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February 26, 2000


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India go down 1-0

Prem Panicker

South Africa won the first Test of the Pepsi Cup series by 4 wickets, with a little over two days to spare.

And it brings a few questions to mind. The recent defeats in Australia appear to have overshadowed the bigger -- and more distressing -- picture. This, if you throw your mind back a bit, is India's third successive defeat at home, under two different captains. And each time, India lost after leading on the first innings.

There is something there worth thinking about -- for long, we have stayed content with being winners at home. Indications are, that even that limited cachet is slipping out of the Indians' grasp.

And there is another thing that bears thinking about -- for the first time in my memory, a Test match in an Indian metro failed to draw even half-full stadia over three days. Today, like the first two days, the Wankhede remained less than half full. And that to my mind clearly indicates that the fans are increasingly reluctant to take the trouble to come to the ground to watch a team play, that they don't believe in, have faith in, any more.

More than the defeats themselves, this is the real bad news for the BCCI. And a wakeup call, if they care to notice, and to think. The spectators staying away will mean that soon, the sponsors will begin thinking about the wisdom of pumping money into this game, too. This forum, and others, have been making the point that thoughtless administration will, sooner or later, kill the golden goose. The first knife has been stuck in, here in Mumbai. And if this trend, of an administration running rough shod over the game, continues, half-empty stadia will become an increasingly common sight in Indian cricket.

India began the day needing runs on the board, if it was to have a hope of pulling off a win. Dravid on drove Donald to the fence, interrupting a spate of short-pitched lifters, and -- as had happened on India's tour of South Africa when Dravid lifted Donald in the same region for a six in the final of the one day series -- that triggered off the fast bowler into a series of confrontations with the batsman.

The trouble with Dravid, however, is that he is yet to regain the confidence he misplaced Down Under, and that meant that he didn't have the nous to take charge, as he had to given that he had only the tail for company. Given this situation, the game took the expected course, with wickets falling steadily.

Kumble was the first to go, driving at a ball seaming away outside his off stump to edge it through to Boucher. Hansie Cronje, who backed himself to the tune of opening the bowling with Donald, then got Agarkar driving at a leg cutter, Boucher again diving to do the needful.

Dravid was gritting it out at the other end, but gritty defense wasn't going to do it for India as the team ran out of wickets. Ergo, Dravid had to attack. And as anyone who has watched, let alone played, cricket for some time will tell you, when you switch suddenly from defense to attack, you are apt to blunder. Shaun Pollock, taking over from the temperamental Donald, pitched one short. The ball was in the slot for the pull, and Dravid is in fact a batsman who regularly plays the shot and plays it well. His mindset, though, was deadlocked in defense, with the result that he was tentative going into the one shot you can't play tentatively. Result, he hit it too late, and managed only to get the under edge onto the stumps.

Javagal Srinath could do with a lobotomy, one would think, especially when batting. Murali Karthik cut one to point, the fielder there dived and stopped, there was never a single there but Srinath, with scant regard to what his partner was up to and what the fielder ws doing, had raced the length of the pitch, finding himself at the same end as his partner when the throw went to the bowler.

Nayan Mongia, pushed down to the end of the order to protect his injured thumb, decided that there was no way he could cope with lifting deliveries playing virtually one-handed, and promptly began flinging his bat at everything. A swat over mid on and a straighter, heftier swat down the straight field earned him a four and a six off Cronje. Donald came back for the SA skipper, and Mongia made room and clubbed an attempted yorker through point for four, then slashed a high edge past the diving second slip for four more.

The last wicket fell in strange circumstances. Pollock produced a nice leg cutter for the left handed Karthik. The batsman pushed and missed. Boucher gathered and reflexively, gave a half-appeal. None of the slips went up. Most interestingly, Pollock on the follow through threw his hands up in despair as the ball seemed to miss the edge, then clasped both hands behind his head. Seeing Boucher tentatively asking the question, Pollock too turned and came up with an afterthought of an appeal -- and much to everyone's surprise, umpire David Shepherd, who along with Venkatraghavan had a good match throughout, raised his finger.

South Africa needed 163 to win. And for the second time in two innings, their openers got it right. Kirsten settled for obduracy, which is his forte. Gibbs opted for neck or nothing shotmaking, which is his. And between them, they came up with their second successive 50 partnership (contrast this with India, which had starts of 8/1 and 5/1, and one glaring difference between the two teams is immediately evident).

Srinath in fact bowled well at the outset. It was Agarkar's turn to give it away, spraying them around and allowing Gibbs in particular liberty to swing his arms and hit through the line -- something India couldn't afford, given how few runs there were on the board. And that in turn meant that Tendulkar had to turn to Kumble as early as the 6th over of the SA innings, replacing Agarkar.

And Kumble it was who struck, in a rather surprising fashion as he pitched one on leg, the ball jumping and leaving the batsman. Kirsten looked to be watching it go, and then pushed at it for no visible reason to glove it through to the keeper.

Kumble is very much a confidence bowler. If he fears the opposition -- vide Sri Lanka and Australia -- he goes to pieces. If he fancies his chances -- as he always does against the likes of South Africa on Indian soil -- he hits his straps and produces an in your face performance every time.

With Murali Karthik applying the squeeze at one end, Kumble struck again, a flipper getting Gibbs pushing tentatively into the hands of short leg, ending a belligerent innings of 46 (at least, as in the first innings, it was belligerent till he got beaten a few times by spin, then it switched to the patchy, scratchy version).

However, there was a hint of desperation about Tendulkar's captaincy at this point. Reacting to the flow of runs, he rotated his bowlers too rapidly for comfort -- in one instance, giving Karthik just one over before taking him off again. Consequently, the bowlers couldn't settle, and the runs kept trickling in.

He got that one right after tea, putting Karthik on at one end, to bowl the tight, restrictive line while Kumble was used to attack at the other, both bowlers getting an extended spell that almost lasted the entire duration of what remained of the game. And suddenly, the match swung on its axis.

Hansie Cronje broke a three-inning sequence of ducks with a well swept four off Kumble, but didn't look exactly inspirational out in the middle. Superb fielding at short square did for him, Cronje giving Kumble the charge and getting it onto his boot for Jaffer, at short square leg, to reflexively grab with his left hand and flick it back for Mongia to take out the bails.

Three down, and though SA had crossed the 100-run mark, India were suddenly back in the game, given the notoriously brittle RSA middle order. Strydom played with all the assurance of a man marooned on a minefield, and his misery ended when Karthik, bowling over the wicket into the rough outside leg stump, made one bite and turn to have the batsman pushing the edge into the hands of slip.

In the first innings, Tendulkar had made the mistake of giving Klusener too much respect, pushing his fielders right back and letting the hard hitting all rounder drive the singles in the V. Here, he rectified that, keeping the field up, and Klusener, chafing under restraint (one run in 13 deliveries is not exactly the strike rate he is used to) went for the heave over mid on, off Kumble, without really getting under it. Srinath at mid on ran back, realised suddenly that he was running faster than the ball, checked, swivelled, gathered himself and held a beautifully judged catch as the ball dropped over his shoulder.

At that point, SA needed 48 to win. And it seemed that India would pull it off against the odds.

What India had going in its favour was Kallis. Now that the match has ended, you have to say that he did well to hold one end up. But during his tenure, his refusal to put bat to ball, relying instead on his pads, ended up making the bowling look more dangerous than it in fact was. When the score was 119/5, Kallis had made 27. For that, he had faced 93 deliveries. And 81 of those were unscored of.

When your number three does this (the same critique, in fact, that we regularly make for Dravid), it takes the heart out of the lesser batsmen. More so when time and again, you are surviving LBW appeals by the strength of marginal doubts in the umpire's mind. Cronje, Strydom and Klusener were definitely victims of this factor.

It seemed as though yet again, the South African players would let the demons in their minds conquer them. More so when Pollock began emulating Kallis and pushing his pad at everything. He did it once too often, took one on his pads in front of middle stump as he misread the googly and played for the ball to leave him, and RSA were in big trouble at 128/6.

If you have to single out one over that turned the game, you would pick the over Murali Karthik bowled to Shaun Pollock immediately before Kumble got his wicket. Karthik had till that point bowled superbly -- more so when you consider that the lad is making his debut, and bowling against very few runs on the board. Pollock, risking all, stepped well to leg and as Karthik pitched leg and turned it to off, slashed a cut at it that beat the slips and went through to third man for four. One ball later, Karthik fired one down the leg side, Pollock let it go and Mongia, reacting late, saw it go between his legs down to third man for four byes.

How did that one turn the game? Simple enough -- just before that sequence of two fours, the pressure had been intense. It had taken RSA 33 deliveries (Kallis making the single, his first in 26 balls faced) to score one run. In between, there were near misses galore. And suddenly, eight runs came off two balls, and the spell was The ask also came down -- from 44 to 36.

Mark Boucher came out, and for the first time, showed the difference a positive outlook can make. The Karthik line, pitching in the rough outside leg and turning in dramatically, was countered with fierce sweeps that saw the ball racing to the fence. He then turned his attention to Kumble, stepping away from his stumps and crashing the leg spinner through the off cordon for more boundaries. Sure, there were alarums in there -- like his successive reprieves when Srinath, brought back on by Tendulkar, first had him on the pad, missing the LBW for the doubt as to the height the ball was making, and then made one jag back to take the bottom edge, the ball bouncing over the stumps and missing them by a whisker.

But Boucher shrugged off those escapes, continued to back himself, and with positive strokeplay, took his team home with a superb cameo.

And India had lost again.

"The bowlers bowled very well, we failed them by not putting enough runs on the board in the second, you can't win Test matches with just 113 runs in the second innings," was Tendulkar's post match comment.

To those who have been following the team's fortunes of late, there would seem to be a sense of deja vu in that remark.

You could add a few more 'can'ts' to that list. You can't win Tests simply by giving press conferences where you blah about sporting pitches, and end up producing one on which 36 batsmen make 678 runs and the entire game ends in less than three days. You can't win Tests with a pair of openers who can't even get the score into double digits. You can't win Test matches if you pick personalities -- vide the strange case of Ajay Jadeja, not fit for the 14 one day, playing in the 11 the next. You can't win Test matches with just four bowlers, especially if one of those bowlers -- Ajit Agarkar to name names -- is an iffy commodity.

You can't....

But why am I telling you all this? The guys who need to think are the selectors, who in this instance, insisted on their right to chose the playing twelve on the eve of the Test. And the national selectors neither think, nor do they read others' thoughts, in this or any other forum.

So why belabour the point, right?

Right -- see you in Bangalore for the second Test. Till which moment in time, adios.


Mail Prem Panicker