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A match that could, and should, have been fought to a rousing finish was allowed to meander to a miserable stalemate
December 23, 2008
Test cricket deserves better than the execrable final day that was served up at Mohali. A match that could, and should, have been fought to a rousing finish was allowed to meander to a miserable stalemate, thanks to India's misguided obsession with personal milestones, and the equally daft decision to limit one of the sport's marquee contests to a mere two Tests.
Let me clarify one or two points. India richly deserve their series win because they were the better team. With the exception of VVS Laxman, each of their top six batsmen produced contest-turning performances in at least one of the matches, if not both, and in Zaheer Khan they possessed the stand-out bowler on either side. If I was to draw up a composite eleven for the series*, it would be dominated seven-four by Indians, with Graeme Swann just sneaking into the spinner's vacancy on account of his attacking intentions.
But it is not enough in the current climate merely to be the better side, because Test cricket is fighting for its life in the face of the Twenty20 revolution, and every game that fails to spark the imagination feels like another step towards extinction. So-called "purists" who write in to complain that I am just another thrill-seeking bandwagon-jumper are missing the point. There is a massive difference between a draw where one side battles to safety in the face of overwhelming odds, as India managed at Lord's in 2007, and a stalemate such as this. The punters at Mohali voted with their feet, and who - in the circumstances - could blame them?
With even a micron of intent, Mahendra Singh Dhoni could have been sizing up a shot at his fifth victory in five Tests as captain, a statistic that would have counted for much, much more than Gautam Gambhir's second Test hundred in the game, or Yuvraj Singh's first against any team bar Pakistan - feats that, karmically, were both missed. Instead, Dhoni's only notable entry in the ledger was also the most farcical - the moment he took off his pads and came on to bowl the last over of the match, his second in Test cricket. Last week's historic victory in Chennai breathed new life into the old game, and South Africa's follow-up was a fillip like few others. Today's drudgery, however, was a sad and untimely regression.
Test cricket needs saving from itself as well. Nobody could have foreseen the need to reschedule the Mumbai Test, but to choose a venue so far north that fog and bad light were an inevitability was not the ideal solution. Having said that, the real flaw was in the game's stiff-limbed regulations, which still - even in this professional day and age - require the players to break for full-length lunch and tea intervals. There are no such qualms about pushing on through the evening session if the light is deemed acceptable - at Perth last week, play on the fourth day finished at 8pm after three straight hours in the field. A measure of flexibility would have restored several lost overs to this contest, and improved the prospects of a proper finish.
The ebb and flow of Test-match cricket requires give and take if it is to capture the imagination in a world dominated by instant gratification. That is as true of the pitches as the tactics, and it compounds the frustration that the curator actually did a pretty good job on this occasion. Here, as at Chennai (and Perth for that matter) there were trustworthy challenges offered to the batsmen on each side, pace and bounce for seamers and spinners alike, and a degree of degradation that made batting on the final days in both games more tricky that the scorelines suggested.
Nevertheless, in 13 overs in the delayed morning session, Yuvraj and Gambhir batted with such poise and purpose that a declaration seemed inevitable. They added a hefty 82 runs in that time, stepping across their stumps to slap England's bowlers with the same violence they had shown throughout the one-day series. It was an affirmation both of the lack of intent India had shown throughout the fourth day, and of the vulnerability of England's bowling when the attack is taken to it. India could well have established such a position by stumps the previous evening, but as it was, with a lead of 367 and two sessions to bat out, what in all honesty did India have to lose?
|Test cricket is fighting for its life in the face of the Twenty20 revolution, and every game that fails to spark the imagination feels like another step towards extinction|
Everything, it would appear, although that timidity hardly tallies with the dominance that India have enjoyed all throughout England's visit this winter. Five one-sided victories in the ODI series should have been ample proof of their superiority when it comes to setting and defending targets, but apparently not. I would sooner have seen England return home with a 2-0 defeat (either pipped valiantly at the post, or skittled ignominiously - either would do), rather than dribble out of the country in such a low-key fashion - especially after the dramatic circumstances of their return.
But a dribble it must be, and as they board their flight from Delhi tonight, England will have more than a few issues to contend with ahead of their squad announcement for the tour of West Indies on December 29. What is to be done with Monty Panesar, whose strategies at times seemed as bereft as his form? Can Steve Harmison really be trusted as a spearhead for the Ashes next summer, and will Ian Bell ever deliver his best form when it most matters?
Overall, England's experiences in this all-too-brief Test series were beneficial - they held their own for long periods against arguably the form team in the world, and can only emerge stronger - but for the last few days of the trip, they must have wondered why they went to such lengths to get the show back on the road.
* Composite eleven 1 Virender Sehwag, 2 Gautam Gambhir, 3 Andrew Strauss, 4 Sachin Tendulkar, 5 Kevin Pietersen, 6 Yuvraj Singh, 7 Mahendra Singh Dhoni (capt & wk), 8 Andrew Flintoff, 9 Graeme Swann, 10 Zaheer Khan, 11 Ishant Sharma.
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