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The Wisden Verdict by Amit Varma
October 18, 2004
It is a universal duality: the mind that seeks out perfection, the heart that yearns for beauty. This Chennai Test was not one for the mind - it was marred by dropped catches, missed stumpings, nervous errors, and a rained-out day - but it was one that will be remembered fondly for years. Two opponents who respect each other met in a crucial match and played with passion and fire. They battled the demons within them and the heat that came from the sun, and refused to wilt. Time and again this Test match turned, like a spinning top swaying from side to side but refusing to fall either way. In the end, sadly, it stayed suspended, as the rain fell, depriving the Test of a result, which it deserved.
Australia have been far better prepared for this tour than the last one, as reflected in their willingness to shed the counter-attacking approach that works against every other side. But they suffered in Chennai because of the heat. Glenn McGrath looked less than his usual self, and the fielding was affected as well, with many catches going down. Most of the men in this side are over 30, and even the finest athletes suffer in conditions that they are not used to.
But they fought back in an inspired manner. All teams look good when things are going their way, but it takes something special to bounce back repeatedly from setbacks, as these men keep doing. Damien Martyn played a sublime innings under great pressure, and that is not something new to him. He had the measure of Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh during his second-innings century, displaying an assurance that he hadn't shown in his previous three innings in this series. His batting is a thing of beauty and he is a man with great grit. He has proved himself a worthy successor to the No. 4 position that Mark Waugh had, for so long, made his own.
Adam Gilchrist batted at No. 3 in the second innings, not out of a tactical need to get quick runs, but out of responsibility. It will be fascinating to follow this particular narrative during the series. He is a modern great whose genius does not find full expression at No. 7, though he has played some classic innings there. The case against playing him higher up the order is the burden of wicketkeeping that he also bears. But the case for it is that at the pace at which he bats, even when he is seemingly taking no risks, he can swiftly take a match out of the opponents grasp. He has one more Test before Ricky Ponting returns to the side, and it is a worthwhile experiment to continue in that game.
Shane Warne had said on the second day that this was the best he has ever bowled in India, although that is, admittedly, not saying much. The Indians play him well, but he still ended up with six wickets, though he wasn't quite as potent as he is against other teams. The second term of American presidents is often called the legacy term, and this is Warne's legacy tour of India. He will not tire, and India have reason to be wary of him.
It has become a fashionable cliché to say of Michael Kasprowicz that he is a 'lion-hearted' bowler, but that is doing him a disservice - he has bite to add to his heart. He bowled some oustanding spells on the second day, and was unfortunate to have Sourav Ganguly reprieved off his bowling twice. As had happened to Jason Gillespie on his 2001 tour, the figures don't reflect how well he bowled. Gillespie, meanwhile, bowled some incisive spells, while Glenn McGrath will be sharper in cooler climes. The Indians will get no respite from the Australian bowlers.
The character of this Australian side is different from that of Steve Waugh's 2001 team in more ways than just cricketing ones. The Ugly Australians of lore have suddenly become gentlemen Aussies, like a cursed frog suddenly kissed by a princess. They haven't sledged, they have walked, and there has been little by way of mental disintegration. Steve Waugh referred to India as the final frontier - regardless of what happens in this series, Australia might just have conquered it.
India have the stomach for a fight, and they did not always. There was a worry, after Bangalore, that India would unravel from there, but now we know that will not happen, considering that this series is still a contest.
It is hard to decide which to admire more, the seven wickets that Anil Kumble took on a first-day pitch, or the 47 overs that he bowled in the heat of unforgiving Chennai sun during Australia's second innings. Kumble almost won India the Sydney Test, which would have sealed a historic series win for India in Australia, and if hunger were to decide this series, this man has more than most. He is on the last lap of a great career, but the fire still burns in his belly. He also has a luxury that none of the other great spinners today, Shane Warne or Muttiah Muralitharan, can boast of a spin partner in Harbhajan Singh who is a matchwinner on his own, and not just a support act.
Virender Sehwag, as he tends to do every fourth Test or so, made a brilliant hundred to secure India's advantage. Much has been spoken of his unorthodox batting, but dissecting Sehwag's technique is like peering at a dancer's feet to understand her art. He would not have got the results he has, eight centuries in 25 Tests at 53.9, runs scored all around the world, without being a darned good batsman. Men like him win you games, because if they stay a couple of sessions at the crease, they not only score at a brisk pace, they also demoralise the bowlers. "Look at his foot-movement," they think, "surely we can get this man out." And then there she goes again, that wretched ball, towards the ropes that cannot hold her.
Sehwag's success hides a continuing failure, though. He scored almost two-thirds of the runs made while he was at the crease, and the rest of India's top five failed. Rahul Dravid had played well in the second innings at Bangalore, and his 26 here, while not substantial in itself, was part of a crucial 95-run partnership. He will come good. But Sourav Ganguly, edging repeatedly, looked as out of place as a piglet in a greyhound race, and VVS Laxman wasn't his usual graceful self either. Yuvraj Singh still does not look cut out to open the batting, and India need these men to fire.
A side strain prevented Irfan Pathan from bowling as sharply in the first innings as at Bangalore, but Zaheer Khan seemed to have got his rhythm back in the second, with a couple of fiery spells. Indian bowlers however need more support behind the stumps. Parthiv Patel is a fine talent, but for his own sake, he should be given a break from international cricket. His basics have gone to pieces and his mistakes, if we total the runs batsmen made after being reprieved by him and the byes and penalties he conceded, cost India almost 200 runs. It tarnished this great contest, but he is a boy among men, and his time will come.
Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India. He writes the cricket blog, 23 Yards, for this site.
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