India v New Zealand, 1st Test, Ahmedabad, 4th day October 11, 2003

Letting it drift

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Has Ganguly let New Zealand off the hook? © Wisden Cricinfo

India might be well placed in this Test match - as one would expect in a home series - but that does not mean that everything went swimmingly well. Sourav Ganguly, a fine motivator of men and the best Indian captain of modern times, can often be decidedly less aggressive as a captain than he is as an individual or as a batsman. India's last home Test ended in a draw precisely because of Ganguly's diffidence. Against West Indies in Kolkata a year ago, India led by 200 with two sessions left in the match, but Ganguly opted not to declare and go for a win. The series was already won, and India weren't hungry, and ruthless, enough.

This series isn't won yet, but Ganguly appeared to have taken that result for granted. On the second day, after VVS Laxman was out forcing the pace, Ganguly crawled to a fifty before eventually hitting out against the spinners. India managed just 500 in five-and-a-half sessions; 550, in the same time, might have left New Zealand unable to avoid the follow-on. India would not have needed to bat twice, and would have had more time to bowl New Zealand out in the second innings.

Again, on the third day, Ganguly let matters drift by over-bowling a toothless Balaji. He gave Balaji a few overs on the fourth day as well, with New Zealand scrambling to avoid the follow-on, and Balaji conceded 13 pointless, and crucial, runs in a three-over spell which had all the venom of a rubber snake.

Ganguly had as much faith in the other debutant, Akash Chopra. Chopra batted well in the first innings, fielded magnificently at short leg, but was not upto the task of accelerating the score in the second innings in the manner that the situation demanded. India needed to extend their lead quickly to leave themselves both enough time to get New Zealand out, and enough runs to diminish the possibility of defeat. Chopra's 31 off 72 balls did not help them in this quest. Either the batsman got the wrong brief, or he was the wrong man for the job. Either way, it was a tactical error by the captain. India should have treated this innings like a one-day innings, and Ganguly or Sachin Tendulkar should have opened with Virender Sehwag.

Rahul Dravid, in the event, top-scored for India again, batting perfectly to his brief. Dravid had once been stereotyped as a man who gets bogged down and cannot lift the run-rate, but if that was ever true of him, it certainly isn't now. In the last couple of years, Dravid has proved himself to be one of the most attractive strokeplayers in world cricket, even if his role in the team is often that of an anchor. But as he showed today, batting at a strike-rate of close to 100 for a large part of his innings, he can smash it around like the best of them, mixing classical strokeplay with audacious improvisation, the Venus of Greek mythology with J Lo.

A last word about the tail. India's lower-order batsmen - Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan et al - often speak about wanting to contribute with the bat. But their methods to achieve this end are sometimes unorthodox - Harbhajan's rotator swings and Zaheer's lusty swipes are not part of any textbook. In contrast, consider the way Daniel Vettori batted at No. 9 - with high elbow, poised footwork, a calm demeanour. He treated the craft of batting like a specialist batsman would, and clearly does a fair amount of work on his batting in the nets. India's tail - who routinely do worse than the opposition's tail - should learn from this. It takes a lot of application to make those 20 or 30 runs extra on a routine basis, and that can often decide matches.

Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.