Australia v India, 1st Test, Brisbane, 5th day December 8, 2003

A stepping stone

Steve Waugh and Sourav Ganguly: An old fox and a young wolf
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Midway through Jason Gillespie's second over in India's second innings, Steve Waugh summoned the fielders from fine leg and square leg on the off side, posted a forward short leg as the only man on the on side and stationed himself as a close-in catcher at short extra cover - a superfluous position, as Rahul Dravid rarely drives in the air in that area. But it was like his declaration: intended more as psychological warfare than pure cricket tactics.

Waugh only had partial success - the openers were dispatched quickly and the Indian middle order was made to feel the pressure. But in the end it allowed Dravid to post his highest Test score in Australia, and spend some immensely valuable time in the middle. The intent was right, however, and it made you wonder if Sourav Ganguly hadn't missed a trick the previous evening.

As India's best batting day on Australian soil since January 1992 was winding down to a close yesterday evening, talk centered around whether Ganguly would gamble on a declaration to infuse interest into this rain-blighted match. The move had its appeal. Australia had been under the cosh for the best part of the day, India had found their feet and rhythm, their captain had made an emphatic statement with innings of valour and skill: in other words, India had the momentum. By declaring after taking a symbolic lead, Ganguly could have sent Waugh a message: India were not merely content with saving the game, they had the boldness and imagination to go for a win. Fading light, tiring limbs and an uncertain mind can weigh heavily on the best of batsmen, and a couple of wickets could have opened up a small window for India.

And even if wickets hadn't fallen, a declaration would have put the onus of redeeming this match solely on the shoulder of Waugh, a man intent, more urgently than ever before, on securing his legacy. Under his ruthless stewardship, Australia have assigned themselves the responsibility of removing the draw out of the Test-match equation, and not taking up a challenge would have been unlike the man.

Two seasons ago, Stephen Fleming's modest New Zealand team had thrown up a challenge to Waugh on this very ground by declaring their first innings nearly 200 runs behind Australia on the fourth day of another rain-affected Test. Waugh obliged by setting New Zealand a victory target of 284, and the match ended pulsatingly with New Zealand falling short by ten runs.

But let's not be harsh on Ganguly. Not disregarding worthy contributions from Sehwag, Chopra and Laxman, it is principally thanks to Ganguly that India go to Adelaide with their heads held high. Australia have discovered a respect for Ganguly and his team that had been the sole preserve of Sachin Tendulkar till now. Not only did India take a first-innings lead, a rarity in Australia, they did it with a swagger. That Tendulkar didn't score runs was not a matter of alarm, but a sign of good health. For far too long for India's good, he has been the team's sole saviour in hostile climes, and it was about time that a new hero emerged. It is now incumbent on Ganguly to use this innings as the stepping stone for a new chapter in his career.

But that said, India must not allow themselves to slip into the complacency that has characterised many Indian teams in the past. Instead of resting on their laurels, they must find a way to push ahead. Unlike the Australian teams of recent seasons, this team has a weakness. Even Zimbabwe, with the meagreness of their talent, showed that without Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, the Australian bowling attack can be blunted. And Ganguly and Laxman demonstrated yesterday that it can be flayed, made to look mediocre. Jason Gillespie is their only bowler of genuine class; Nathan Bracken's effectiveness is limited to the new ball and Andy Bichel, despite his spirit and energy, is no more than a honest blue-collar worker.

But despite restricting Australia to 323, India have reason to worry about their bowling. Australia will not bundled out in 16 overs often. India will need to bowl consistently for much longer periods of time to contain this awesome batting machine that knows no mercy. Matthew Hayden, Ricky Ponting, Damien Martyn and Steve Waugh showed in glorious batting conditions today that they will be, as they have been in the last few years, relentless in their savagery.

The thinness of India's bowling resources were exposed when Zaheer Khan had to withdraw to nurse a troubled hamstring. Ashish Nehra is far from rediscovering the zip that made him an awkward customer at the World Cup, and Ajit Agarkar remains a nightmare because he is impossible to plan around. Harbhajan Singh, though, will be Ganguly's big worry. He bowled better today than his figures will suggest, but he appears to have stagnated. He deserves patience because it is easily forgotten that he is only 23, and spinners don't usually peak till they are nearer 30. But patience is a virtue he must acquire himself, particularly away from the subcontinent where the pitches don't yield easily to his persuasions. He fancies himself as a wicket-taking bowler, but he has to reconcile and adapt to situations where wickets will have to be earned by perseverance and toil.

But India go from this Test with more gains than they could have imagined. Weather had been singled out as India's most probable saviour before the Test began. By the end of it, not only had India competed on equal terms, but had in fact dominated their vaunted rivals in more than one session. It was much more than a honourable draw.

Sambit Bal, the editor of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine and Wisden Cricinfo in India, will be following the Indian team throughout this Test series.