Michael Clarke: a future star of world cricket
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You know the sun is setting when the pyjamas come out. After the thrilling artistry and the tense contests of the Test series, the first game of the VB Series was anti-climatic and disappointing - rather like watching a Chuck Norris thriller after seeing Godfather I and II back to back. Within those parameters, of course, there was sufficient action to keep one entertained - much slogging, some improvisatory strokeplay, and plenty of hustle and bustle. And in at least one sense, it was an apt continuation from the Sydney Test.
At Sydney, an Australian giant walked off into the sunset. At Melbourne, the next Australian great asserted his talent. Michael Clarke's 63 off 66 balls was a delightful innings while it lasted, the latest in a series of innings that have showcased his talent in the recent past. Clarke averaged 65.4 at a strike-rate of 88.6 in ODIs before this match, and while the sample size for these figures is small, the manner of his playing indicates that he is a great player in the making. His footwork is reminiscent of that of Brian Lara, and the way he stepped out time and again to both Kumble and the medium pacers, with a minimum of risk, was thrilling. He spots length early, and the slightest deviation is punished with clinical brutality. Clarke should be tried out in the Test side, now that there is a vacancy for a great. As Australia picked Ponting early and nurtured him, so it should be with Clarke.
If Clarke moves like Muhammad Ali, Symonds hits like Mike Tyson. Symonds played some outrageous strokes today, especially square of the wicket. His six over extra cover and his pulls off Kumble and Sourav Ganguly were especially remarkable. He struck the ball firmly, ran hard, and kept the run-rate climbing through the middle overs despite Australia being three wickets down.
India's bowlers, inexperienced as they were, did not do too badly. On a good pitch for batting, they had to bowl to a line-up of batsmen who brutalise bowling with habitual ease. Ajit Agarkar's first two wickets were more due to the batsmen's impetuousness than his own guile, but he produced a lovely snorter to get rid of Damien Martyn first ball, and bowled with control in the death overs, an area of the game he has previously had problems with. His final figures of 6 for 42, his best figures in ODIs, were notable not just for the wickets he took but his economy-rate. At one point, Australia had appeared likely to cross 300, but they just did not have enough wickets in hand when it was time to up the tempo. And India, for once, did not panic at the end.
And what of the Indian batting? Would Sachin Tendulkar play a cover-drive? During his masterfully restrained 241 not out at Sydney, he eschewed anything risky outside off stump, and got most of his runs on the leg side. But he did not bring that same steely determination to this party, and flashed and missed and swung and missed and slashed and got a few runs away time and again. Jason Gillespie, though he fired in a few wides, bowled superbly with the new ball - there's little one can do against balls that pitch on a length on middle-and-leg and beat the outside edge. Brad Williams also got the ball to cut away from the batsman, though he was ludicrously wayward in the early part of his spell. It was a comedy of errors: Williams pitching short and wider and wider, Sehwag reaching out and slashing harder and harder; and missing.
Both Sehwag and Tendulkar played hit-and-miss innings, scrappy knocks that, perhaps, were a natural outcome of having to play ODIs after five weeks of such enthralling Test cricket. Ganguly played with more purpose, though he could not finish the job off this time. He has proved that he is a fine Test cricketer, but it is the one-day stage that he strides like a goliath.
Two knotty issues confront India now. One is the (un)suitability of VVS Laxman at No. 4. Laxman has shown in the past that he has the qualities to be a good one-day No. 3, of building innings and being the solid anchor around whom things can revolve. But Ganguly already occupies that slot, and Tendulkar would bat at No. 3 if Ganguly opened. Laxman's skills do not seem too suited to No. 4 in one-dayers, where he would often be coming in to bat with 20 overs left and no time to settle in.
The other problem is that of Dravid as wicketkeeper. Dravid dropped a catch early on today, but it seems unjust to blame him for it, because he is, after all, not a specialist at that job, and has been forced into it for the sake of team balance. At the same time, such mistakes are not acceptable. Having said that, India's top specialist wicketkeeper, Parthiv Patel, made quite a few such errors in the Test series. It would be hard on Dravid to say that he has to get his act together, when he is basically a batsman, and easily good enough to hold his place in the side for batting alone. So what is to be done?
There are no easy solutions to problems such as these. Maybe Laxman will evolve into a late-overs hustler with the same dexterity with which Dravid made that switch. Maybe Patel will be tried in the ODI side and will show that he's no mean bat. Maybe Tendulkar and Ganguly will open, with Sehwag going down to No. 6 and Laxman at No. 3. Anything can happen in this unpredictable game - though it is a fair bet to say that the VB Series will not develop into remotely as exciting a contest as the Test series between Australia and India was.
Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.