Inspired and inspirational
The series in Australia which just concluded was a landmark one for the Indian team. They were expected to go down without much of a fight, much as they had the last time, in 1999-2000. At that time, India's bowling attack was pathetically inept, and the batting revolved around Sachin Tendulkar, despite that one sparkling century from VVS Laxman. But in this series, player after player stood up and proved themselves worthy of fighting on the biggest stage, and capable of beating down the biggest bully. There are many giants now on whose shoulders Indian cricket can forge ahead. Here, we sum up how the Indian team performed:
Rahul Dravid confirmed the belief that he deserves a place among India's finest
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Rahul Dravid - 619 runs at 123.8; four catches
Even for those who have believed for years that Dravid was capable of great things, his performance in this series was the stuff of dreams. After a slow start at Brisbane, where he made 1 and a polished 43 not out, he made the Adelaide Test his own, with a monumental 233, followed by 72 not out in a tense run-chase. After a fluent 49 in the first innings at Melbourne, he threatened to save the match with a gritty 92 in the second. He outscored Tendulkar during his 91 not out at Sydney, just as he had outscored Laxman at Adelaide, with strokeplay that was the embodiment of classical beauty, and solidity that was not just immovable, but irresistible. Australia was the only hole in his resume, and by living up to the occasion so magnificently, he has sealed his place in the pantheon of Indian batting greats, where he shall stand alongside Tendulkar and Sunil Gavaskar.
VVS Laxman - 492 runs at 82.3; five catches
The myth of Laxman being a mercurial player given to pretty cameos had been demolished long ago, and after two years of being quietly consistent down the order, he was Man of the Series against New Zealand, India's last series before going to Australia. But his consistency on this tour, always amid tremendous pressure, was awesome. Gritty yet graceful, sturdy yet stylish, he helped Sourav Ganguly pull India out of a hole in the first Test at Brisbane, added a matchwinning 303 with Dravid at Adelaide, played a useful cameo in the second innings of that Test, and added 353 more with Tendulkar at Sydney. The Australians, tormented for so long by him, were entranced and frustrated in equal measure, and wondered aloud how India could ever have contemplated dropping such a man from the Test team.
Anil Kumble - 24 wickets in 3 Tests at 29.6
Anil Kumble was both inspired and inspirational on this tour. Throughout the 1990s, when India hardly won anything abroad, Kumble was their biggest matchwinner at home, ripping through sides with monotonous regularity. But he was written off as a bowler who could not win Tests abroad, who could not spin the ball, who possessed no variety. But he lifted himself and redeemed Indian cricket on this tour. After getting a pounding on the first day at Adelaide, he came back to restrict Australia with a five-for that proved crucial in the long run. A six-for followed in Melbourne, before he did all but wrest the series at Sydney, with eight wickets in the first innings and four in the second. His control was as metronomic as ever, his discipline was unflagging, and his variations of pace and spin - the googly was a deadly part of his arsenal - had Australia spellbound. It was a lionhearted effort, displaying a strength of will that the man whose final series this was would have been proud of.
Virender Sehwag - 464 runs at 58; eight catches
On the toughest stage of all, Sehwag demonstrated that he was not all flash, but had plenty of substance as well. He formed India's best opening partnership in over a decade, with Akash Chopra, and invariably made sure that by the time he was out, India had a fair amount of runs on the board, and the run-rate wasn't too bad either. He made a more-than-useful 72 in the first innings at Sydney, and had three 47s and a 45 to boot. His masterpiece, the thrilling 195 at Melbourne, came in a losing cause, but he could not have done better to seize the initiative for his side. His fielding was energetic, and all discussion of the technical flaws which supposedly made him inappropriate to open the batting had ceased by the end of the series.
Sourav Ganguly - 284 runs at 47.3
Chasing 323 at Brisbane, India were first 62 for 3, then 127 for 4. If the traditional Indian overseas collapse had been allowed to take place, India would have got off to the worst possible start in the series, and there may have been no way back. But Ganguly played a composed, aggressive and elegant innings, making 144 off just 196 balls. His batting contained both cultured sophistication and street-fighting spirit, and he dealt with the short ball superbly. He was supposedly the weakest link in the Indian middle order, and the strength he showed in this innings filled both his team and himself with self-belief. His captaincy was positive, and the most gratifying aspect of the series for India was that, at the end, he looked unhappy with the 1-1 result. He filled the Indian team with ambition, and he led the way selflessly, as reflected in decisions like going out to bat ahead of Tendulkar towards the end of the third day at Melbourne, and promoting Laxman ahead of him at Sydney. Make no mistake - he is the Indian captain who will lead India to that elusive series win abroad.
Sachin Tendulkar - 383 runs at 73.6
He began the series with 0 (a shocking umpiring decision) and 1, before a fluid, and crucial 37 in the run-chase at Adelaide, which he helped to set up with two key second-innings wickets. He made 0 and 44 at Melbourne but, just as the media was over-reacting wildly, speaking of a slump in form and even a decline in powers, he constructed a masterful 241 not out in Sydney, an innings of restraint and purpose, and the highest Test score by an Indian overseas. He followed that up with 60 not out in the second innings, and was a source of strength, support and wisdom to his younger team-mates in a myriad ways that will never find public expression. Never write Sachin Tendulkar off.
Akash Chopra did his job admirably and perhaps deserved to make bigger scores
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Akash Chopra - 186 runs at 23.3; five catches
Statistics, in Chopra's case, are misleading. India's overseas batting debacles of the past have mostly happened when the middle order has been exposed to the new ball early on, but Chopra played his part in ensuring that that did not happen here. His partnerships with Sehwag - 61, 4, 66, 48, 141, 5, 123 and 11 - came at an average of 57.3, and he performed his brief of seeing off the new ball superbly. His technique was immaculate and augured well for the future, and his fielding at short leg evoked comparisons to Eknath Solkar, India's close-in specialist of the 1970s.
Ajit Agarkar - 16 wickets at 37.3; 26 runs at 5.2
He bowled magnificently in one of India's greatest Test victories, at Adelaide, but one-offs are not enough. His batting was a joke, and he was as flat as last century's beer at Sydney. His place in the team is far from certain, and while he is not expected to provide a matchwinning spell every time he goes out there, he should at least learn to be a good support act, which Kumble so desperately needed at Sydney.
Parthiv Patel - eight catches and three stumpings; 160 runs at 58.4
Patel made a few mistakes in the series, with quite a few drops, missed stumpings and failed gatherings, and tended not to stay low enough against the spinners, perhaps because his energy flagged towards the end of the Tests, given his inexperience. But he remains, by a process of elimination, India's best wicketkeeper. Why do we give him six points then? Because he showed that he could bat, and played a more crucial role for India with the bat than his hero, Adam Gilchrist, did for Australia. Innings of 37 at Brisbane, 31 at Adelaide, 27 not out at Melbourne and a strokeful 62, off just 50 balls, at Sydney demonstrated both his technique and his spunk, and he was not scared to hook and pull Brett Lee and Jason Gillespie.
Irfan Pathan - 4 wickets at 66.5
Pathan's debut, at Adelaide, was nothing to email home about, but he was impressive at Sydney, where he bowled a wonderful spell with the old ball, getting generous reverse-swing and accounting for Steve Waugh and Adam Gilchrist. But he could not replicate his success with the new ball, and wasn't bowled enough with the old one in the second innings, when Ganguly gave him just eight overs out of a total of 94. He has the talent, he has the temperament, and he will be around.
Zaheer Khan - 5 wickets at 42.6
Zaheer started with a five-for in the first innings at Brisbane, got injured, missed the second Test, played in the third only to break down again, and that was that. It was an anti-climactic tour for him, but he did enough at Brisbane to show that he remains India's best fast bowler. India missed him at Sydney - but then, Australia missed Glenn McGrath, so that line of reasoning takes us nowhere.
Harbhajan Singh - 1 wicket at 169
India's top spinner? Piffle. He lacked imagination and discipline in the only Test he played, at Brisbane, and has miles to go before he can fill Kumble's shoes.
Murali Kartik - 1 wicket at 211
So much hype, so little substance. Kartik was mauled by Australia in the first innings at Sydney, and while he was a bit better in the second, that wasn't saying much. He lacked penetration, and haplessly failed to give Kumble the support that could have won India the series. Back to the drawing board.
Ashish Nehra - 4 wickets at 95.5
Pedestrian in all the three Tests he played, on pitches he should have relished bowling on. But cricket is also played in the mind ...
Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.