August 23, 2002

Ganguly, Tendulkar, Dravid serve a dish to be savoured

Sachin Tendulkar scores runs with such machinelike regularity it's boring to watch. A century is just another day in the office for him. He breaks records but isn't a match-winner. He doesn't have the patience to play long innings when the bowling is restrictive. Sourav Ganguly loses his cool easily and can be chirped into throwing away his wicket. Even little children know he can't play short-pitched bowling to save his life. He's been sorted out by a captain with a plan and bowlers with discipline. Rahul Dravid is too caught up in proper technique to score under pressure. He's never going to make it when bowlers bowl to a field and cut out the singles.

Had I been sitting in the press-box at Headingley writing for one of the more liberal Sunday papers in England, the first paragraph would have been negated with a single word. To avoid causing offence, however, I shall avoid the word that comes to mind and confine myself to "rubbish," belted out in the best Geoff Boycott Yorkshire drawl, as being more appropriate. On a day when India did an Australia, scoring 348 runs for the loss of just two wickets in an astounding 83.1 overs, there's a serious chance that scribes ran out of superlatives and statisticians ran for cover at some of the milestones crossed. The fans, however, must have been glued to their seats; a better advertisement for Test cricket you'd be hard-pressed to find.

It all began, as it so often does in Indian cricket, with Dravid showing his bat-maker's label to every ball bowled at him and setting up the kind of platform his freer-stroking colleagues could exploit maximally. With the obdurate patience of a trappist monk, Dravid saw off the early movement on a rain-soaked day at Headingley, defied the gloom that shrouded Leeds in the guise of a thick blanket of clouds, and showed his colleagues what was possible with a little application.

Making 148 invaluable runs, Dravid strung together the first major partnership of this innings - 170 for the second wicket with Sanjay Bangar.

Then came a little man under a lot of pressure. Tendulkar, who has been under the microscope for some perceived lack of form - a bad patch that in 2002 has yielded 924 runs at an average of 61.60 so far - demonstrated his class with a sparkling unfinished 185. Like a guitar riff out his favourite Dire Straits, Tendulkar began slowly yet firmly, lifted his pitch to a more frenetic yet no less solid middle essay, and ended in an explosive crescendo that left you breathless.

Offering almost no chances until India was firmly in the driver's seat, Tendulkar straight-drove with pedigree, pulled with the power normally associated with four-wheel drives, and ran between the wickets like a hare with its tail on fire. That was what he did to get to his 30th Test ton, easing past Sir Don Bradman's tally and leaving just Sunil Gavaskar ahead of him on that particular race to the top.

Tendulkar added 150 in association with Dravid before the Karnataka middle-order bat was foxed by an Ashley Giles beauty, a rare delivery that was not aimed at testing the quality of batting leg-guards.

Ganguly is the kind of man people love to hate. Lord Snooty, some call him, in the land where cricket originated, and not too kindly one might add. He responded in kind on the day, dishing out the most unkind treatment to pacemen and spinners alike. Giles, whose brand of fire-it-into-the-legs-and-hope-for-the-best left-arm spin has caused several Indian batsmen to develop an unhealthy, and often fatal, contempt for his bowling, came in for the worst punishment, being hit for 23 runs in an over. The Indian skipper, hitting the ball into the stands with a nonchalance that few in international cricket can match, put team ahead of self and wasted no time in the nervous nineties. Courageous stuff from a man who had been dismissed for 99 in just his last innings.

When the light was offered, Ganguly shrugged and said to the umpires, "We'll play on." Hussain's gents walked off the field at Trent Bridge in eminently playable light, lost nine overs, and rued it on the last day when they had all but closed the lid on the Indian coffin and did not have the overs left to drive the nails home.

But play on India did, and how! Andy Caddick, returning to Test cricket as England spearhead, returned figures of none for 139, Giles did better at 1/134, Alex Tudor picked up the last wicket to fall ending on 1/113. It was an all-out assault that dismantled every tactic Hussain could conjure up, bruised every carefully cultivated bowler's ego, and thrilled the fans. Even the kindly old man in the stands whose enthusiasm hardly matched his catching skills, struck full on the head and rendered bleeding by one Ganguly tonk, could hold no grudge. Such was the freedom and joy of the Indian skipper's 128.

Ganguly and Tendulkar, then, in their rendition of the "Charge of the Light Brigade" bludgeoned 249 in 59.3 overs for the fourth wicket.

This was the first time in the history of Indian cricket that three consecutive 150-plus partnerships had been constructed in a Test innings. Numbers, numbers, numbers! Frankly, it was also one of the few times an Indian team so pressured by rows with officialdom had come together to ensure that events on the field kept everything else stayed out of the headlines. It was the first instance in a long time the batting order, so prophetically feared by Hussain, had delivered the goods when it was crunch time. It seemed to be the first time that cliques within the team came together and stood as one before the opposition; but India have done that against the British before, haven't they?

The job in this case is not quite done until the Indians bowl well enough to take 20 wickets. Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh will have to do the lion's share of the work, aided by, to misquote the Beatles, a little help from their friends. Zaheer Khan can breathe fire in short spells, Ajit Agarkar is a skiddy customer, and Sanjay Bangar might prove surprisingly useful.

It's early days yet for crystal-ball gazing, but the spirit smacks of India v Australia at Kolkata. If the Indians can do a Houdini and walk away with that elusive win outside the subcontinent, there will be at least one man in a serious quandary in that city where the miracle against the Aussies was conceived.

For how on earth will Jagmohan Dalmiya find it in his heart to send a second-string team to the ICC Champions Trophy if this lot returns victorious? Go on Ganguly, for the sake of fans who want no more than a good game of cricket, give shrewd old Jaggu something to fret about.