I watched most of the first test. ‘Most’ because everyday, I was either sleepy (and hence disinterested) or the Australians were pulverizing India. Overall, I think (fairly obvious thought here) that the Indians bowled their way out of the match on the first day. In fact, on the first day I was too pissed off with the bowlers to watch the game after lunch.
The story of the test match, for India at least, was Irfan Pathan! Pathan showed the way - first with Patel in the first innings and then with Dravid and Harbhajan in the second innings. A look at Pathan’s batting in the second innings should highlight what I am trying to convey. Dravid used to drive the ball into deep cover and refuse the single that was there for the asking. And on the last ball of the over, try to the take a single to keep strike. But Gilchrist would shrewdly moved the field to cut the singles and Pathan would have to face the next over. And he did just that.
For the first 79 balls of his 141 ball innings, Pathan was the obdurate defender going, at one point, 87 minutes without a run. Now if that isn’t what our esteemed commentators would call “going into a shell” then I must be mistaken. And then Dravid got out. At this point, I expected, regardless of his first inning 31, Pathan to get out soon, but he did something else. For the next 62 balls he faced, Pathan was the confidence personified. He proceeded to 55 mixing boundaries (6 more) and a couple of huge sixes over deep mid-wicket with the display of the some of the best defensive strokes that I have seen played against Shane Warne. I have seen a lot batsmen pad away Warne’s turners, but the use of the straight bat, particularly by a tail-ender, with such frequency blew my mind. We might have seen the first of many such innings from Pathan. However, he has to be treated cautiously. Regardless of the fact that he seemed to be a better batsman (going by his 85+ runs in this match) than Patel, the urge to move him up the order any more should be resisted.
As for Warne, the wait continues. Regardless of what a few people claimed, the ball that got Laxman in the first innings can (and should) never be compared to Warne’s first ball in an Ashes series. Laxman had only himself to blame for this dismissal. It seemed as if he had lost track of where his off stump was and this dismissal was quite similar to the when Shoaib Akhtar got him during a game in the Pakistan ODI series. The ball pitched on middle and leg and just went past his edge to take the off stump away. Standard leg spinner and he did not even have to use the rough. Warne seemed to wilt under Pathan and Harbhajan’s attack in the second innings.
At one point, after hitting the six that pushed the runs on Warne’s bowling analysis over 100 in the second innings, Harbhajan actually smiled (looking at Warne and clapped). And though the old bad habits (like the checked drive that he played against McGrath in the first innings) still were around, Pathan’s defense seemed to have rubbed off on Harbhajan and both played Warne comfortably and batted him out of the attack till Gillespie and McGrath came back to finish the formalities with the new ball. Zaheer threw his bat around at the new ball and contributed to the proceedings too, frustrating the bowlers to the maximum extent possible. But the new ball helped end the misery, though much later than originally thought.
The umps played a role too. While I don’t agree with what Sanjay Manjrekar (or was it L.Sivaramakrishnan) said – that the bad decisions that went against either team compensated each other, I still cannot cry over those decisions and yet be impartial, which I try to be. But I also have started to believe that cricket is a sport where if there’s a mistake early in a team’s (or a batsman’s) inning then that mistake has a greater possibility of affecting the result than a mistake that comes much later. Hence, I think Sehwag’s dismissal in the second inning had a greater impact on the result than a few others. Moreover it seemed as if luck (associated with an ump’s good decision) deserted India in just the most inopportune of times.
Well on the hindsight, the negative line from Harbhajan on the first day might have been the right strategy - to try to exploit the footmarks of Zaheer and Pathan. But it did not seem to work and the ball did not do much. It just seemed that Harbhajan was waiting for a mistake from the Aussie batsmen (a top edged sweep to be specific). That worked too and Hayden fell for that trap. But I would have tried that tactic only after I was sure that an attacking field did not work. And in going on the defensive with Harbhajan, I thought we lost the psychological advantage that carried over from 2001. I also thought Zaheer and Pathan were taken off too early. As the later days showed, the pitch had something for the fast bowlers as well.
In both the innings, it was as if the Indians had taken a leaf out of Kenwood’s tactic against the Master Blasters in 1996-97. For the uninitiated, the Master Blasters, a short lived team for which I played a couple of games in the Hostel Tournaments, was put into bat by Kenwood, a team that had a reputation of being unbeatable. And after dismissing us cheaply (50 odd I think), they decided to bat top down and send the tail-enders first. A combination of tight bowling, inept batting by the Kenwood pseudo-top and middle orders and an awesome catch or two gave them quite a scare and they finally won in the last over (16 over game) with a wicket to spare. However in India’s case it was quite the opposite.
What I mean is that the tail-enders showed the way with Patel, Zaheer and Pathan having impressive outings with the bat. The other batsmen perished to being in an inflexible frame of mind, given the nature of the wicket where McGrath and Gillespie seemed to be ineffective (in taking wickets) with the old ball. Only Kasprowiz seemed have it in him to trouble every one, but then I expected him to do that all the same given his billing as a sub-continent specialist in recent times. Batman after batsman came in and left without consolidating. And to our folly, anytime a batsman of the same caliber as that of the Indian top order, plays to consolidate, we fans call for their head and lament the fact that these batsmen have lost their strokes. Sachin baiters – are you listening?
Regardless of this test match, I wouldn’t go for any change for the next. Sachin is more or less unavailable (regardless of the unsuccessful disinformation aimed to psyche the Aussies) and so the only change, if the team management wants, would be to replace Yuvraj with Kaif. Yuvraj did not make much of an impression, other than those catches and in any case, if Chopra needs to be rested towards the end of the innings, Yuvraj can be brought in to substitute for Chopra at silly point or short leg. Another change, which I wouldn’t advise too much, would be to let Agarkar take Zaheer’s place. On the second day of the first test, I made a comment to my friends which I thought I never would. I have always thought Agarkar was over-rated, but the absence of any variety in the pace attack might be the catalyst for his inclusion. Aaah… If only Balaji was fit!