October 29, 2008

Twelve years after

A dasher, a spinner, a grafter, a keeper: a look back to 1996, when India and Australia last met in a Test in Delhi



India celebrate Michael Slater's wicket in the second innings of the 1996 Delhi Test © Action Photographics

Memories of Australia's last Test match at Kotla are hazier than the smog that holds the capital city in its grip. Certain things linger in the mind: the result, a catch, an opening batsman's fate, two trenchant innings, and a wonderfully innovative and sustained piece of cricket writing, but all else has faded from memory. Doubtless the players themselves recall the event. Not that they have brains quite the size of Mr Anand's but even so cricketers seldom forget important matches, especially those in which they did well or made fools of themselves. Glenn McGrath could describe every wicket he ever took and, pressed, Shane Warne could do the same.

Actually another thing does stick in the head. Kotla was a rundown ground in urgent need of the tender loving care recommended for orphans and abandoned pets. Estate agents would have listed it as suitable for a renovator. Certainly it was not the sort of place to include on a tourist's itinerary or a Test match schedule. But there was some sort of anniversary, or it might have been a festival, and the players were duly given the honour of representing their country and the dubious pleasure of spending five days at Kotla.

Nowadays the ground looks altogether more spic and span. Not that it will be quite ready till the first ball has been bowled. Even now, Australian supporters turn up a few days before the match begins and walk around with bemused looks on their faces, wondering how on earth a five-day match is going to be staged amid such chaos. Older hands know that it is as foolish to look at an Indian ground a day before play as it is to study an incomplete painting. Still, the stands look brighter, bigger and cleaner, and the field itself appears more loved.

Returning to 1996, the starkest memory concerns Michael Slater, or rather the wild slash that undid him in the second innings. Throughout his career Slater was a dasher. At his best he was an adventurous and engaging batsman, at his worst a frantic performer tapping the drums of doom. Hereabouts he was enduring one of his more frenzied spells and team-mates were worried about his state of mind. Opening the Australians' second innings after an Indian team that included the current captain and three members of the Fab Four - namely George, Paul and John; everyone except VVS - had taken a first-innings lead of 179 on a dusty deck, Slater threw himself at the first ball aimed in his direction. Opening his shoulders and lifting his head, he flung the bat but succeeded only in edging a ball he could barely reach.

On another day the mistake might not have proved costly, but the gods were offended by his liberty and sent the ball soaring only a few feet above the heads of the Indian slip fieldsmen. Had anyone except Mohammad Azharuddin, or possibly Mark Waugh, been occupying this patch of ground, the opener's life might have been spared. Indeed he might have collected a boundary, because the ball was travelling at roughly the speed of light (by now it is assumed that readers do not take figures mentioned in this column seriously, let alone literally). Instead it cost him his wicket, and for the time being his place. Naturally David Johnson, a pace bowler destined soon to return to the obscurity from which he had unexpectedly been summoned, was as delighted as Slater and his colleagues were dismayed. For Slater it was rough justice. He had scored 44 in the first dig and ended the match with more runs than six colleagues, including Ricky Ponting. Steve Waugh scored 67 in the second innings and his praises were sung to the high heavens. Such are the perils of the cavalier. And it confirmed that even one-off matches of little apparent significance can have lasting consequences for those taking part.

 
 
For Slater it was rough justice. He had scored 44 in the first dig and ended the match with more runs than six colleagues, including Ricky Ponting. Steve Waugh scored 67 in the second innings and his praises were sung to the high heavens. Such are the perils of the cavalier
 

Among the Indians, Nayan Mongia played the most notable innings. Given the dual roles of gloveman and opening batsman, Mongia first guarded the stumps while the Australians battled for runs, and then himself occupied the crease for over eight hours as he constructed a defiant and ultimately decisive 152. As far as style is concerned, the innings has left little of the aftertaste by which vignerons set such store, but it was rugged and paved the way for brighter contributions from Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly, both at the start of their distinguished careers. Mongia was helped by the limitations of an Australian spin attack that included Peter McIntyre and an inexperienced Brad Hogg. Not that the local spinners were all that much more convincing, Kumble apart.

Australia seemed bound for heavy defeat, an impression reinforced by Slater's rashness. In the first innings Steve Waugh recorded a rare duck. By now the ball was jumping around like firecrackers on Diwali. In those days, too, Kumble was even more of a worn-pitch specialist than he subsequently became. Over the years he added a few tricks to his repertoire, deliveries that made him a better bowler on all surfaces but not quite as deadly on dustbowls. In 1996 he was relentless, pinning the batsmen down with fast and dangerous deliveries, working them over, drying up the runs, building the pressure, denying them the chance to attack for fear that the ball might skid or leap, that the temptation was a trap.

Waugh might easily have buckled. Instead he reviewed his failure in the first innings, realised he had allowed himself to be distracted by the whirl of dignitaries bobbing about in the rooms, disconcerted by the grumbles of team-mates, and discouraged by the sight of the other batsmen struggling to meet the challenge. In short, he had omitted to focus on matters in hand. Determined to show that runs could be scored on this track, committed to eradicating excuses and other indulgences from his outlook, he put his head down, grafted for runs, defending with soft hands and pouncing on occasional wayward deliveries. Rather than admit defeat he brought the entire power of his personality into play. At the crease he became an immoveable object. Hard as they tried the Indians could not take his wicket. Colleagues came and went and when the last wicket fell Waugh was left stranded with 67 runs to his name, the product of four-and-a-half hours of intense concentration and superb defensive skills.

That much is known about Waugh's preparation and attitude during this innings is entirely due to an exceptional piece of writing it threw up. By chance Waugh had agreed beforehand with Australian journalist Greg Baum to talk at length about his batting in the match. Baum's idea was to get inside the head of a top batsman, the better to illuminate the thought processes involved in creating an innings. By all accounts Waugh was so forthcoming that Baum ended up with 10,000 words, of which space could be found for only half. The ensuing article offered a fascinating insight into the outlook of a major sportsman. Throughout Waugh emphasised that his way was not a blueprint, that other batsmen of equal merit might go about things in a totally different manner. Indeed he said he'd be interested to read about that. But there has not been much follow-up. Dudley Doust wrote about Derek Randall's famous innings in the centenary Test but otherwise the field has been neglected. Baum's article is recommended reading for all aspiring batsmen and sports journalists.

These are the things that remain from 1996. Time alone will tell what is left of the forthcoming scrimmages by the time 2008 turns into 2020.

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

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