February 5, 2002

A learning experience for the Indian team

In the last couple of years, the Indian team has registered limitedovers series victories over New Zealand, South Africa and Zimbabwe at home, and had only lost to world champions Australia, that too by a slim 3-2 margin.


Yet another lesson is that the lack of an all-rounder continues to have considerable impact on the middle overs. Agarkar, in this context, continues to be an enigma. Despite a couple of good performances with bat and ball, he still has not cemented his place in the side, which for a lad of his undoubted talent can only be termed disappointing.
Given this admirable record, it came as no surprise when they were listed as hot favourites to wrap up the six-match series against England in double-quick time. With these expectations in mind, when the final margin reads three-all, then it is clear that there is something wrong with the Indian side ­ and that there are lessons to be learnt.

The first lesson to be driven home is the fact that the Indians just do not learn from past mistakes; notice how they threw away winning chances in successive games at New Delhi and Mumbai. When the asking rate, with wickets to spare, is under six an over, where is the need to go for shots that have an element of risk?

The second lesson is that they cannot move in for the kill. The best example of this came about during the last-wicket partnership between Andrew Flintoff and Darren Gough at Mumbai. When the ninth wicket fell at 218, there were still eight overs left in the innings. Javagal Srinath, Ajit Agarkar and Sourav Ganguly, between them, had 10 overs yet to be bowled. And yet, the bowling was entrusted to Sachin Tendulkar and Hemang Badani. Flintoff and Gough, scarcely believing their good fortune, alternated between singles and the occasional boundary, and before one was aware of it, the score had leapt by 37 runs from seven overs. When the final margin of victory is five runs, the folly in allowing the last-wicket pair to put on so many is underlined. Incidentally, Srinath later needed just one delivery to terminate the partnership.

The third lesson concerns India's bench strength. With Rahul Dravid unavailable and VVS Laxman dropped midway following a series of low scores, the responsibility in the middle order rested on the young and inexperienced shoulders of Dinesh Mongia, Mohammad Kaif and Badani. The trio generally failed to give the scoring rate an impetus after the electrifying starts from Tendulkar, Sehwag and Ganguly. This was true even in the matches that India won.

Yet another lesson is that the lack of an all-rounder continues to have considerable impact on the middle overs. Agarkar, in this context, continues to be an enigma. Despite a couple of good performances with bat and ball, he still has not cemented his place in the side, which for a lad of his undoubted talent can only be termed disappointing. Under the circumstances, India had no option but to play six batsmen and four bowlers. It must be said that overall the bowling was better than the batting, even though the gamble of playing Sarandeep Singh instead of Harbhajan Singh at New Delhi proved costly.

In Ajay Ratra, it must be said that Indian cricket has unearthed a true find. With encouragement, he could be the solution to the vexing wicket-keeping problem. But there were a few other gains from the series. The recognised batsmen scored the runs, while the frontline bowlers took the wickets. It was also good to see Ganguly return to form with the bat, even though his leadership qualities took a bit of a dent. The tendency to let things drift at times was apparent. It may be tempting to say that England, admittedly a team with certain limitations, did not deserve to share the series. But their showing was a supreme example of what fired-up team spirit and inspiring captaincy can achieve. Certainly, history and form were against them, and yes, man for man, the Indian team looked stronger.

But matches can also be won in dressing-rooms and hotel corridors, and not necessarily on the field. England proved this cricketing adage in spades by delivering a performance that could not fail to win the hearts of even the most diehard Indian cricket supporter. They were the underdogs, and for a team dismissed as no-hopers, their leveling the series in the manner they did should rank as one of the most outstanding feats by any visiting team in India.

England clearly had no intention of throwing in the towel even after they were down 1-3, or even when India looked to be in a winning position in the last two games. If the batting lacked consistency, they could always depend on one or two batsmen making a sizeable score. Marcus Trescothick was a revelation, and there is no doubt that the tour will do him a world of good. Hussain himself came up with a number of useful contributions. Nick Knight took some time to find his bearings, but his century at the Kotla was a classy effort. The middle order remained a problem, but Flintoff made up for this with a few breezy knocks.

The bowling covered up for any loopholes in the batting. The seamers were quite outstanding, and Gough, Andrew Caddick, Flintoff and Matthew Hoggard served the side admirably. By the end of the tour, Flintoff had emerged as a genuine match-winner, and Hussain got an unexpected bonus with spinners Jeremy Snape and Ashley Giles striking when it was most needed. Giles' second spell at the Kotla was one of the highlights of the series. It takes guts for a bowler to even think of bowling again after he has conceded 32 runs in his first four overs and when confronted by an inform Ganguly treating spinners with disdain. But Giles ripped the Indian innings apart with some incisive bowling, and his five wickets in five overs proved decisive.

England were also well served by young James Foster who, with encouragement, could have a long and fruitful career behind the stumps. The fielding, not generally known to be England's strong point, was a revelation. Led by their skipper, the players threw themselves at the ball, dived and leapt to take catches, and displayed an efficiency that almost matched the South Africans at their best. Hussain, as he had done in the Test series, again led by both personal example and with tactical acumen. A lot of thought had been given to plotting a particular batsman's downfall, and in matters of strategy, Hussain certainly stole a march over Ganguly.