India have an athleticism problem
Midway through the second day of this Test match in Sydney, with twelve and a half thousand runs and 39 centuries behind him, Ricky Ponting charged off for a single with the enthusiasm and judgement of a schoolkid in the junior team looking for his first run. And when he lifted himself off the turf, shirt muddied, aware that he was lucky to survive, he celebrated almost as if he had never known what it was to get a hundred.
Sport does that to the greatest of champions. Ponting, one of the legends of the game, entered the series with his career hanging by a thread, in fear of losing his spot to cricketers whom history would never place on the same page as him. It was an examination he hadn't faced since he made the No. 3 spot his own. But now he had bought time, and was maybe even on the brink of a Tendulkaresque revival. He could look forward to the morrow as an Australian Test cricketer. That was the emotion that came through. It was also the feeling you got when you saw Michael Hussey celebrate.
It also suggested that there was some insecurity in the Australian team that India did not, or maybe could not, exploit. In sport, people often talk of the fear in the enemy camp. The reaction to the Ponting and Hussey centuries confirmed it existed; but halfway through the series they have dispelled it.
For all the emotion spilling over, it was Michael Clarke's triple-century that was the more decisive innings. Seven years ago I saw him make a debut century in Bangalore that was characterised by some of the most decisive footwork you will see. Now he takes his place in history. The record he broke had stood for 109 years!
Australia will be aware that they were up against an Indian side that was a bit leaden-footed and occasionally devoid of intensity. I am not denying that there is steel in this side - you don't acquire these kinds of records otherwise - but there was very little zing to them. On the second morning, with Australia a mere 75 behind and anxious to get a good start, India offered a loosener as the first over. The singles ticked over, there were a couple of boundaries, and within 15 minutes it looked like Clarke and Ponting had been batting for an hour. You hoped India would come harder, induce a sense of uncertainty in the batsmen, make them earn the early runs. That didn't happen and it is my thesis that it is the lack of athleticism, and the lesser importance attached to it, that is the reason.
Traditionally we in India have always placed a huge premium on skill, and that is why it is rarely in short supply. But India's icons have rarely been noted for athleticism. You remember a Kapil Dev, an Azharuddin, but they are exceptions. I believe it is unpardonable for this generation to be unathletic. When a Dravid or a Laxman was being indoctrinated, physical prowess was rarely stressed upon; you were expected to bat, bowl and catch, and India have been pretty good at those. But cricketers of about 25 today have seen world cricket from the time they were 15. They have no excuse, and that is why it is frustrating to watch someone like Ravichandran Ashwin, who has all the skills in the game but is not, by any stretch, an athlete.
So too with Zaheer Khan, among the most skilful bowlers in the game today. Few can move the new ball and old at will like he does, and watching him set up a wicket is one of the joys in the game. But down at long leg he rarely, if ever, takes a start, and Australia's batsmen have regularly pinched singles and twos wherever he has been fielding. What does that tell another generation? That you must learn to bowl like him, which is fine, but also that it is okay to be back on your heels in the field? It is a question that Indian cricket needs to answer. The package Zaheer presents is still invaluable, but he is a slow mover in the field - and not the only one. Five or six more and you have a side that is low on physical intensity.
I guess the reverse, being athletic but possessed of few cricketing skills, used to be worse, but that is not a valid argument anymore. Athleticism is non-negotiable for this generation. It helps you win the small points that can make a big difference.
Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here