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October 10, 2004
The saving grace of defeat is that it invariably brings lessons. India haven't merely lost a Test in Bangalore; they have been crushed by opponents who have been a few steps ahead of them. Australians have batted smarter, bowled smarter and set smarter fields. There is little use in finding comfort from the memory of a similar defeat in Mumbai in 2001 - badly beaten in the first Test, India went on to win the series 2-1 - because miracles wouldn't be miracles if they repeated themselves.
India must remember Kolkata and Chennai to give themselves hope, but it will be futile and self-defeating to hope for an extraordinary event to conjure itself up and turn the series around. Australia have paid India a huge compliment by changing their game for this series and India have been caught napping.
The difference beween Mumbai 2001 and Bangalore 2004 is stark: Australia won in Mumbai by playing their traditional game; they swept, they set aggressive fields and they were 99 for five in the first innings before Adam Gilchrist chanced his arm around to bail them out. And a chance dismissal - Sachin Tendulkar's full blooded pull against Shane Warne ricocheted of Justin Langer at forward short leg and Ricky Ponting brought off a magical catch, sprinting nearly 25 yards and diving full-length to pluck the ball inches off the ground - gave Australia the decisive advantage when India batted second. John Buchanan later admitted that his team's biggest failure in 2001 was not seeing the warning signals in Mumbai.
This time Australia have left nothing to chance. They will not call for champagne and cigar before sealing off a win. Buchanan was quick to remind journalists at last evening's press conference that Australia still had four wickets to take. India must know now that this is not an Australian side that will not defeat itself. Unlike in the past, this is not a team that is too proud to defend, either with bat or in the field. India have only three days to come up with a revised gameplan.
With a hundred more runs in the first innings, the result of this game could have been different. The Australian wickets in the second innings did not fall in the pursuit of quick runs. Apart from that of Michael Kasprowicz, each of them was claimed by guileful bowling on a wicket that had begun to wear. Harbhajan Singh bowled poorly in the first innings, but throughout the second innings, he was masterful. He tied down Simon Katich and Michael Clarke and reduced Damien Maryn to strokelessness. India can't bank on winning the toss, but they must have noticed that Glenn McGrath is a much lesser menace after his first four overs; somehow, they need to play him out.
Sourav Ganguly has been a wonderful captain for the young players. But he has done poor Aakash Chopra no favours. It is no secret that Gangly prefers attacking players, but what could have happened without Chopra's stonewalling in Australia is evident now. India have a wonderful middle order, but it needs protection. Indian batting has come unhinged in two out of their last three Tests, and on each occasion, the middle order has failed to survive the loss of early wickets. Chopra lost his place to Yuvraj Singh in the last Test of India's tour to Pakistan, and ever since, Ganguly has let no opportunity pass to let the world know that Yuvraj was his first choice to partner Virender Sehwag. India were spared a selection conundrum with Sachin Tendulkar missing this Test, but Chopra must feel like a man with a time bomb around his neck and he has batted like one. Chopra has to know where he stands.
Top-order Test batsmen don't stick their bat outside the off stump like tailenders, and on the evidence of his performance in this Test, Yuvraj Singh has some way to go. The Indian team could become a closed society if the team management refuses to look beyond the chosen few. Sridharan Sriram has had a wonderful couple of seasons, he scored a wonderful hundred against a full Indian bowling attack in a practice match, and he should be seen as an option.
Apart from Harbhajan's bowling, the most heartening feature for India from this match was Irfan Pathan's batting. He looks more impressive with every match and in the post-match media conference, Gilchrist described Pathan as mature beyond his years, and Ganguly said that he considered him an allrounder. Apart from the strokes that he can play, the most striking feature of his batting is the way he gets behind the line of the ball and the way he leaves them outside his off stump. This morning he batted out 38 balls without scoring a run when Dravid was protecting him from Shane Warne, and after Dravid departed, he was quick to use his feet against Warne to clout him for a couple of fours and six. If you add up both innings, he batted the longest for India in this match and scored the most runs.
The other good news for India is that Warne, despite getting VVS Laxman in both innings, seldom looked threatening. So if India can keep apace with Australia for the first two days in Chennai, the series might still be open.
Sambit Bal is editor of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine, and of Wisden Cricinfo in India.
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