December 20, 2007

More than a Test series

It isn't just the Border-Gavaskar trophy that's at stake: Captain Kumble holds the future of the long game in his hands.

The Indian tour of Australia that's just gotten under way, is historically significant for all sorts of reasons. It's important for India for the same reason as every other tour of Australian has been: it offers us the opportunity to do what we have never done before — beat Australia at home. It has been nearly sixty years since we started playing Test matches against the Australians and to not have won an Australian rubber even once, is, well, feeble. And it's no use saying we nearly beat them the last time round: 'nearly won' doesn't show up in Wisden.

It's significant for Australia because Ricky Ponting's men have a real chance of breaking the record for most consecutive Test wins set by Steve Waugh's Australians. Waugh won sixteen Test matches in a row and the current team took their tally to fourteen by destroying the Sri Lankans over two Test matches. We're going to play four Test matches against them, so theoretically the Australians could have notched up seventeen in a row by the time we get to the final Test at the Adelaide Oval.

I don't think that will happen but given this Australian team it's within the bounds of possibility. If it comes to pass (and as fans of an Indian touring team we should always consider worst-case possibilities) international Test cricket might have to consider letting Australia field a second team at the Test level if only to allow other teams the satisfaction of beating an Australian side.

Even the second-worst possibility, losing the series 2-0 or 3-0, will mark a new low for Test cricket. Never has any team dominated Test cricket as completely as the Australians have, not even the West Indies under Lloyd. The fact that the present Australian team is competing against its predecessor for the record of most consecutive Test wins speaks for itself. One-sidedness in Test cricket isn't best illustrated by Bangladesh playing, say, India; it is increasingly illustrated by Australia on one side and Country X on the other.

There's only one team in the world that has played Tests against Australia in the twenty-first century on roughly level terms and that team is India. The last three Test series between the two teams have been split: one won, one lost and one drawn. Yes, I know, we would have won the last rubber we played in Australia 2-1 if we had closed out the Sydney Test, but, like I said, nearly isn't a number.

Still, the fact that India has been competitive over time is important not just for the morale of Indian cricket but for the Test cricket as a competitive sport in general. You could argue that England's Ashes victory was a bigger event on cricket's Richter Scale, given the history of that rivalry, but a country as consistently mediocre as England was never going to lead a sustained challenge to Australian hegemony and so it proved. There was a time when South Africa briefly threatened to take Australia on at its own game—fast bowling, fielding, aggression—but that was years ago and the robotic brittleness of Graeme Smith's team has been brutally exposed by the Australians.

That leaves Kumble's men gingerly holding the torch for the Rest of the World. What are their chances? If we overcome, as we did on our last tour of Australia, the jitters of the first Test and manage to draw it, I think we have a reasonable chance of splitting the series. Draw at the MCG, win at the SCG, lose at the WACA and bring out the batting heroics to draw the last Test in Adelaide. That's the sanguine but sane scenario. The insanely optimistic one is that we win at Sydney and don't lose at Perth. Everything else remains equal and we win 1-0.

It all hinges on Anil Kumble winning the toss at Melbourne and electing to bat. The two men who'll walk out to open the innings for India could any one of three combinations: Wasim Jaffer with Karthik, Dravid or Sehwag. I think Kumble will open the series with Karthik because Sehwag would be too large a gamble for the first game and forcing Dravid to open to accommodate Yuvraj would feel a bit like pushing your soundest batsmen to open in conditions where you're likely to need his solidity lower in the order. Unless Dravid volunteers to do the job; as I write this, he has opened with Jaffer against Victoria and is doing well. If we win the toss the Indian line-up has the opportunity to make a substantial score and scrap for a draw. If we lose the toss and field, we'll be a match down by the time we get to Sydney, because the Indian team has a scarily fragile bowling attack.

Harbhajan will likely play only the one Test, the match in Sydney, so for most of the time, India will be served by Kumble and three seamers. Three of them are left-arm fast-medium seamers. The two who aren't, Ishant Sharma and Pankaj Singh, are frighteningly green. Either Kumble and Zaheer, the two senior bowlers, turn on the magic with a regularity that's unfair to expect, or one of the support bowlers turns out to be a revelation. If neither happens I can't see how we're going to bowl this Australian batting card out twice with the bowlers we have. And if we come in to bat second with the kind of scores the Australians raised against Sri Lanka, say 600 for 5, our golden oldies will eventually buckle under the strain of playing catch-up.

So we need lots of luck with the coin, consistency from Jaffer, several last hurrahs from the Quartet, inspiration from Ishant Sharma (or someone like him) and umpires who aren't over-awed by the greatest team in the world. Otherwise Australia will get to eighteen on the trot, Phil Jaques could be confirmed as the greatest opening batsman since Gavaskar and Mike Hussey might, in fact, turn out to be a left-handed Bradman. It'll be the end of Test cricket as we know it. So it isn't just the Border-Gavaskar trophy that he's vying for: Captain Kumble holds the future of the long game in his hands.

Mukul Kesavan is a writer based in New Delhi