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While the Indian team savours another victory away from home here's the occasion to celebrate the return of Test cricket as we once knew it
July 31, 2007
There is a danger of jelly beans, that nondescript and harmless English sweet, hijacking this Test - there were more references, in some of the English papers, to England's schoolboy antics than to Zaheer Khan's virtuoso performance and the issue dominated Michael Vaughan's post-match press conference. However, despite the margin, which would suggest one-sidedness, this has been a cracking match featuring some of the old-fashioned skills that so endears Test cricket to its loyal supporters.
The Australians have redrawn the definition of attractiveness in Test cricket by spectacular batting based on unrelenting aggression. To this end they have been helped by the general feebleness of bowlers around the world and the fashion of flat pitches. The role of television cannot be understated: stroke-making makes good viewing and batting pitches ensure matches last the distance. The standard definition of a good pitch has come to be one that is suitable for batting.
Not surprisingly, the great pace bowlers of this era have been shaped by their circumstances. Glenn McGrath and Shaun Pollock are masters of minimalism, bowlers who have relied on their command of line and length and prey on the patience and the character of batsmen rather than tempting them to indiscretion. Mohammed Asif, the next potentially great bowler, belongs to their ilk.
This summer, though, in cloudy and heavy conditions, the art of swing bowling has come to the fore. Ryan Sidebottom has been England's best bowler of the summer, including periods when Steve Harmison was available. And it's been traditional new-ball swing and not the reverse swing Andrew Flintoff and Simon Jones deployed to bring the Australians to their knees in 2005. Late into the summer, the ball hasn't stopped swinging.
It has made for fascinating cricket. It has encouraged bowlers to pitch the ball up, and it has forced batsmen to reassess their options. Driving on the up hasn't been easy, batsmen have had to play late, adjust their strokes and be vigilant at all times. Runs have had to be earned, and so been far more valuable. More than anything else, it's been a contest.
It is the nature of cricket, and no one will know this better than Sachin Tendulkar, that hundreds in lost causes are not often accorded the status they may merit if skill was the only criteria
Apart from the first two sessions at Lord's, the Indian bowlers - barring the hot and cold Sreesanth - have been exceptional. Zaheer has used his experience and the knowledge of English conditions to perfection. In the first innings at Trent Bridge, he relied on the conditions, overhead clouds and moisture on the pitch. On the fourth day, greater skill and variety was demanded. While the pitch had eased up, however, swing was still available and he used the angles left-handers alone can manage with the canniness that has been a refreshing addition to his bowling. And when the release was right even RP Singh, playing only because Munaf Patel stayed home injured, produced some great balls.
Years later, when fans look at the bowling card, they might not be able to appreciate the quality of Vaughan's innings. But it must surely count as one of his best. He made batting look easy when the pressure was immense and the conditions were demanding. It is the nature of cricket, and no one will know this better than Sachin Tendulkar, that hundreds in lost causes are not often accorded the status they may merit if skill was the only criteria. If a comparison was to made, however, this was a superior performance to his 197 against India at the same ground five years ago. That was a more flowing innings featuring more gorgeous strokes. This one tested him far more. And the moment he was out, batting seemed a far more hazardous task for his colleagues. And while there was incredulity when Kevin Pietersen described his hundred at Lord's as his best ever, it wasn't just a case of Pietersen's trying to hype up his latest performance. Batsmen know when they have been put through the grind.
Seen in isolation, the fourth day's play at Trent Bridge would count among the best days of Test cricket in recent times. The conditions were roughly even: batting was challenging, not impossible, and the bowler had to do more than just put the ball in the right spot to get wickets. Both runs and wickets had to be earned and Vaughan and Zaheer provided two masterclasses.
India dominated the Test on all five days but it was never easy. That they scored 481 without a century would point to an all-round performance. Even though it was founded on an opening partnership of 147, the middle order had to scrap for every run and Tendulkar's battle against Sidebottom on the third morning will soon be the stuff of folklore. Had Tendulkar perished then, it was conceivable that India would have collapsed.
While the Indian team and their fans savour another victory away from home, which mercifully for them is much more frequent now, here's the occasion to celebrate the return of Test cricket as we once knew it.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo and Cricinfo MagazineFeeds: Sambit Bal
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