August 27, 2002

The perfect reward for a glorious team effort

So the Indians finally got their act together and how! As the cliché goes, the only thing predictable about the Indian team is their unpredictability. Down in the dumps one match, they are able to lift their game to unbelievable heights the next, only to fail utterly again when hopes are justifiably high. If anything, the tour of England alone has symbolised the yo-yo display generally put up by the Indians.

After a glorious performance in the NatWest one-day series, culminating in a now famous triumph over England in the final, they went down quite unexpectedly in the first Test at Lord's. They received more than their share of brickbats, with both the highly-rated batting and the innocuous bowling coming in for criticism. And just when things looked bleak and the team was rated as no hopers when it came to even leveling the series, they came up with a showing that could not fail to win the hearts of even the most hard-bitten cynic.

It was not just the margin of victory - the biggest registered by any Indian team abroad - that was satisfying. It was not just the rarity of the event - it was only the fourth victory overall in 44 Test matches in England - that earned the visitors plaudits aplenty. Rarely has an Indian team gelled together in all departments with the consistency that they displayed at Headingley. Rarely too has an Indian team in 70 years dominated a match from first to last in such telling fashion.

Of the 13 sessions in the match, they dominated every session but one and that's not something that can be said with any regularity about an Indian team. And the fact that they did so abroad was the icing on the cake.

The bowling had always been the problem. On the evidence of the first two Tests, it did lack the firepower to bowl out England twice. But as I mentioned in my preview, with a big total in the kitty, even a toothless attack can suddenly develop fangs. I had also said that if India batted first and ran up a huge total, they could put England under pressure.

Rahul Dravid
© Reuters
This was exactly what happened. There was never any doubt about the strength of the Indian batting. It had only to bloom fully and at Headingley, the long awaited event finally took place. The big three of the Indian batting finally came good together. And when that happened the sun was bound to shine on Indian cricket - even in generally cloudy Leeds.

The approach of the batsmen was commendable. As long as conditions favoured the seam bowlers, as they did for much of the first day, Sanjay Bangar and Rahul Dravid held on courageously. Their second wicket partnership helped set up things for the pyrotechnics of Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly on the following day.

The big three put the ordinary England bowling in its place. Let's face it. The home team's bowling is as innocuous as the Indians. It was some rank bad batting and faulty planning by the visitors that helped improve their averages in the first two Tests.

A total of 600-plus is always a handy one. It gives the side added confidence and puts intense pressure on the opponents. Ganguly's aggressive tactics tied the England batsmen in knots and by the end of the third day, India were well on the road to victory. England's fightback thereafter was bound to be futile given the fact that both time and runs were against them, thanks to the big Indian lead and the nifty rate of scoring by Tendulkar and Ganguly on the second day.

I had mentioned in my preview that the time had come for the Indians to go in with two spinners, pointing out that in England in late August there was a strong case to opt for a spin-oriented attack, even at Headingley where conditions are known to favour seamers. Despite the gallant work done by seam bowlers of late - they have even won matches for India abroad - one should never put India's traditional strength on the back burner.

Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh
© CricInfo
With two seamers and two spinners playing the Test, the Indian attack certainly wore a more balanced look. For all the admirable efforts of Zaheer Khan and Ajit Agarkar, it must be said that Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh caused the Englishmen most problems. Almost every batsman found it more difficult to deal with the spinning ball than the seaming ball and one can already see the spin duo rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of bowling in tandem at the Oval where they should find the conditions more amiable.

Now that everything has clicked and the Indian team is looking good, what can we expect in the final Test commencing next week, with both teams having everything to play for? Given the up and down manner in which events have unfolded during the series, it would take a bold prophet to make a prediction. The Oval was the scene of one of Indian cricket's finest hours in 1971. And conditions favour spin more at Surrey's home ground than anywhere else in England. Against that is the Indian record of not having won a series outside the sub continent since 1986.

There is also this irritating habit of losing a Test immediately after winning one. It has happened on the last three occasions in Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and West Indies - so very much in keeping with the Indians' inconsistency. I don't think I would want to stick my neck out and predict what's going to happen at the Oval. In the meantime, let us savour a notable victory, which I am sure would be in anyone's list of half a dozen greatest triumphs in Indian cricket and will always remain the perfect tribute to a concerted team effort.