Indian Cricket January 4, 2008

Laxman was sublime but India need more

One of Tendulkar, Ganguly and Yuvraj has to get a century

Peter Roebuck has said all that needs to be said about the umpiring on the first day of the Sydney Test. The Indian bowlers, given how thin the attack looked on paper, were first-rate. Disregard the static about how a truly resilient bowling attack would have picked itself off the floor: this one just did. RP Singh and his fellows took Mark Benson's gift to Ricky Ponting in their stride and reduced Australia to 134 for 6. (Ponting, by the way, did a Yuvraj and moaned about getting a bad decision having benefited from his let off!). The spinners then gamely tried to put Steve Bucknor's hearing-aid moment behind them by having Andrew Symonds stumped twice but the third umpire was astigmatic and didn't give the first one, so Bucknor sensibly didn't refer the second stumping to him to stop him from giving technology a bad name.

For the Indians, RP Singh and Sachin Tendulkar were exceptional. The four wickets that RP Singh took were actually out, which, with umpires like these, must count for something. The outstanding Australian player was Brad Hogg. He started the counter-attack and caned the bowling with such smiling good cheer that Anil Kumble and the rest must have wondered if he was Adam Gilchrist's cousin. Then Brett Lee did his part by putting the boot in on the second morning. It's the depth of this Australian lower order that kills visiting sides off; if the batsmen don't get you the allrounders will. This Test may well turn on Symonds' big hundred but that had so many fathers that it must count as a collaboration, not an individual achievement.

I haven't watched a lovelier innings than the one VVS Laxman played today in years. The cover drives were reliably sublime but it was the onside shots, the whips and pulls and flicks that made me grin and nod like a hypnotized child. When threading a packed off-side field wasn't challenging enough, he seemed to experiment, for the sake of his art, with more improbable angles. Long legged and stooped, Laxman occupies the crease like a slightly worried, but marvellously graceful stork. His stroke-play is non-violent; when he's in his zone the strokes seem to be played in some abstract cause - beauty? geometry? - rather than the needs of the contest itself. It isn't true, of course. His epic innings have always been played in ferociously competitive contexts; it's just that he never looks dogged or fierce or elaborately determined.

That said, this innings mightn't rank amongst his best because it doesn't seem big enough. Size matters; India needed a repeat of his two previous centuries at Sydney, a hundred and fifty at least. If stumps had been taken on the second day with Laxman and Rahul Dravid at the crease, Indian fans could have gone to bed dreaming of six hundred runs, Kolkata redux. As things stand, a sensibly optimistic scenario would have India matching the Australian score over two sessions and a bit on the third day and then look to RP Singh, Kumble and the enigmatic Harbhajan Singh to keep the Aussies down to a plausible fourth-innings target. One of Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and Yuvraj Singh has to get a century for any of this to happen. If it is Yuvraj, he will have earned his Test spurs and this blog will happily abase itself and acknowledge its absolute ignorance. But someone had better do it, because if they don't, Laxman's magical innings will be diminished; it'll become one more pretty thing to be salvaged by desis from the familiar wreckage of defeat.

Mukul Kesavan is a writer based in New Delhi