Choking to win
There was a time in the morning session, when Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman were in the middle, when Stuart Clark bowled with a short mid-on and two short midwickets, a semi-circle of three waiting for a chip in the air. Mitchell Johnson, bowling at the other end, operated with a staggered slip cordon containing five catchers and Andrew Symonds, brought on soon, was operating with a short midwicket, a lone third slip, and two short extra covers.
It was gimmicky but must have also been suffocating. India weren't blasted out of this Test, as a 337-run margin would suggest, but squeezed out of it. Ironically, in an innings where they went at a shade above two an over, five of their batsmen succumbed to the drive. They were choked with accurate bowling, tight field-settings and were trapped when trying to break out of jail. Even when India were seven down, there was just one slip in place. Often there were two points in place, prompting one hack to joke, 'one backward point and one awkward point.' The plan wasn't to intimidate but to cage.
Rewind to the series opener in Bangalore three years ago and things weren't too different. Unlike in 2001 and 2003-04, when the approach was more upbeat, the 2004-05 series was more about slow-burn. Australia weren't going to come out with all guns firing; it was more about turning the screw gradually.
It was a similar kind of pitch in Bangalore: unresponsive for stroke-making and getting slower and lower as the game went on. The weather wasn't too different either. Australia had their plans in place and executed it perfectly. Take out Virender Sehwag and you had a set of Indian batsmen who didn't try too much to upset the strategy. Conventional wisdom tells you to stay there for the runs to come but India needed to break out of the mould. Three years later and they walked into the same trap yet again. South Africa might claim the 'chokers' tag but Australia are mastering the art of choking India's batsmen.
|Australia weren't going to come out with all guns firing; it was more about turning the screw gradually|
The problem India have is their stay-and-the-runs-will-come approach has worked well in overseas Tests recently. They ground their way through the England series, with efficient and not spectacular performances, and saw the same work for most part of the recent series against Pakistan as well. Opposition bowlers have not been able to maintain the same intensity for too long. Opposition captains haven't had that many strategies up their sleeve.
"If you are looking to win Test matches you need a positive and healthy run-rate," said Anil Kumble, not shying away from the root of the problem. "Obviously the conditions did not help. The way the Aussies bowled and us losing wickets at regular intervals didn't help. But whenever we had a partnership we were scoring at a healthy rate so we just needed one batter going on to get a big score. It's just a matter of going out there and batting freely. We didn't do that in our two innings."
It's a fair assessment. The Tendulkar-Laxman and Laxman-Ganguly stand saw runs being scored at more than three an over. Australia, though, seemed to know a means to get through. Just as Dravid and Laxman appeared to have settled into a groove, you had Symonds changing from medium-pace to offspin. Three balls later, Dravid was trapped in front. Sachin Tendulkar showed the right intent, trying to push the rate on, but Brett Lee had a trick up his sleeve: bounce, bounce, bounce and throw it short and wide. Trying to break the shackles, Tendulkar nicked.
Laxman was up against one that stopped on him, saw his handle turn in his wrists, and popped one straight to extra cover. He was caught at a conventional field position but you would think it was the mind-games that might have put him off track. It's tough to adjust to a freakish field in one over and an orthodox one in the next.
If there's anyone to break open these handcuffs, it's Laxman. Look at his masterpieces against Australia - the 167 in Sydney in 1999, the 281 in Kolkata in 2001, the 178 in Sydney in 2004, and a few others - and you have a batsman not afraid to pull, charge or drive on the up. He's shown the power of an unfettered approach. India need to free their minds; it's the only way they're going to get anywhere in this series.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is an assistant editor at Cricinfo