India in Australia 2003-04 January 7, 2004

A celebration of cricket

The Wisden Verdict by Rahul Bhattacharya

Already, a whiff of nostalgia

Already there is whiff of nostalgia in the air. An astounding series has ended. It was not thought possible for these teams to surpass what they offered in 2001 - and they didn't, but how close they came. Not only did people from both countries find themselves mesmerised, but all around the cricket world spread a sense of jubilation at the marvels of Test cricket and the possible realignments in the old order. Brian Lara scored a double-century at the Wanderers, and thanked Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman.

The difference between 2001 and now was primarily one of runs: there were too many this time. The great sight of fine bowlers ripping through fine batting line-ups went missing. Numbers bear this out. More pertinently, so do the memories. Think about your top ten moments from the series. How many are of bowlers?

The other difference is intangible. The 2001 series was a brawl. This was a celebration. Anything went in 2001; it was splendidly rousing. Now was a conscious effort to avoid unpleasantness; it has been most gratifying. It can be argued that both for the teams involved, as well as for cricket in a larger context, both series carried just the right flavour at the time they did. The sense of desperation in the first laid the foundations of what is evolving into cricket's premier rivalry; the second seemed to respect this fact. Anyone who followed the cricket over the past month has felt fulfilment.

Steve Waugh finally went. The amount of criticism he courted at the beginning of the series was quite astonishing. Innuendoes abounded about not only an agreement with the selectors about his retirement, but of marketing spin-offs from the announcement. He was lashed mercilessly over a run-out. He was in the wrong there, but these things happen. At a crucial stage at Adelaide, Rahul Dravid sent back Sourav Ganguly, a centurion in his previous innings. This was rightly seen for what it really was: an error of judgment under pressure, underpinned by an instinct for self-preservation. Much was made, also, of the standing ovations Waugh received every time. So? Tendulkar has been getting them in India for over a decade. These men haven't begged for glory.

Yet, the great irony of Waugh's retirement that it made most of Australia focus on the aggrandisement of the individual. His manic dash towards a century in the closing moments of Sydney was cheered on when it had the potential for catastrophe. After the game, his wonderful, deserved, sendoff seemed to obscure the reality that 1-1 was a poor result for Australians.

Ian Chappell's theory that Waugh is not the most creative of thinkers when things are not going his way held good. Even so, Waugh did pull three out of the hat in the final session of the first day at Melbourne: himself, he lulled Dravid into a scoop to midwicket, then brought on Brett Lee for Tendulkar even though the new ball was round the corner, and tempted Sehwag near his double-hundred with Simon Katich's lollipops and men on the fence. From an Australian point of view, these two hours, and one the following morning, were pivotal. Otherwise the series could have been lost.

But Australia needed more from Waugh. So eroded did they seem by the torrent of brilliance from the Indian top six that at Sydney they were best described by a word not thought possible to ever fit them: listless. It left you wondering whether the fresh energy of Ponting might have made a difference, as it had done to the one-day side.

Waugh's job was made infinitely harder because his bowlers and fielders decomposed. Gillespie was good, but increasingly more container than wicket-taker. Brett Lee went from not-bad to crap. Stuart MacGill was a reservoir of four-balls. Nathan Bracken was asked to bowl ineffectual cutters from around the wicket. Brad Williams, their best bowler at Adelaide and Melbourne, was shockingly left out for the decider. Overall, Australia recorded no five-fors to India's five. And their fielders dropped conservatively twice as many catches as India's.

Ultimately, Waugh's end was among the most poignant imaginable: c Tendulkar b Kumble. The bowler and fielder, titans both, made captivating viewing through the series. In terms of wickets per match, Kumble's 24 outstrips anything he has done at home in a series of three Tests. That says an awful lot. He is a giant.

One more leg-side shot, as the runs keep flowing

Watching Tendulkar's battles with himself on the pitch was like witnessing in real-time the dissection of the brain of a champion. It is still hard to believe he batted 12 hours at Sydney without playing the cover-drive. Perhaps he will worry a trifle about the extent to which his game has veered to the leg side in the past year. Regardless, he will score runs.

This series was also about Rahul Dravid and Ricky Ponting, who don't stop improving. Their records have an eerie resemblance. Making their debuts within seven months of one another, both men have played 75 Tests, average in the high fifties, and are poised for many more significant deeds. Fascinatingly, they have taken their own paths. Maturity is seen as mellowing down, when in fact it is merely about understanding oneself. As Ponting has curbed his game, so Dravid has opened his up. There is no one way.

Ultimately, Sourav Ganguly lifted the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. His team has moved forwards once more but is still a long distance from the limit of his own ambitions and the hopes of his nation. If Kumble and Ganguly, and Parthiv Patel and Irfan Pathan, are the oldest and youngest members of this side, then something is right. Australia remain the best team in the world. Even Steve Waugh can be replaced, they will show. They are ever-resilient. October cannot come soon enough.

Rahul Bhattacharya is contributing editor of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine.