there was not much for the Indians on the 1985-86 tour because of the bad weather, the three-Test series was a success story of sorts for the tourists, especially when viewed in isolation.

The one-day match against Australian Capital Territory at Canberra was abandoned without a ball being bowled owing to rain. Andrew Hilditch's sporting declaration on the final morning of the South Australia-India game at Adelaide allowed the tourists to successfully chase a 300-plus fourth innings target.

Kapil Dev's team then defeated the Victorian Country Cricket League XI by 6 wickets in a one-day tie at Warrnambool. The four-day fixture against Victoria in Melbourne, the last prior to the first Test in Adelaide, was reduced to a mere formality because of interference from rain.

Though no result was produced in any of the three Tests, the one team that had the upper hand right through the series was India. The tourists came agonisingly close to winning in Melbourne and Sydney after enjoying clear psychological advantage in Adelaide.

Lack of bite in the overall attack, unintelligent bowling by leggie Laxman Sivaramakrishnan in particular and some blatantly biased umpiring decisions were the prime factors that helped Australia escape from the jaws of defeats in the second and third Tests. Had it been a bit lucky, India would surely have won its maiden Test series Down Under.

The scheduling of India's 1980-81 tour was excellent, as it gave ample time to Sunil Gavaskar and his boys to prepare well before the first Test in Sydney.

To begin with, there was a first-class match against Western Australia at Perth, which ended in a draw. It was followed by a one-dayer against the same opponent, at the same venue, which India lost by 71 runs.

India suffered a heavy defeat at the hands of South Australia in the next first-class fixture at Adelaide. The Indians should have won the match hands down as they had to score only 122 to win in the fourth innings. Instead, they were sent packing for 78 and lost by 43 runs.

The Indians drew their next first-class game versus Tasmania at Hobart, but could not avoid defeat by three wickets against the same opponent in a limited-overs contest at Launceston. They managed to draw their last first-class match against Queensland at Brisbane.

Just for record, Greg Chappell's strong Australian side won the first Test by an innings and four runs. Sandeep Patil's heroic 174 in the first innings went a long way towards India drawing the second Test in Adelaide.

Australia could still have won but it failed to capture the last two Indian wickets when the tourists were chasing 331 in the fourth innings and were reduced to 135 for 8 when the Test ended in a draw.

But India came from behind in the third and final Test in Melbourne and beat Australia by 59 runs to level the series 1-1. The remarkable turnaround was made possible by Gundappa Viswanath, who scored a superb 114 under trying circumstances against Denni Lillee and Len Pascoe at their ferocious best, and Kapil Dev, Karsan Ghavri and Dilip Doshi, who all bowled match-winning

spells as the Aussies collapsed dramatically in their crucial innings.

A historic study of India's tours of Australia -- right from 1947-48 to 2003-04 -- underlines an undeniable fact that on most occasions we have lost the first Test, and usually ended the series on a disappointing note, even after getting enough practice matches. Apparently it is mostly because of Australia's overall superiority as the world's leading cricketing nation boasting an awesome national team.

But this does not mean the BCCI should fix Team India's tour to Australia in a most haphazard manner imaginable. Australia is always a difficult cricketing country to tour. Ask any professional cricketer and he will vouch for it.

When you are scheduled to a play a three-Test or a four-Test series against the Kangaroos in their own land, at least a couple of first-class matches are a must before the real business begins. The BCCI should have kept this in mind before finalising the itinerary for Kumbe and company.

If the prophets of doom -- and there are any number of them in this cricket-crazy country -- are thinking that India would still have been thrashed by the Aussies in the first Test, practice matches or no practice matches, they are clearly seeing the wood for the trees. If the BCCI is also showing an excuse like this, it is a lame one.

Winning and losing are part of the game. Australia may continue to dominate world cricket for many more years to come. Ricky Ponting's team might win the Test rubber 4-0 against India. But that is hardly the point.

The point is the BCCI must ensure that Indian cricketers get enough time and match practice to mentally and physically prepare themselves for Test series against supremely competitive teams like Australia and South Africa in their own countries. Else they should not expect too much of our cricketers. The sooner the BCCI realises this, the better.

Haresh Pandya