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March 2, 2000


India Down Under
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Different venue, same old story

Prem Panicker

Immediately after this Test, India and South Africa are slated to play five one dayers. Immediately thereafter, India is slated to fly to Sharjah for a triseries involving South Africa and Pakistan. And after that, there is a lull for over two months.

Somehow, the way India approached play on the first day, at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore, against South Africa left you with the impression that the team just can't wait for that break. Cricket, for now, seems to be something they are forced into doing -- sort of like a schoolboy who hasn't done his homework, being pushed into attending class by a mother who won't listen to his 'mom, I have a fever, or do I mean toothache?' excuse.

The Indians made wholesale changes. With Ramesh's finger reportedly a bit sore, still, he was not risked in the opening slot. And that makes you wonder how come the selectors picked a less than fit player for the squad. Less than a month ago, Borde was making noises to indicate that all selectorial errors were actually the work of Kapil Dev and Sachin Tendulkar -- I wonder what his repsonse will be to this one? (Then again, since when has Borde, or any chairman of selectors, felt the need to take responsibility for his actions anyway?).

India thus opted to open with Jaffer and Dravid -- the one yet to find his feet at the highest level, the other shockingly low on form and confidence. Azharuddin was brought back into the middle order, Mohammad Kaif was given a chance to translate his promise at the junior level into performance at the senior grade, and the Indians went in with just one seamer in Srinath, preferring to add Nikhil Chopra's off spin to their armoury.

Ironically, Jaffer and Dravid gave India the best start it's had in a while, adding 29 for the first wicket. It was not all clean cricket -- Jaffer, who has a definite problem around the line just outside off when he plays off the front foot, was lucky to see edges not going to hand. Dravid meanwhile started off in style when he rocked back and smashed a short one from Pollock over point for four -- but promptly, and for no visible reason, went into his shell. On the plus side, the two did see off Donald's initial burst. Morganantu Hayward was brought on first change -- and struck at once. Hayward, who bowled the fastest delivery of the day when he sent down one clocked at 147.4 kmph and who, in general, averaged 139.2 (as opposed to Donald's fastest of 140 kmph, and average of 134), made one kick off a length, and got Jaffer pushing away from his body. Third slip was a touch late in reacting, and Jaffer was lucky to survive. The very next ball, though, saw the opener walking back, with Hayward pitching a really quick ball on line of off and seaming it away, for the batsman to push at it and get the inevitable edge.

Saurav Ganguly has looked a bit wasted at number six, and theoretically, his promotion to number three made sense. However, here he didn't last long enough to show if he could handle the responsibility of batting in that crucial slot. To the third ball he faced, from Pollock, Ganguly went across to off, completely misread the length and line to a ball pitching middle and off and straightening, padded up and was gone, plumb, in what can only be described as a very soft dismissal.

That brought Sachin Tendulkar to the wicket. A Tendulkar who appeared, for once in his career, to be playing with his mind on some other planet altogether, and far removed from the action he was supposedly part of. He started off with a bang, blazing a straight drive and then a pull, but there was even in that early shot-making that got him 13 runs off the first 14 balls faced (in the process, bringing up 6000 Test runs in his 76th Test), a feel that things were not quite right.

That feeling, that faint suspicion, became reality almost immediately afterwards as Sachin went into a completely inexplicable shell, scoring a mere two runs off the next 52 balls faced (another statistic -- India's first 50 came off 89 balls, the second 50 took 206 balls). The South African bowlers were very disciplined, certainly -- but nothing in the bowling warranted Tendulkar batting in that fashion. To make a bad situation worse, Dravid took his cue from his captain, and if he had coated his bat with fresh paint before coming out today, you would have been hard put to find even the faintest spot on that surface.

That kind of predetermined defence -- a less kind description would be 'dumb defence' -- has inevitably brought disaster with it. Here, Cronje was the instrument of that disaster. The South African captain pitched off and seamed it in fractionally. Nothing alarming about that ball -- but Dravid had decided that he was going to defend, so he went forward, and was stuck there, a long time before the ball got to him, and could only watch as the ball took the edge onto pad for a simple take behind the stumps.

That brought Azharuddin to the crease, and animation to the crowd. That animation was short-lived, though. The South Africans promptly peppered the former India skipper with a series of short-pitched stuff. Azhar visibly lost his composure, swung and missed often, and it all looked a matter of time, really, before the wicket fell. Azhar stood tall and slashed at one ball from Donald, slapping it through the covers for four. Predictably, the next one kicked in at him, Azhar pushed his bat at it in self defence, the ball hit the maker's label and lobbed to gully for a simple take.

Next man out, Tendulkar. After lunch, the Indian captain had continued his uncharacteristically iffy style of batting. Time and again he would play a false shot, then walk off towards square leg, muttering to himself and shaking his head in disgust. For a couple of balls after that, he would play correctly -- and then, bang, there he would go again, hitting out and more often than not, looking more like a gully cricketer than a batsman whose strokeplay at its best has the cricketing world in raptures. His innings ended when out of the blue, he decided to pull a not so short ball from Hayward, looking to drag it over the on side from well outside off. Considering that he had for most of his innings been content to play defensive pushes, the need for that shot escapes logical analysis -- in the event, he played it late, got the toe of the bat on it, and gave his opposite number a chance to display his catching skills at mid off.

Mohammad Kaif, playing in his first Test innings, came across as a lad with fine temperament. He seemed unfazed by the situation, equally unflustered when first Donald, then Kallis, went after him with some in-your-face abuse. He is not, as yet, your perfect middle order batsman -- a tendency to go on the front foot too quickly makes you wonder how he will shape on wickets that are fast enough to deny you that luxury (remember the number of front foot killers who got found out Down Under?). But against that, he seems to have the temperament for the highest level, and at 19, that is a huge bonus -- now if the board can get its act together and ensure that the lad gets the right kind of coaching, you just might have a decent middle order option open to you.

Kaif fell misjudging Kallis' ability to generate real pace. If, on this dead track, Donald had hit a high of 140, then Kallis wasn't far behind at 139.4 as his fastest ball on the day. The one he bowled to Kaif was up there around that pace -- quicker than his average, the ball hurried on to the batsman before he was fully in line, hit him on the pad, and he was gone, plumb in front of the wicket.

Then came a partnership between Mongia and Kumble that put the batting that went before in some kind of perspective. Both batsmen put a premium on their wickets, both of them hung on and refused the South Africans the luxury of breaking through and, most importantly, both took runs whenever the bowlers lapsed in line and length. The difference in attitudes was best symbolised in one over, when Donald, frustrated by his inability to break through, cut loose with a mouthful aimed at Mongia (in passing, how much more of this will the fast bowler get away with before the match referee decides to pat him on the shoulder and go come on now, don't be a bad boy?!). The Indian keeper, to the very next ball, made room to leg and smashed the fast bowler through cover for four, stopping Donald in his tracks -- and then added insult to injury by addressing some words to him.

Around this time, Cronje had been forced to call in Nicky Boje, in a bid to quicken an over-rate that was slacking a bit given the preponderance of pace till then. Surprise, surprise -- the left arm spinner began making the ball bounce and turn from ball one, an indicator of the way this pitch is going to play over the next four days. Boje in fact took out Mongia when, after a few fizzing turners, he straightened one with the arm, angling it from outside off, hitting middle and straightening to hit the pad on line of middle and off. The umpire was prompt in raising his finger -- and a point needs to be made here. When the ball struck, the television commentators -- Tony Greig and Barry Richards -- both immediately indicated that the batsman could be not out. When the umpire raised his finger, Greig's reaction was, 'Uh oh, I would like another look at that'. Two views of the replay later, both Greig and Richards were calling it a very good decision, taken unhesitatingly.

The umpire? A V Jayaprakash, the man who was said to be Kumble's equal partner in that ten wicket haul.

By this time, Kumble had really hit his straps. Even as his bowling seems to be falling away, Kumble has discovered very good touch with the bat, and here he nursed debutant Chopra through a partnership, exhorting him to eschew the big hits and just hang in there. Which Chopra did very well, shutting one end up, holding up the South African bowlers looking to rip through the lower order, and letting Kumble do the hard work at the other end. A floater from Boje on middle, however, tempted Chopra into the drive, the batsman failed to get hold of it properly and managed only to play it down mid on's throat, to reduce India to 138/8.

That brought Murali Karthik to the crease. By pushing him to number 11, was someone making a point to Srinath? Probably telling him that his irresponsible ways at the crease lately needed to end? Perhaps. In the event, though, Karthik's tenure was short-lived -- Kumble pushed to mid on and called for the quick run, his partner hesitated a fraction, and with the South African fielding, a fractional hesitation is all you need to bring about your dismissal.

A suitably chastened Srinath then came out, and hung around with Kumble long enough to ensure that India's score topped 150 -- something that did not seem possible at the tea break -- before Pollock took him out with a late inswinger that he sliced into the covers. Kumble, displaying grit and a lot of character, remained unbeaten on 36 -- by far the highest score in the Indian innings.

That India would attack with spin was a given -- and here, they did it right from the start. Srinath with the new ball at one end, Kumble at the other, was how they lined up at the start. And with a ring of six fielders around the bat, Gibbs made the same mistake many of the Indian batsmen had made earlier -- he settled for predetermined defence, pushed his pad at an arm ball from Kumble, and got the LBW verdict against him. The verdict was fair -- and the umpire, for those interested, was Tiffin.

South Africa, with Niky Boje hanging on grimly in the face of a final over from Chopra, went in with the score 11/1. And all signs are that it is going to be a long, hard battle for them on the morning of day two, despite the low score they are chasing.