July 23, 2010

The case of the missing teeth

With a bowling line-up like the one they have at the moment, India look anything but the No. 1 team they supposedly are

Among the many delights of being in South Africa for the FIFA World Cup final was the opportunity of sharing a dinner table with Adam Gilchrist. Inevitably the topic moved to Australia's current predicament (not a particularly unpleasant one, given they still win a lot of games) and just as inevitably he was asked what he thought was the most significant reason for it.

"Two" he said, raising his fingers like he might be asking for leg and middle. "Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne."

The query came immediately: not Gilchrist himself? "No, that's been the most seamless actually. But it's the bowling that wins matches and those two - actually make it those three, because Jason Gillespie was outstanding - were just special."

I thought of that when I saw Sri Lanka always had a bowler for the occasion in Galle. Two strike bowlers made the difference; ironically, one playing his last Test and another back after a lengthy layoff from five-day cricket. That and the fact that they had five bowlers to share the workload. Gilchrist is right. As we all know, it is the bowlers who win matches, especially if the batsmen do them the favour of setting it up by scoring more than 500.

India lost the Test for a few other reasons as well, but eventually it was about the bowling. The spinners don't always get too much help on the first day, but they will be the first to put up their hands and say they were disappointing. When you play four bowlers you really cannot afford for even one of them to have a bad match. If two do, and the other two are patchy, you are in big trouble.

And so India add one more chapter to their rather voluminous tome on first-Test disasters. Interestingly not everyone is in favour of playing more than one warm-up game, which does strike me as a bit strange. With India's middle order having had no cricket since the IPL, they needed as much time as they could get in the middle in the tour game in Colombo. It didn't help that they watched four hundreds being scored off their bowlers. Indeed, three men in their mid-thirties may well have looked at each other and asked themselves which attack they would much rather have fancied playing.

But while India need to find a solution to getting their lead batsmen coming in cold, that is only part of the story. India are now the No. 1 Test team by the ICC rankings and cannot offer that as the reason for a defeat. Champions must have an air about them, and while this series could still end differently, India don't have the aura of world champions.

Inevitably on the subcontinent the toss is a huge factor but this one in Galle didn't seem like such a bad one to lose. There was a lot of cloud around, the wicket had a tinge of moisture in it, and the openers would have been on guard. But in the first hour, which so often determines which way a game goes, India's bowling was atrocious. The newcomer, Abhimanyu Mithun, was steady but Ishant Sharma looked like he needed some dusting. He did bowl a wonderful spell on the third morning, but that only highlighted the opportunity missed at the beginning. With this kind of line-up, opposition openers aren't going to spend too many sleepless nights.

India might still pull it back in the series. Sri Lanka without Murali might not have anyone to provide both the bulk of the overs and the wickets, and India's batsmen might look a little less rusty, but it comes back to taking 20 wickets. In the absence of Zaheer Khan - and considering he has a shoulder injury, I fear India might have to start getting used to that for a while - this was the best attack India could put on the park. There isn't a bowler back home who could claim he belonged here. In fact, such is the paucity of bowling options that if there was one good enough, he must have been hidden well.

For India to come back into this series the batsmen will have to put up a mountain of runs.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer

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