December 15, 2008

A triumph of belief

England led in the match over three days and two sessions but what made the difference ultimately was India's belief that they would win


Sehwag has a delightful disregard for history, whether of the past 100 years or the last ball © AFP
 

It would be tempting to call this a match without losers. That the Test took place at all was a triumph. As Sachin Tendulkar said, after an innings that must count among his finest, a Test win or Test hundred cannot even begin to compensate for what was lost in Mumbai last month, but it can be said without overstating the importance of sport that after those dark hours India could do with a Test like this. And that Mumbai's most famous son piloted the team to the win made it even more poignant.

Already his innings had been a gem, crafted with technical virtuosity and mental fortitude, but that Sachin Tendulkar brought up the win with a delicate paddle, which also brought up his hundred, granted the perfect finish to a quite perfect Test. Individual milestones are not meant to matter much in a team game, but in this case, anything else wouldn't have felt right.

Remove the circumstances, though, and it would still count among India's most special wins. More than all else, it was a triumph of belief. England led in the match over three days and two sessions, but what made the difference ultimately was India's belief that they would win. England were resolute, resilient and resourceful, but somehow a touch diffident when it to came to decisive phases of the match.

They won a good toss and batted for nearly 130 overs, yet scored only 316. On day four, when it came to the charge, they scored only 57 runs in two hours. It can be said with hindsight that their declaration came not too late but too early, but that would be missing the point: they should have got at least 50 more. It was perhaps fear that held them back: what if we get bowled out for 50 fewer? That's the essential difference between good teams and great ones.

This is a significant moment for India's cricket history because that's the sort of diffidence that has sometimes in the past characterised their approach to cricket. Team after team, and captain after captain have been chipping away at the wall of self-doubt - secure the draw first, then contemplate victory - and this could well serve as a tipping point.

Seven years ago Nasser Hussain's England set India 374 runs in just over a day - admittedly a far tougher target than that in Chennai - and then too the openers, Deep Dasgupta and Shiv Sunder Das, put on 100 runs for the first wicket. But they consumed 54.3 overs for 119 runs and effectively ended the match - India finished with 198 at 2.04 runs an over. When, five years later Andrew Flintoff left them 368 to get on the last day in Nagpur, India mounted an audacious heist - but not until tea, by when Rahul Dravid and Wasim Jaffer had taken out 51.3 overs for 130 runs after the first wicket had fallen with only a run on the board.

That wicket was of Virender Sehwag, bowled playing an airy drive. Without Sehwag, the Chennai chase would have been inconceivable. He has a delightful disregard for history, whether of the past 100 years or the last ball, and thus is never weighed down by it. After he and Dravid fell short by three runs of the record score for the first wicket in Lahore in 2006, Sehwag casually admitted to never having heard of Vinoo Mankad and Pankaj Roy, the then record holders. History would have deemed this chase virtually impossible. Never had a target of over 300 been chased down in India in the last innings, and in Chennai the highest successful chase had been 155 - but if he remembered anything at all, Sehwag would have thought of the 387 India scored against England in the first one-dayer last month. Sehwag is a man of incredible batting skills but his mind is pure genius: doubt is not allowed to hover nearby, let alone enter.

 
 
Gradually and certainly, India are moving towards a stage where to win is not a hope but an expectation. To call them the new Australia will be glib. Australia's reputation has been earned over a decade-long dominance. But India are acquiring an aura of their own
 

It was Sehwag who reinforced the belief in as emphatic a manner as possible, but it's been a belief that has been growing. After the third day's play, with England already ahead by nearly 250 with seven wickets in hand, Gary Kirsten, a man not given to bombast, said calmly that he believed his team "capable of anything". Harbhajan Singh's words on the first day - he waded into England's defensive batting and dismissed out of hand the chances of their spinners - may have seemed hopelessly misplaced by the second day, but they were born of a confidence that characterises him. And on the fourth evening, Gautam Gambhir, a mild-mannered man off the field, had absolutely no doubt that a fast-wearing and untrustworthy pitch wouldn't deter India from going for a win.

This belief didn't waver throughout the day. The fall of wickets didn't bring the kind of stonewalling that might have come on another day. Gambhir and Tendulkar ticked away, cutting, sweeping and daintily working the gaps after Dravid fell early; VVS Laxman kept it going with drives in front of the wicket that seemed beyond all batsmen till then; and Yuvraj Singh, his Test credentials under a cloud once again, simply glided on. The momentum was never surrendered.

Historic is a word regularly used for India's Test wins in the past eight years. "First Test win in England in 20 years", "first win in West Indies in 25 years", "first-ever series win in West Indies", "first-ever Test win in South Africa", "first win in Perth" - all these have been signs of progress, but also pointers to a miserable past.

Gradually, though, and certainly, India are moving towards a stage where to win is not a hope but an expectation. To call them the new Australia will be glib. Australia's reputation has been earned over a decade-long dominance. But India are acquiring an aura of their own.

Chennai wasn't a Kolkata-like win. That was a miracle, a once-in-lifetime thing. This one has been achieved with a certainty of purpose, sealed with a clinical finish. One way of looking at it would be that India got out of a situation they should never have allowed themselves to be in, for they were the better team. The other is that a win like this likely to engender a belief that any match can be won till it is lost.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo

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