October 4, 2007

Grow up already

The attempts by some Indians to out-sledge the Aussies have come a cropper in this series



Sreesanth has fallen sprawling over the line that separates aggression from farcical chest-thumping © AFP

Adam Gilchrist had a certain someone in mind when he spoke of the on-field behaviour in Kochi being ridiculous even by kids' standards, but his words could have applied to any of four or five individuals who have hardly distinguished themselves with their antics in the opening two games of this series.

Were it not for the fact that both teams have been led by thoroughly likeable men, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Gilchrist, things may well have deteriorated to a level where cricket became a contact sport. And with so many thousands of children scrutinising their heroes' every move, the two teams that now hold all three world titles on offer in the sport really need to take a long hard look at themselves.

India have gone into the series determined to match Australia in what Stephen Waugh might have referred to as the mental disintegration stakes. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with that. For too long teams have allowed Australia to intimidate them with more than just bat and ball, and the feistiness shown by some of the English players during the Ashes series of 2005 proved that even the biggest bully in the yard could be stared down.

But controlled aggression is one thing and some of the nonsense we've seen in this series quite another. It's worth recalling that most of the men who in the past got too enmeshed in verbal skirmishes paid the price with miserable failure, which was what the Australians intended in the first place. Graeme Smith was a notable casualty, talking the big talk before home and away series against Australia, only to be ruthlessly cut down to size by a team that prided itself on targetting the opposition's main men.

Paul Collingwood was another who allowed himself to be drawn into a war of words with Shane Warne last year. Till then, he and Kevin Pietersen had been the standard bearers of England's resistance in Australia. But after the verbals in Adelaide, he scarcely made a run all summer, and it was perhaps no surprise that his game revived only after Warne exited the stage.

Harbhajan Singh and Sourav Ganguly were two who had a measure of success in getting under Australian skin and causing an itch or two. Ganguly did it with a smile on his face, and Waugh's subsequent irritation and complaints were the reaction of a man who had been caught out at an essentially Australian game.

Harbhajan's tactics have been far less subtle, and have involved plenty of lip. "He likes to have a chat," admitted Glenn McGrath during Australia's victorious tour of India in 2004. McGrath was keen to emphasise that white-line fever didn't afflict his countrymen alone, but for his part Harbhajan could point to 21 wickets from three Tests as proof of successful aggression.

He was again one of the main protagonists in Kochi, having an animated discussion with Steve Bucknor and exchanging heated words with Michael Clarke, all of this while at the non-striker's end. Even after he was dismissed, Harbhajan found time to trade a few words with the Australian huddle, and his demeanour suggested that a few choice words had been whispered to him as soon as he arrived in the middle.

Australia, as ever, haven't been angels themselves. Clarke, cherub face and all, is developing a bit of a reputation as an instigator, having already achieved the impossible feat of making Chris Gayle drop his cool dude façade in Mumbai during the Champions Trophy last year. Matthew Hayden is a legend of the coarse chirp from slip, and Andrew Symonds too has been noticeably belligerent in this series. When he returns to the fold, you can be sure that Ricky Ponting will be bristly as ever, and there's always Brett Lee with those throws to the keeper that invariably accidentally hit the batsman.

Given the backdrop it says a lot that Sreesanth has managed to take the sledging spotlight away from its most skilled practitioners. In Kochi, though, he walked the line, and was most fortunate that Chris Broad had one of his more lenient days as match referee. Over two games Sreesanth has had words with Clarke, glared at and dismissed Hayden, and mouthed off at both Symonds and Brad Haddin.

It's worth recalling that most of the men who in the past got too enmeshed in verbal skirmishes paid the price with miserable failure, which was what the Australians intended in the first place

Sreesanth's apologists will point to how McGrath used to carry on sometimes. Fair enough. But McGrath was also the best bowler in the world, certainly the best we'll ever see, and he never let the white-line fever affect his performance. If anything, it probably enhanced it. Sreesanth, who started both games in this series superbly only to tail off at the end, needs to learn from that and learn quickly before a ban or two comes his way.

He doesn't need to look as far afield as Australia for a role model. Zaheer Khan has been like a coiled spring since his return to the side, controlled aggression unleashed each time he has been given the ball. As the Trent Bridge Test showed, he's not a man to back away from a scrap, but he also knows when talk becomes cheap and actions take precedence.

Sreesanth is an outstanding fast-bowling talent, capable of genuine pace and controlled swing, and despite his antics there's grudging respect for him in the Australian camp. But what both he and India need right now is focus. A good opening spell alone seldom wins matches, and making faces at the batsmen certainly doesn't.

It matters little what the Australians make of Sreesanth, and even less what their newspapers think. But his team-mates do matter. And right now he's letting them down. Dhoni faces a question about his behaviour at pretty much every press conference, and he certainly can't have been too thrilled on Tuesday, having to walk down the pitch to ask Sreesanth to get on with it after an appeal for a run-out that would have embarrassed someone playing gully cricket.

None but the most naïve expect games of this intensity to be played out in a "Top shot, old chap" atmosphere, but it's not edifying to see them descend to schoolboy boorishness either. Before an awards function on Tuesday night Sreesanth quipped that the blow he took to the head - from a shot by Dhoni down the ground - had set him right. For the sake of an Indian team that depends heavily on him for wickets, you can only hope that he wasn't joking.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor on Cricinfo

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