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February 7, 1999


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Kumble gets the perfect 10

Prem Panicker

Any sporting record that lasts over 40 years has got to be very very special -- and the effort that equals it, or tops it, has to be applauded to the rooftops.

Today, it is Anil Kumble whose name rings from the rafters -- an analysis that reads 26.3-9-74-10 being the reason why. With that haul, Kumble becomes only the second bowler, after Jim Laker, to take out an entire Test side in course of a single innings.

In fact, there is also a lesser known record that surrounds Kumble's performance. Way back in 1888-1889, England's slow left arm bowler, Johnny Briggs (the first man, incidentally, to take 100 wickets in Test cricket) took 21wickets in a two-Test series in South Africa.

Saqlain Mushtaq, with four successive five-wicket hauls, was within a hairsbreadth of that record -- but Kumble's 10-for pipped him to the honour of equalling that 110 year old record, with Kumble ending with 21 wickets in this short series.

An extraordinary performance that, as I said before, it would be impossible to over-praise -- and it provided the climax to a day of extraordinary cricket, full to brimming of the good, the bad, and the strangely mediocre.

To take events in the order of their occurence, India's unfinished innings folded in short order this morning, with Saqlain doing the damage, and ending up with his fourth successive five wicket haul.

Interestingly, Pakistan started the first session in an obviously defensive frame of mind -- Akram epitomising it, bowling on a misty morning with not a single slip in place. One of the edges he found, off both batsmen, in fact took Srinath to his four as what should have been a regulation catch to first slip ended up crossing the ropes at third man.

That attitude could have seen India bat Pakistan completely out of the game. However, Saqlain ensured against that by first pitching one just outside off, Srinath rocking back to play square on the off side only to find it kick and turn in at him, forcing him to guide the ball into the hands of the sole slip.

The off spinner, who has this happy knack of cleaning up opposing tailenders, then pushed one through quicker, on a fuller length, sneaking under Prasad's airy drive to peg back off stump. And off the very next ball, similarly pushed through quicker through the air and flatter, Saqlain had Harbajan Singh playing on -- to give him his fourth successive five wicket haul, and to put him on the verge of a rather unusual hat-trick the next time he bowls a ball in Test match cricket.

Saurav Ganguly walked back undefeated for a very well made 62. It did seem a little odd that the left-hander did not make more of an effort to keep the likes of Prasad away from the strike, but the bigger question relates to his place in the batting order. Number six seems way too low for a batsman who not only strokes the ball as fluently as Ganguly does against both pace and spin, but more importantly, has the temperament to play the really big innings once he is set.

In any case, India had left Pakistan a target of 420 to win, on the fourth innings -- more, in fact, than any Test team has ever managed before. The magnitude of the task can be gauged by the fact that only twice has a side ever crossed 400 in the last innings to win a Test -- the first occasion being when Australia made 404/3 in 1948 against England, the second featuring India with the world record 406/3 in the 1975-1976 series against the West Indies.

I've never thought that statistics provide the final yardstick -- so the fact that no team had ever made that amount of runs before need not necessarily have been a deterrent. However, there is no denying that India was definitely odds-on favourite as the team walked in to the field -- which made the events of the rest of the morning session completely inexplicable.

I had, on another occasion, argued that India does not win more Test matches because it does not believe it can win, it does not believe in itself and its abilities. And never was that lack of self-belief as evident as it was in the period before lunch.

Consider this: 420 on the board. In the middle, Anwar -- a batsman who through this series has struggled with a personal crisis of confidence. And Afridi, a batsman whose sole batting philosophy revolves around taking a good grip on the bat and seeing if he can't smash his way out of trouble.

Perfect conditions, one would have thought, for the squeeze to have been applied -- but what we saw was, believe it or not, an Indian eleven that looked panicky, unsure of its ability to ride even such a huge total to a win. The field remained wishy-washy through this session, the fielders at mid off and mid on in particular going right back to the line within the first ten overs.

If you check the events of the first Pakistan innings, you will notice where we had spoken of Azhar's captaincy in keeping his fielders up, choking off the singles, putting the pressure on the batting side and keeping it there, forcing the batsmen to commit error after error. Having seen that ploy work, at first hand, why then would the side revert to its defensive posture?

You tell me.

On earlier occasions,when I wrote about this defeatist attitude of the Indian team, its captain, and its coach, I've had fans racing off to the mailbox, arguing that I tended to be a bit too censorious, that in fact I went out of my way to look for things to censure. It will, of course, please those fans to know that in course of the morning session being referred to here, Ramiz Raja referred to the fielding side as seemingly panic-striken, that both Ravi Shastri and Sunil Gavaskar argued that India were impossibly defensive given the situation of the game, and that Michael Holding, the neutral commentator, on air mentioned that the field placing would have made sense had India put up 220 on its board, not 420.

So we had a very familiar situation out there -- of a field supposedly protecting the boundaries, and batsmen, under absolutely no pressure, stroking in the V and strolling singles to rotate strike and shift the pressure right back on the bowling side, who struggled to cope with the constant line alterations required by a left-right opening combo.

During this period, Kumble made one ball bounce and turn, Azhar diving at slip but just failing to hang on. Off the very next ball, an uppish drive saw Kumble lunging to his left but just failing to cling on to the return catch. Again, what was most noticeable about it was that it was Afridi's third drive in the air in the course of eight deliveries -- though a short cover seemed indicated, the closest fielder was at long off.

Perhaps the coach and captain could well benefit from being told of the wisdom of playing the situation, not the opposing player or his reputation? I mean, the mere fact that Afridi is at the crease does not necessarily mean that all fielders should go and stand on the boundary line, does it?

Pakistan went in to lunch on 90/0 -- which meant that in one crazy session, they had brought the target down to just 330 to win with all wickets intact, much more do-able than 420. And what was most interesting was that despite the 'defensive' field, as many as 15 boundaries were scored during that session -- in other words, neither were the fielders close enough to take the edges, nor well placed enough to block the big hits.

But then, this is the Indian team we are talking about -- a side that redefines the meaning of 'mercurial'.

Post-lunch, they came out looking as if someone had, to use the cant phrase, lit a fire under their tails -- and immediately, the complexion of the game changed drastically.

Azhar in fact let an edge from Anwar go through between his legs off the very first ball after lunch at slip, being unable to get down in time to the chance -- but noticeably, both mid off and mid on were well up and suddenly, the singles dried up, and both batsmen began showing signs of discomfort. With run making becoming difficult, the weight of that mountain of runs was beginning to tell on them, here.

There was one other change that was evident -- in his very first over, Anil Kumble twice gave the ball a healthy tweak, and both times, the ball bounced, and spun rapidly away from the bat. And this, more than any other factor, I suspect inspired the events that followed, as it put that element of doubt in the minds of batsmen used to thinking that no Kumble delivery will turn.

The first dismissal was indicative of this -- Kumble pitched just outside off to Afridi. Normally, the batsman would have, to that length, gone forward into the drive. But with the leg spinner now turning the ball, Afridi played a hesitant push, unsure whether it was the flipper or the leg break, the ball flashed past the outer edge and Jayaprakash upheld the appeal. Was he out? Frankly, the bat was in front of the pads, the stump mike did pick up a click -- but that is as close as we can get, even the slow motion replays failing to pick up the touch, or the absence of one.

The very next ball produced another wicket, with Kumble landing an inswinging yorker (heck, I know he is a leggie, but I defy anyone to describe that ball any other way) on the toe of Ijaz's boot. Up went Jayaprakash's finger and this time, there was no doubt -- Ijaz was not out. Kumble was bowling wide of the crease, the ball was on a full length, it was drifting in and angled across, it took the toe of the front boot so the natural angle would have carried it past leg stump.

Benefit of doubt to batsman would have been indicated in any case -- as it turned out, the bowler got the benefit of umpire, as it were.

Inzamam ul Haq, however, has no one but himself to blame for a shocking dismissal. Much is written about his languid grace, his lazy elegance -- but 'lazy' and 'comatose' are two different things, and it was seemingly in a coma that Inzy waved his bat at a quick flipper outside off. His feet hadn't moved, his bat described the most vague of arcs, and the result was that he managed to drag a harmless ball back onto his stumps from outside off, off the bottom edge.

Yousuf Youhanna has a relaxed -- that word again! -- look about him when he comes to the crease, a smile on his face, a word for the keeper and the close in fielders. All of which, taken in tandem with his very good record thus far, is a healthy sign of a young, talented batsman feeling confident of himself and his abilities. But he could maybe do with a bit more thought -- the first three days of this Test must surely have taught him that to push his foot half forward without offering a shot is a simpler means of suicide than either rope or gun? But that was what he did, to survive a very close shout for LBW against Kumble. The very next ball was pitched even further up, again Youhanna showed his pad to a quick, flat flipper, and this time, the LBW was asked for and deservedly given.

Pakistan were 115/4 at that point, and in dire trouble. They could have been further behind the eight ball almost immediately when Moin, taking a leaf out of Youhanna's batting book, pushed his pad out at another Kumble special that kept low, only for Umpire Jayaprakash to turn down the vociferous and, I thought, merited appeal. The umpire then clearly indicated to the bowler that the batsman had got a touch -- whereas it was clearly evident that the bat was behind the pad at the point of impact, and nowhere close to touching it. So chalk down one error that went the other way, here.

Kumble nearly took out Anwar during this period of frenetic activity. The left-hander had been looking clearly unsettled by the dramatic collapse at the other end. To make matters worse, Harbajan Singh unsettled him further with a series of deliveries that bounced -- occasionally head high -- and turned from leg to outside off. And there were no easy singles on offer, either, with the field well in. That produced a drive of sheer desperation, Anwar throwing the bat at a Kumble delivery outside off, playing so far from his body that the top hand came off the bat, and finding Kumble reacting too late, closing his hands after the ball had, as it were, bolted through en route to the straight fence.

The first hour after lunch saw Pakistan take its score to 127/4 -- having added 37 during the hour, off 15 overs, for the loss of four wickets.

And immediately after the break, Kumble struck again. Against Moin, he had been sending down a stream of flippers. This time, he pitched on the identical middle and off line -- only, it was the leg break, Moin pushed at it in anticipation of the one coming on straight, was beaten by the bounce and turn, and Ganguly dived to hold a superb catch at slip, way to his right. That gave Kumble his 13th five wicket haul in Tests, eight of them coming in the second innings.

Thanks to an injured hamstring, Salim Malik had not fielded at all in the Indian second innings. This meant that he either had to sit out 432 minutes, or come in after the fall of five wickets, whichever happened sooner -- and thus, the exit of Moin saw Malik coming in, with Afridi following soon after as runner. However, the normally fluent player of spin seemed seriously hampered by his injury, and played with minimal footwork.

Azhar, unbelievably defensive in the morning, now went the other way and switched to flat out attack, the field drawn right in, four men crowding the bat, with a slip, silly point and square leg augmented by a gully as well.

Anwar had looked completely assured in the morning, in contrast to the way he has played earlier on this tour. That it was due to the absence of pressure was clearly seen in the way he shut down after lunch, his timing going entirely awry, his strokeplay losing its fluency as the runs dried up almost completely and the spinners, at both ends, drew the web tighter with every ball.

After some harassment by Harbajan, Kumble took over to produce a flipper that skidded along at bootlace height. The batsman, shaping to drive, had to bring his bat down in an almighty hurry to keep that one out. The next ball pitched pretty much in the same spot, only, Kumble gave it a bit of a loop, which made the ball on hitting the rough take off, finding the pad and bat handle in that order for short square leg to hold.

A statistic tells the story of the innings till that point: the first fifty of the Pakistan second innings came off 74 balls, the second off just 57, and the third came off 143 deliveries with six wickets having fallen in the process.

Harbhajan, not supported by as strong a close in field as Kumble was, still proved a handful through this session. Television commentators, remarking on his lack of success, were in fact recalling Tony Lock who, while Jim Laker was taking out 19 Test batsmen at one end, bowled almost unchanged at one end, turning the screws down. Pakistan went in to tea having made 83 runs in the second session, with Malik and Akram sharing an unbroken 45 run partnership for the 7th wicket.

After tea, things went into overdrive. Malik, who with his limited footwork had taken to standing almost immobile and playing shots as late as he dared, hit a Kumble flipper across the line to midwicket. The response was predictable -- an even faster flipper in the same slot, Malik went for it again, the extra pace did hiim, and the bails went with the ball as it sailed through.

At the other end, Akram appeared intent on going after the spinners, trying to break their stranglehold. Shortly before tea, he had -- in a repeat of Inzamam's attempt in the first innings -- deliberately come down the wicket thrice, to smash three fours off Harbhajan. Immediately, the young offie was taken off -- where, frankly, it would have made sense to persist, and let the lad take on his attacker, especially given the runs on the board to play with. Post tea, Akram went after Kumble with flat batted hits through midwicket, but Srinath at the other end had him in enormous trouble with late reverse swing, going round the wicket to the left hander and moving it both ways late (interestingly, without a single slip in place, though Kumble at the other end had the luxury of four round the bat).

Mushtaq Ahmed got a taste of his own medicine -- a leg spinner himself, he fell to the classic leg-spinner's dismissal on a turning track, with Kumble looping a huge leg break in on line of middle, drawing the batsman forward, the bounce and turn taking the edge for Dravid to hold easily in gully.

The very next ball saw Saqlain taking the celebrated Kumble yorker on his boot. Unlike in the case of Ijaz, absolutely no doubt on that one, and Kumble again found himself one wicket away from a hat-trick.

However, Younis had to survive an over of Srinath -- and it was amusing to see Prasad, after his fast-bowling partner had beaten Younis with his first delivery outside off, racing up to tell him that stablemate Kumble was on the verge of history. With that, Srinath resorted to bowling as wide as he possibly could of the stumps (in fact, he was called wide twice in that over, which gives you an idea).

Akram was beaten by the hat-trick ball, outside off. He survived one more delivery, before stretching forward to get a flipper kicking up, taking bat and pad en route to square leg to give Kumble the perfect ten, and India a win by 212 runs.

I don't think Anshuman Gaekwad, during his playing days, ever made half the speed that he made today, racing down the stairs and out to the middle to join the team as it thronged around Kumble. Or, for that matter, Raj Singh Dungarpur, Sunil Dev, and the rest who couldn't seem to get close enough to the man of the moment.

Accepting his Man of the Match award (other contenders being Saqlain for his 10 wickets, and Ramesh for his two solid knocks), Kumble summed it up best when he said that Ramesh's 96 in the second innings, abetted by the Srinath-Ganguly partnership, put India back in the game, and that Harbajan's spell at the other end kept the pressure on and enabled him to attack at his end.

Having spoken of both the good and bad bits of Azhar's captaincy earlier, there is this, too -- in the morning, he was quick to switch ends, after bringing on Kumble and Harbajan and finding them not quite as effective as wished for. Azhar used Prasad to switch them round, bringing Kumble back on from the Pavilion End, where he had bowled in the first innings, and Harbajan at the other end, to drastically improve the performance of both bowlers.

Saqlain, with his four five-fer hauls on the trot, took the man of the series award (and incidentally, in response to the emails I got, no, it is not a record -- besides the Johnny Briggs mentioned earlier in this report, others have done it too, most notably Alec Bedser in his debut series).

Azharuddin and Akram got to hold the trophy aloft together -- which, all things considered, seemed a fair result though, as Azhar said later, India had no business losing the first Test by that slim margin.

The series ends. The rivalry continues -- at the Eden Gardens in Calcutta, in the inaugural match of the Asian Test Championships. See you then.


Mail Prem Panicker