A twist in India's tail
Part of India's preparation for each Test involves a bowlers' meeting. Along with the bowling coach and computer analyst, the bowlers discuss plans for the Test, trying to work out opposition batsmen while factoring in conditions. It wouldn't be a surprise, though, if the focus of discussion is more than just bowling. One gets a sneaking suspicion that they're chatting a good deal about batting as well.
Several factors have gone into India's improvement as a Test side over the last two years, one of which is the outstanding contributions from the lower order. It's a tail that's wagged and swished, defending and attacking in equal measure. Cameos have altered momentum, stone-walling knocks have consumed time. Rarely have they capitulated without a fight. With both ball and bat, they've exceeded expectations.
Anil Kumble has led the way. In 29 innings since March 2006, he's racked up 646 runs at a shade below 25. His 87 here was vital, mainly because of the time he used up and the nuisance value it added. Bowlers know how irritating it is to see tail-enders spend time in the middle, dealing with their awkward technique and aimless slashes. Kumble did his best to torture Australia in the heat.
A batsman who rarely pulls, it would have gladdened him no end to see two fielders on the leg-side boundary. On a pitch still perfect for batting, he put together an efficient innings, concentrating on the cover-drive and dabbing deftly to leg. So full of grit is his game that it's difficult to set up him. Two bouncers aren't going to push him back completely. He'll ensure the yorker is dug out just fine.
Kumble is making a habit of this. At The Oval last year he piled the agony on England, chipping away when they were demoralised. Joining him for a 73-run last-wicket stand was Sreesanth, knocking in the final nail in the coffin with a 32-ball 35. At Kingston in 2006, another series-decider, Kumble was India's second-best batsman. Many will remember his over-my-dead-body 45 in the first dig but his 57-minute vigil in the second was as vital. He's reinvented his bowling over the last four years but it should escape nobody that he's rediscovered his batting groove over the last two.
The 107-run partnership with Harbhajan Singh (196 runs at 24.50 since May 2006) was crucial for the manner in which it was constructed. While Kumble used his bat like a shield, Harbhajan preferred to substitute it for a fly-swatter. Solidity at one end was met with mayhem at the other. You can't really plan for either batsman: one sticking to his limitations, the other acting as though there were no limits. A short one to Kumble is likely to elicit a jump-prod, one to Harbhajan may see a helicopter swing. Some batting pairs alter the bowlers' rhythm, others mess with their peace.
The last year-and-a-half has no shortage of such little gems. VRV Singh's devil-may-care 29 shifted the momentum of the Johannesburg Test in late 2006, RP Singh played a vital hand in Perth and Ishant Sharma has managed well in Sydney and here. One mustn't forget that Zaheer Khan's match-winning spell in Nottingham came after he was taunted with jelly-beans at the crease.
"Their tail has batted with courage and determination," said Adam Gilchrist. "They've supported their senior partner. Sachin did a great job at Sydney, Kumble here. RP Singh did a good job in Perth." Like catching, lower-order batting is said to be an index of team work. For any four-Test series involving India, this is the most number of runs put on by No's. 8 to 11. The galacticos at the top of the order have set the stage but nobody should forget the foot-soldiers rounding off the good work.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is an assistant editor at Cricinfo