February 26, 2000

The absence of a third spinner was felt

Hansie Cronje, the South African captain, was not exactly on top of the world when he arrived in India. He has not been among runs in recent times and added to that there is some uncertainty hanging over his future both as a captain and a player. But not one to be deterred by his ordinary personal form, he was determined to make this trip memorable. One way of making an Indian tour memorable for any visiting captain is by winning the series. Cronje would probably not hesitate to swap a few of his achievements for a victory in the Test series in India. The victory at the Wankhede is bound to relieve Cronje a lot, which might result in him batting better at Bangalore.

Cronje's determination apart, he is supported by his team members to a great extent. The attitude of the entire team is positive and everyone is keen to assume responsibility when it matters. In comparison, Tendulkar does not have many options to look at for support. I had mentioned that the absence of a third spinner would be felt in the fourth innings and it has turned out to be true. Apparently it took the collective wisdom of seven people (five selectors plus the captain and the coach) to pick the final eleven and yet the balance of the team was ignored. Six batsmen along with a keeper and four bowlers is not the ideal combination to win a Test match. Because of the fact that it has failed time and again, adherence to the same formula is inexplicable.

On the other hand, the presence of six batsmen has not made a major difference to the totals put up by the Indians, be it Mumbai or Melbourne. It is unanimously agreed that there are not that many all-rounders available, but potential all-rounders like Nikhil Chopra have to be encouraged. He can bat a bit and is a steady spinner with a very good attitude. At an age when he should be playing, there is no point in keeping him as a reserve on pitches that assist spinners. In contrast, Cronje, reading the track well, played two spinners, though he would not have expected them to run through the Indian batting line up. I am not suggesting the Indians ape the visiting captain but the term "horses for courses" comes to mind.

The South Africans won the Test at the Wankhede through sheer mental strength. Gibbs once again provided a good start along with Kirsten, which in retrospect proved to be very crucial. Kallis, the superb cricketer that he is, showed great patience and maturity to stay till the end. Boucher, just a few seasons old in international cricket, has the distinction of having many records under his belt. That sweet little innings of his proved that with a positive attitude, one could overwhelm any pressure situation.

Anil Kumble kept the Indian hopes alive but it was not enough in the end. His surpassing Bedi's tally of wickets would have pleased him more if India had won the Test match. Murali Karthik would have realized that bowling in international cricket even on helpful tracks is an art by itself. The experience of being involved in a high-pressure game first up would have taught him a few things, which will stand him in good stead. One hopes that he is a quick learner and the sooner he does so, the better it is for Indian cricket.