October 16, 2008

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Bangalore provided good cricket but not much to take the breath away. Will Mohali be different?


Rabbits with teeth: Harbhajan and Zaheer's rearguard left Australia short of answers © AFP
 

At stumps on the opening day of the Bangalore Test match the Australians were confident of winning. Already two significant advantages had been secured. Ricky Ponting had won the toss on a pitch expected to fall apart as rapidly as an American bank that has given mortgages to anyone with a dollar in their pocket. And Ponting and his left-handed allies had laid the foundations for a substantial score. The visitors were confident of putting the squeeze on the Indian middle order, creating the sort of panic among local supporters otherwise detected in smoking theatres. Although none is named John or George or Paul, let alone Ringo, the middle-order men have been lumped together as the Fab Four. It is passing strange that they are not treated as separate cases.

At stumps on the second evening the Australians remained confident of taking a lead in the series. Admittedly the home side's openers had sent the score rattling in the hour or so permitted to them, but that was of little account. Admittedly the pitch had not deteriorated as much as anticipated, but the cracks were widening and puffs of dust had been detected by the more optimistic fieldsmen. Ponting and his think tank were convinced they could undo their opponents with full-length bowling supported an appropriately placed field. It was not so much a conceit as a conviction, one stubbornly retained in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. Australia's tactics were out in place, and never convincingly reconsidered.

Not until after tea on the third afternoon did the tourists begin to doubt themselves. In every way the partnership between Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan was important. During the match, India's second saint was inaugurated. Bhaji is unlikely to be the third but he is a Punjabi through and through and a competitor to the core. In the past Zaheer has often seemed to regard injury as a welcome respite from the chore of bowling. He seemed to relish the life around cricket more than the game itself. All that has changed in the last two seasons. Now the fiery left-hander bowls with his head and bats with his heart. As a result his cricket has improved beyond measure. Few expected him to keep his eye on the ball for as long as he did at Chinnaswamy. And every minute lifted his colleagues and frustrated his opponents.

Australia's response to this tail-end resistance was surprisingly tame. In the past, governments knew how to deal with lower-order defiance: they sent in the army with full permission to wreak havoc. Ponting played a waiting game. Plans laid for the senior batsmen had been superbly executed, but suddenly it appeared that much less thought had been given to the supposed rabbits. Nor was Ponting able to think on his feet. Hereabouts Australia's cricket lacked urgency. Truth to tell, too many overs were given to willing but unthreatening spinners. That Cameron White bowled above expectations was irrelevant. There was a match to win and the visiting pace attack was streets ahead. Australia made the same mistake in the second innings, allowing the spinners to bowl half the overs. And it was not murky all the time, not even in the opinion of the absurdly cautious umpires.

 
 
Neither side looked like making a decisive break on the fifth day, upon which the game showed itself in a poor light, as a self-indulgent, self-important activity that thinks more about its highly paid but precious players than it does about spectators and the marketplace
 

By stumps on the fourth day India's chance of winning the match had come and gone. Between them the wagging tail and incisive pace bowling had changed the mood of the match so much that at 128 for 5 the visitors were in trouble. But the hosts too failed to recognise and seize the moment. As much could be told from the rapidity with which Anil Kumble spread his field, and the line bowled by Harbhajan, most of whose deliveries were directed at the batsman's pads. Since little was seen of the doosra in the match, an absence some put down to the presence of Chris Broad as referee, these deliveries did not present much danger. Kumble even bowled himself, though he lacked the menace seen in his pomp. Once inclined to skid or spit, Kumble's spinners took their time after bouncing and could be played off the back foot. An inquisitor in the past, Kumble now asked polite questions.

Neither side looked like making a decisive break on the fifth day, upon which the game showed itself in a poor light, as a self-indulgent, self-important activity that thinks more about its highly paid but precious players than it does about spectators and the marketplace. After losing two early wickets the Indians put up stiff resistance. Sachin Tendulkar played with characteristic skill, while VVS Laxman, whose backers include his captain and respectful opponents, presented a straight bat. It was a slow pitch upon which the ball kept low but did not move sideways. Moreover, Australia's spinners were ineffective. Before long the batsmen seemed to be more worried about the light than the bowling.

Now attention turns to Mohali. By the look of things the pitch is evenly grassed, except at the ends, which have presumably attracted the eye of passing locusts. Reports that it had been left as damp and green as Ireland by a late monsoon appeared wide of the mark. In any event the track is firmer than Chinnaswamy and not nearly as cracked. Bangalore provided lots of good cricket but not much to take the breath away.

Having survived their predicament in the first Test, with the pace bowlers forming a potent partnership, the tail wagging, and the senior batsmen looking fertile, the Indians must feel the time has come for them to turn the screws. Kumble and company have not lost any of their last three Tests against Australia.

Contrastingly the visitors must regard Bangalore as a match that eluded them. Afterwards Ponting said that he had expected more chances to be created on the final day, but that otherwise he was happy with the performance of his side. Overall Australia had been the better team. His batsmen played their parts, and spinners cannot be microwaved, so the improvement must come from the pacemen, among whom Brett Lee took few wickets and had little luck. But three of the bowlers Australia relies upon, Shane Watson and the slower men, do not move the ball enough to trouble established batsmen.

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

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