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The Wisden Verdict by Amit Varma at Chennai
October 14, 2004
Slowly through the first day of the Chennai Test, the years peeled back. Before lunch it was October 2004, with Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer pummelling a hapless India, much as the Australians had done in Bangalore just days ago. Score: 111 for no loss. After lunch Harbhajan Singh got his groove back, made the ball spin and bounce, and picked up the openers as Australia's advance halted. Was it 2001, perhaps? Score: 189 for 3. In the last session, it was the 1990s all over again, as Anil Kumble dismissed batsman after mystified batsman, evoking a series of tired cricket cliches borrowed, tellingly, from warfare: destruction, annihilation, demolition. Score: 235 all out. All ten of Australia's wickets had fallen for 99 runs, their last eight for 46 - and this was a first-day pitch.
There is one crucial difference between Sourav Ganguly's team and Indian sides of days gone by - this one may falter, but they do not wilt. In the Bangalore Test, India's lower order batted with an application that sides of the past would never have shown, and even when defeat was certain, after the eighth wicket fell on the fifth day, they hung in there grimly, refusing to succumb to the customary collapse. They displayed those qualities here as well - Ganguly did not panic, and his bowlers played with fire and self-belief. With the ball a little older than when he first got it in the tenth over, Harbhajan dismissed the openers from his presence. Irfan Pathan and Zaheer Khan, never threatening in the morning session, came back with sharper spells. And then a lion in winter shook Chennai in the autumn.
Anil Kumble has won more matches than any other Indian bowler, and for much of his career, he's been the sole strike bowler in the team. Fast bowlers performed sporadically for India in the '90s, and the spinners who bowled with Kumble were support acts, worthy apprentices like Venkatapathy Raju and Rajesh Chauhan, but none of them was a matchwinner on his own. Harbhajan unquestionably is.
Kumble and Harbhajan have hardly played together at their best. Kumble was out of the side with a shoulder injury when Harbhajan began to blossom, and many of their series together have been overseas ones, where India mostly baulked at playing two spinners in the XI. During the home series against New Zealand last year, Harbhajan carried a finger injury, though that wasn't known at the time. They showed today what they are capable of achieving in tandem, with almost all their wickets - barring those of Hayden and the strangely over-aggressive Darren Lehmann - being earned. The prospect of what they can achieve together adds a fascinating dimension to a series which is already engrossing enough.
It wasn't a typical first-day pitch that they bowled on, though it seemed like that when the day began. When Hayden and Langer were bringing up their 12th hundred partnership - among opening combinations second only to the formidable firms of Greenidge/Haynes (16) and Hobbs/Sutcliffe (15) - the pitch seemed not to have much in it for the bowlers. But as the day went on, what seemed a harmless little frog was revealed to be the prince of darkness. The ball turned as if two or three days of the Test were already over, and there was plenty of bounce as well, one of Kumble's main weapons.
Having said that, it was no fifth-day crumbler, and Simon Katich showed that the Indians, well as they bowled, were not unplayable. Watching him, you wondered what the fuss was all about, and why these spinners were such a big deal. If you need a textbook lesson on how to play spin in India, get some tapes of Katich's innings in this series. He either played late on the back foot, watching the ball onto his bat, or got to the pitch of it, and was never in trouble at all. The way Damien Martyn was out to Kumble was instructive as a contrast to this approach - Martyn prodded forward to a good-length ball that bounced a bit more than expected and popped up off his bat to forward short leg.
Of course, Shane Warne will also enjoy the turn and bounce on this pitch, and the Australian fast bowlers are capable of running through sides regardless of the conditions. In Bangalore, despite having a weak link in the lackluster Zaheer Khan, India's bowling attack had done quite well. Their batsmen had let them down. How would they perform in this Test?
How far can faith go?
How much faith do you need to move a mountain? A heck of a lot, you'd think, and Ganguly certainly has plenty of it. When Australia came to India last, in 2001, he staked his captaincy on getting Harbhajan back into the Indian team, in place of that other turbanned offspinner, Sarandeep Singh. It worked spectacularly. When Yuvraj Singh was discarded from the one-day side after his first stint in blue pyjamas, Ganguly brought him back and nurtured his talent. Ganguly made Sehwag open in one-dayers, and later, he made Sehwag open in Tests as well.
He has shown the same kind of faith in this series, by asking Yuvraj to open the batting, and by not discarding Zaheer, who bowled well below his best at Bangalore. Zaheer was largely unimpressive here as well, especially while fielding on the boundary, and Yuvraj was out early, albeit to spin and not the new ball, as his detractors had prophesied. Will these men justify Ganguly's faith in them?
If self-belief is one prerequisite for success for an individual, a good team must have a captain who believes in his players, though Ganguly is selective, as he is entitled to be, in the players he backs. Aakash Chopra is out of the side after performing to his brief all through the tour of Australia, and after being the victim of umpiring errors in two of his last three innings. It hasn't evened out for him.
A final thought
A number of players walked today, and Michael Kasprowicz did so even though it appeared that David Shepherd, the umpire who must have been hopping all through the lunch break because the score was 111, would not have given him out. Is that dissent? Should he be fined?
Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India. He writes the cricket blog, 23 Yards, for this site.
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