A classic that lifts the shadows
Test cricket is alive and well and let's thank India and Australia. These two teams, no matter what the rankings say, or where they play, have developed an extraordinary competitive chemistry that takes the highest form of the game to the highest plane.
Uncannily, when the shadow of corruption looms darkly over the game, it seems to fall on these sides to bring light again. In 2001 they delivered one of the greatest Test series of all, after cricket's foundations had been jolted by the match-fixing scandal. The spot-fixing allegations were relatively less damaging, so suitably, they restricted themselves to one great Test this time. Notwithstanding the wretched saga of the IPL, which rumbles on, the Border-Gavaskar Trophy managed to put cricket on the front pages for the right reasons once again.
Australia aren't the team they used to be, and it will be long before they can elicit awe again, but it must not be forgotten that they came within inches, literally, of winning the first Test. The Indian batting had far more class, and their bowling more experience and nous, but despite the 2-0 margin Australia were not rolled over. Even in Bangalore, where India ended up jogging to a win, Australia weren't out of the game until the second hour of the final day.
The Mohali Test will be impossible to better, but in its own way, Bangalore produced a multi-layered and satisfying game. And most satisfyingly, it was played before stands vibrating with passion and enthusiasm. It was a largely partisan and raucous crowd, and a few of them shamed themselves by booing the Australians on the opening day, but sitting in the stands it was also easy to find those who were knowledgeable and appreciative of the unique appeal of Test cricket.
In the row ahead of us sat a gentleman who spoke of the days when the great Indian spinners, and then Sunil Gavaskar and GR Viswanath, sustained his love for the game. He had travelled from Chennai and was spending five days in a guest house in Bangalore to watch the game. He applauded the Australians and appreciated the judgement of the umpire who ruled a close lbw decision in favour of an Australian batsman, but the sight of Sachin Tendulkar brought out the child in him. His whistling was one the highlights of the day. It was piercing and energetic, but the joyousness of it was striking. It was infectious.
There were many like him, and they went home rewarded, not merely by an Indian victory or a virtuoso performance from their adored hero, but by a game that stayed alive and full of possibilities for the most part.
The worry about dwindling crowds for Test cricket is legitimate and justifiable. But it is sometimes overstated and some of the suggested remedies are based on unsound assumptions. Sections of the print media have begun to realise the folly of trying to compete with the immediacy and visceral appeal of television. The sensuous and contemplative aspects of Test cricket are what appeal to its followers. It is true that it has gained from the energy and vitality that the players have brought to it from the shorter forms, but it doesn't need to tart itself up to remain attractive.
More than night cricket, pink balls and uniforms that are billboards, Test cricket needs the right stage, even contests, pitches that reward skillful bowling, and players who are mentally and physically able to rouse themselves to its rigours. The passion of the Indian fan drives cricket, but he cannot continue to be taken for granted. He needs to be treated with respect and affection, sheltered from the sun, provided options for food and drink, given easy access to tickets and a reasonable commute to the cricket ground.
It is no surprise why the Chinnaswamy Stadium always attracts a sizeable crowd, at the very least. Of course there is a tradition of watching Tests there, but there is also the matter of convenience and accessibility. It is in the centre of the city, and the options for post-match evenings around the stadium are almost as inviting as the cricket itself. Though sections of the stadium are still decrepit, the positive rub-off from the IPL is that much of the seating is now more than acceptable.
Even though it was prompted by the senior players and India's rise to No. 1 in the Test rankings, the BCCI must be praised for sacrificing four one-dayers for two Tests, but the pity is that they didn't go all the way to play one more Test. That said, if they have been seeing the signs, they will have worked out which venues are worthy of Test cricket. It's not that difficult. Kolkata, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai are obvious hosts. And on the evidence of the last two Tests, Kanpur, where the facilities for players and fans can do with upgrading, could be added to that list. Test cricket must go where it is loved. And cricket must learn to care for those who love it.
This was a Test series played in the right spirit. With all their limitations, Australia took their superior opponents to the final day of both matches. While they fought hard on the field, they were gracious losers. And Indian fans saw more than just glimpses of the greatness of Ricky Ponting.
It is ironic how the tide has turned. In this series Ponting was Australia's lone great player, often waging his battles alone against a more skilful and threatening bowling attack than his own. The last three years haven't been the most profitable of his career but he remains Australia's best batsman and their only cricketer with presence. As long as his desire remains, Australia need him.
India aren't as reliant on Tendulkar as they used to be. They haven't been for a while. He was the undoubted top performer in the series, but every player played a role. Virender Sehwag turned the momentum in the first innings in Mohali and Rahul Dravid and Suresh Raina built on it; VVS Laxman won the Test in the company of Ishant Sharma, who had earlier cracked the match open with a fiery spell. Zaheer Khan was India's outstanding bowler, but Harbhajan Singh and the impressive Pragyan Ojha rarely allowed the Australian batsmen to get into cruise mode, and even Sreesanth, who was poor in the first innings in Bangalore, got his rhythm and swing going on the final morning.
But the biggest gains for India were their young batsmen. M Vijay has been around for a while, but his maiden Test century was his most assured innings. He showed the temperament and the strokes, and Gautam Gambhir, though he will win his place back, won't be able to take it for granted. Cheteshwar Pujara, who, unlike some of his more flashy contemporaries has had to work hard to earn his place, played among the most impressive innings there has been in a final-day chase by a debutant. Tougher tests await him but he has the look of a Test player; he should be marked out as Rahul Dravid's successor.
And what about MS Dhoni? He had his poorest series behind the stumps and an ordinary one with the bat, and he lost both tosses. But he made the moves that mattered. Ishant's second spell turned the match in Mohali; Raina came on to nab Ponting in the first innings in Bangalore; and given the confidence to be thrust in at No. 3 in a tricky chase, Pujara stroked a nerveless 72. Even if it was all luck, it wouldn't have come without Dhoni making the moves.
India must not be grudged their No. 1 status, and they must rejoice in it. But the battle to keep it will begin this December, against South Africa.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo