The side with nothing to lose
"When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose," sang Bob Dylan once, no doubt referring to dead-rubber Tests. India played their best cricket of the season - not only did they bowl well, as they have throughout the series, but they batted superbly as well. What did they do today that they hadn't done before in this series? They played positive cricket, unafraid of losing. They had already lost, and so the fear vanished.
Actually, while that may have been collectively true, it didn't hold for one player. VVS Laxman, in woeful form after three excellent years, was in danger of losing his place in the side if he didn't do well - perhaps replaced by Sourav Ganguly for the Kanpur Test against South Africa. When the second day's play was over, he strode out for a net session, probably aware that he would be batting at No. 3 in that innings. The last time he got such a promotion, he made 281.
It was a terrific tactical move. Australia had taken their first-innings lead not by playing a survival game but by attacking the bowling. On a pitch such as this, defending dourly and playing out time was pointless. Anybody who spent any length of time at the crease was bound to get the unplayable ball that would take his wicket. The sensible thing to do was to try to score as many as you could while you were there.
Matthew Hayden, Michael Clarke and Adam Gilchrist had done just this on the second day, and promoting Laxman was a sign that the Indians had learnt from them. Rahul Dravid's strike rate has gone down drastically in this series, and Laxman is a free-flowing strokeplayer who revels in taking on the attacking fields that a No. 3 batsman invariably faces. It took self-belief, but after a couple of play-and-misses and edgy strokes, Laxman settled down to play an innings of character.
Sachin Tendulkar, who added 91 with him, batted like the Tendulkar of old, more hunter than gatherer on this desert of a pitch. Australia's formidable medium-pacers first tried bowling on the stumps, in search of an lbw, but he stroked them like kittens to the on side. Then they bounced him, but he ducked nonchalantly, as if squatting in a gym while chatting up the ladies. And when the lone specialist spinner, Nathan Hauritz, came on, he pounced on him and took 15 off his first over. His critics complain that he doesn't win India matches, but his 55 today was a matchwinning knock. The assurance with which he played rubbed off on his colleagues, and that is his great contribution to this side, which India missed when he was injured.
It is ironic that a man nicknamed Pup did not let the Indian tail wag. Clarke was hailed on this website as being a future great when he came to India with the one-day side a year ago, but we assure you that we were not referring to his bowling. His 6 for 9 was a testament to the conditions, to his cricket intelligence, and to Hauritz not yet being Test class. Hauritz got the ball to turn a long way on this pitch, as all the spinners did, but did not have the variation or the guile to pick up more wickets than he did, although Laxman was well set up. The Australians should have bowled Clarke, or even Simon Katich, earlier. Shane Warne would have bowled many balls of the century on this track, and might even have knocked out a close-in fielder or two.
Young Pup could not bite when Australia batted, though, as the Indian spinners picked up seven wickets before Anil Kumble even came on to bowl. The star of the innings, and the man responsible for the key breakthroughs, was Murali Kartik, who tossed it up less in this innings and bowled flatter and with great accuracy. In the first part of his spell, he was almost unplayable. India now have three top-class spinners instead of two, and Harbhajan and Kumble will feel the heat. Good for them, and good for India.
The pitch was a disgrace, as the statistic of 38 wickets in two days amply indicates. The ball didn't turn square, as so many pundits squealed in excitement, but 45º was a fair call. The Australian fast bowlers, perhaps in bemusement, bowled more slower balls than they normally do. The clouds of dust that sprang up from the pitch ever so often held a silver lining for India, but this kind of pitches are counter-productive for good cricket. The one at Nagpur raised controversy for suiting the Australian bowlers, but it was a great sporting wicket, the kind of track that, as Dravid later said, should be prepared for India's domestic matches. And the international ones, too.
India must be given credit for taking the bull by the horns, but in this Test, the bull was made of china. Australia have now lost six Tests, including this one, since their tour of India in 2001, and five of those six have been in dead-rubber Tests - the exception being at Adelaide last year against India. Sure, they wanted to win, but their record in dead rubbers indicates that the intensity switches off after the series is done. Let the 2-1 margin not fool anyone into believing that this was a close series. India were soundly beaten, by one of the greatest sides in the history of cricket. The last Test indicated that they were pulling themselves together, but the cracks remain, and must not be ignored.
Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India. He writes the cricket blog, 23 Yards, for this site.