October 8, 2008

It takes two

A couple of men, both of whom have been at their peak in India-Australia contests, are going to be vital again



Hayden: beneath the imperious exterior lurks a hardworking professional © Getty Images

Let the games begin!

After an eternity of speculation about pitches and selection and injuries and retirements, and with unsuspected newcomers eagerly sandpapering bats, and veterans anxiously oiling their joints, the Indian and Australian sides can finally get down to business. Everyone remembers the recent exchanges, the hot and the heroic, and hopes for another contest on the same scale. Above all, let the exchanges retain their force. Let the tottering local ancients go out with a bang. Let the Australians struggle like a hooked fish. In short, let the game's most compelling confrontation continue to deserve its audience.

Not since the glorious contests for the Ashes staged between the World Wars has cricket known a rivalry to equal that developed between these sides. In those days the latest scores were sent by telegraph and posted in shop windows, in front of which citizens patiently waited for the updates. Decades later pensioners were still telling children about the mighty deeds they had witnessed, if only in the window of the local newsagent. Cricket needs stirring memories, for then it has meaning. Either it aspires to glory or it is nothing. And glory is not to be confused with glamour.

Happily the rivalry between these new foes and secret friends has provided a second wave of superb competition. Modern spectators may follow events on screen or online but the fervour is the same. It has, too, brought out the best in both parties. Admittedly tempers have occasionally frayed, but that is little to put beside the enthralling contests and astonishing performances that have illuminated various grounds, much as glorious oratory or fine acting enlivens a stage. Contention has periodically reared its head but between teams of this calibre, with so little to set them apart, the smallest thing can make the difference, and so they scrap over every issue like hungry crows upon a hunk of bread.

Both camps have secured the victories needed to sustain the rivalry. India have not been scared to win and nor have they made the mistake of regarding a single triumph as the completion of the task. India's players have a higher ambition and greater expectation. Indeed they have come to regard themselves as the equals of the Australians. It is the essential first step towards beating them. Certainly India have been fearless and enterprising, daring to play their own game, as opposed to seeking to emulate their muscular opponents. It helps that the Indians know themselves. They come from a large and thriving country and the players arrive armed either with the grit of the back streets or with brains hardened by exposure to high learning. In short, they are as tough as the Australians.

On paper the Indians begin as favourites, an unusual position for them to occupy, considering the identity of their opponents. In theory it will be a struggle between the waned and the waning, as Australia's newcomers try to find their feet and mighty Indians seek to prolong their careers. It will be a duel in the sun between sweating fast bowlers from down under and redoubtable batsmen from hereabouts, and between resourceful run collectors and a varied home attack. All of them will know the stakes. It is not only about first and last, victory and defeat (for those things appear a thousand times in every career), the celebrations and commiserations, the ducks and the tons. This rivalry goes beyond results, offers an exposure to greatness. It is not a time for the half-baked.

 
 
Let the exchanges retain their force. Let the tottering local ancients go out with a bang. Let the Australians struggle like a hooked fish. In short, let the game's most compelling confrontation continue to deserve its audience
 

Of course both sides have much in common. Both depend upon a mighty figure at the start of their innings, a batsman capable of imposing himself from the outset, in manner as much as deed. The last time these teams met neither finished on the losing side. Matthew Hayden did not play in the Perth Test match, where a reduced Australian side was hounded into defeat. Virender Sehwag was omitted from the first two contests of the series, a misjudgment India had cause to rue. Despite all the palaver, India were five minutes shy of saving the SCG Test. Meanwhile their most damaging batsman watched from the sidelines. Belatedly the tourists remembered the need to reject mere logic and to embrace the exceptional.

Hayden and Sehwag will again have big parts to play in the forthcoming encounters. Over the years both have been at their peaks in these matches as they responded to their singular challenges. Nowadays Hayden's abilities are widely acknowledged but it took him years to establish his credentials. Just as well he did not doubt himself. Although imperious in manner and imposing in technique, he is in essence a hardworking professional. Now and then he forgets about due diligence and relies on effect and then he always fails till humility returns and he goes back to basics, watching the ball closely, playing it on its merits, hitting straight and hard and preferably along the ground. Not that in this mood he is a pushover. In some ways it is better for bowlers when he bashes. It is not punishment that worries bowlers but the crushing of hope.

From a distance, and especially from the bowler's end, it must seem that the Queenslander simply steps arrogantly down the pitch and starts belting the ball around. Of course it is not as easy as that. As with Sehwag, Hayden's batting is more planned than it seems. It is a matter of developing and keeping faith in a method. In his early years, as a Test cricketer desperate to make his name, naked before the critics, he looked as awkward as Hercules with a knitting needle. It took him time to find the truth about his batting, to chart his path forwards. And it took him longer to pluck up the courage to apply that method in Test cricket. Indeed he did not do so till he was unexpectedly chosen for the 2001 tour of India.

Hayden knows the risks he takes at the crease, considers them worthwhile and seeks to reduce them with hard work in the nets. Even before the Twenty20 matches he spends hours practising the shots he intends to play, notably the lofted drive and the pull off the front foot. He feels that he must try to dictate terms, for then the opponent will retreat and the battle is already half won. But he also realises that he may look an ass, may expose a middle order he is supposed to protect. But they understand his role and encourage his approach. Against most expectations Hayden made his name in India, and ever since has been an influential opener.



Sehwag: not nearly as reckless as he seems © AFP

Contrary to most predictions Sehwag has been at his best against these formidable opponents. Hayden was dismissed for an unconscionable time as a destroyer of bad bowling on flat tracks, and Sehwag was for ages taken at face value. Since he looked as daft as a brush and waved his bat around like an Italian conductor directing traffic at rush hour in Kolkata, he must belong in that box. Yet his batting is not nearly as off the cuff as it seems. Admittedly he has more rushes of blood than an enraged bull but his game is sensibly constructed.

He does not hook, and moves behind the line on the back foot. Once he is in control he is content to push the ball around, taking the easy runs on offer. Truly there is method in his madness. Patience is his weak point; his shot selection is superb.

To hear Sehwag talk about the game is to discover a sharp and dutiful mind at work beneath that faraway look. Not that his career has been faultless. At times he has lost his appetite for the game, with its hotels and tours and room service, and then he has played poorly and the team has suffered on and off the field. Although he had already batted magnificently in a World Cup final and against the Australians, he was deservedly dropped. A willing battler gives better service than a reluctant star.

Realising that he enjoyed the game, perhaps even needed it a little bit, Sehwag came back not as a whiner but as a leader, and ever since has been a powerful force in the side. When he speaks it is not about his own brilliance or pleasure but about his need to give the team a good start. And he means it.

Hayden wears the colours of his country with pride and power. He fought his way to the top and intends to stay as long as he can. If he succeeds in India for the third time running, the visitors will be hard to beat. If Sehwag prospers then a splendid series lies in store, for he remains a most engaging cricketer. And if he flourishes then so will his middle order and his team. If both openers play well then it's going to be a ripper. Let the games begin!

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It

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