India and Australia: Another delectable duet
A couple of posts ago, I wrote of my anguish at having missed out on a type of Test finish I'd always wanted to see. In the Bangalore Test, I felt the opportunity had come for India to pull off another kind of Test win that I don't normally associate with them: a close, aggressive chase on the last day. But I was pessimistic about this, because the business of taking the last three wickets was still unfinished. Would India be incisive enough to quickly wrap things up; would they chase hard, and not get flustered by early wickets if they fell? I still thought a draw could happen, and my cautiousness led me to pick this as the most likely result.
But, I didn't want to miss out on the end, so the alarm was duly set for 5 AM, and I staggered out to settle down for what I thought would be a close-run final session. Well, all I got was another 30 minutes of action. Not only had India ripped through the tail, they had scored at over four runs an over, sent in a debutant at number three ahead of Rahul Dravid, and generally bossed things on their way to a 2-0 win. The end of this series was surprising in more ways than one. The Australians faded fast, and their feebleness contrasted with India's aggression even more starkly as the day wore on. And so, this frustratingly short series drew to a close. My sleep patterns will be happy but the cricketing part of my brain won't.
This was a series that can, and should be, used to showcase Test cricket: it is possible for a side to lose two Tests after winning tosses and scoring more than 400 runs in the first innings of each Test; games can be dead even after three days and then swing (almost) decisively one way on the fourth day; one delivery can mean all the difference in retrospect (Steven Smith's throw, Billy Bowden's finger could have meant that India could have walked into the Bangalore test 0-1 down); and so on. The daily swings in momentum, sometimes large, sometimes miniscule, were fascinating, as were the many little battles between individuals. (Virender Sehwag lost his against the Aussie bowlers; but still, one can't be too displeased by the fact that India beat Australia without a significant contribution from him).
In both Tests, India surrendered the early advantage of the toss, fought to keep the opening days even, and then let the Australian lower order take the initiative again. In their responses the Indian batting line-up threatened each time to rack up huge leads, but then obligingly handed back the party ball to the Australians, almost as if taking a first-innings lead would have been unbecoming of the hosts. Sachin Tendulkar would have been justified at screaming with frustration at the lower order on the fourth day of the Bangalore Test; a potentially match-winning double-ton was in danger of turning into another one of those exhibits in the Indian Museum of How We Let Tendulkar Down and Let Him Be Accused of Not Playing Match-Winning Innings.
Thankfully, in each second innings, the Indian bowlers, that much-maligned component of Indian teams, grabbed the advantage. Nothing, bar nothing, gave me more pleasure than watching the Australian tail go quickly. Forget about the top and middle orders; Indian bowlers have gotten rid of those in the past. It's the tail that always wags a little too much. But not this time.
In all of this, spare of a thought for the Australians. Despite their second-innings wobbles, they were not easily vanquished (and had managed to reduce India to 124-8 chasing 216 in Mohali). While everyone was busy congratulating the Bangalore crowd for rescuing Test cricket, no one bothered to wonder whether the presence of the Australians might not have had something to do with the large numbers that showed up. The Australians are still compelling, despite all their weaknesses.; they are, after all, an indispensable part of the famed India-Australia rivalry. Ricky Ponting, that much-maligned man, did not have his generosity in letting VVS Laxman have a runner in the first Test acknowledged by too many (and sadly, the Indian captain, MS Dhoni did not see fit to acknowledge the opposition in generous terms at the post-match ceremony; now that India are number one, they should show the loftiness of true champions and acknowledge the vanquished with grace). If the Australians can get their puzzling selections sorted out, they can still prove a mighty hard nut to crack for England.
This series is done, but fascinating challenges lie ahead for both its contenders. India will play New Zealand at home before they take on another perennial overseas challenge: the South Africans. Australia will try and regain the Ashes. And Test cricket, I'm pretty sure, will let everyone know what time it is.
Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here