March 1, 2013

Madras state of mind

The first India-Australia Test was a hark back to old times in more ways than one

As an exhihibition of character, of ambition and frailties, of opportunities and fears, the five days in Madras were enthralling. Yes, you read it right. At various times during the Test match, when I read that people were queueing up at four in the morning, when there was a decent crowd even to watch just an hour's play on the last day, when I had dinner with traditional cricket lovers who wanted to know about emerging young players in Australia, I found myself referring to the city as Madras. And I wondered if Chennai was Super Kings and Madras was Test cricket. And as I pondered that to write this piece, I realised that Test cricket addicts, as I know them, reside in the old Bombay and Calcutta. They, too, would have loved this outstanding Test match.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni is, in many ways, Chennai's adopted son (there were even messages on the scoreboard for him in Tamil) but Madras would have loved the innings he played. By his own admission he is not the most technically adept cricketer, but the manner in which he reacted to the conditions and seized the moment in the game was what made this one of the finest batting performances in India.

Nathan Lyon, a spinner of considerable ability but uncertain self-belief, had just begun to make the conditions work for him. Tendulkar had been bowled by a ball that another Aussie spinner who did so well in India, Ashley Mallett, would have been delighted by. The drift towards off dragged the bat towards the ball and created space for it to spin back in through. It could have been one of the highlights of the game; in fact, it probably was, in spite of what followed. Virat Kohli had, in one over, got one that skidded through and another that reared fairly menacingly at him. With 380 given him by his batsmen, Lyon could have made a reputation and maybe, just maybe, even won Australia a Test match.

At most times Dhoni jabs at the ball. Soft hands weren't in vogue when he was learning his cricket; those belonged to VVS Laxman, now such an eager student in the commentary box. Dhoni wasn't going to play late between the short legs for one, or dab past third man for two. His style was to get into the boxing ring with him, and so, as Lyon tossed the ball up invitingly, trying to get it to land in areas that were powder-coated, Dhoni charged to the pitch. It is the first thing you learn about batting against spin: if you get to the pitch of the ball, it doesn't matter which way, or indeed how much, it is going to turn. And having reached the area - it is in getting there that most batsmen are deceived - he dealt with it mercilessly. This wasn't a rapier, let alone a fancy epee, he was wielding; he wasn't a swordsman. There was no fine cut, no delicate wound that made the point. He was looking for a knockout, and he hit every ball searching for that verdict.

He had realised that India's success lay in hitting Lyon off his length and, more critically, in denting his confidence, by making him wonder where the next ball would go rather than allowing him to skip in with visions of a dipping ball fooling the batsman into a mishit or a bat-pad. To his credit, Lyon kept at it, but it had become an unequal contest. Tactically Dhoni had delivered a masterclass, and that is why the innings was more than just a batting exhibition. It was an example of how to identify a game-changing moment and then to seize it. It could well have been a series- changing assault. We will have to wait and see. Adam Gilchrist's spectacular innings in Mumbai in 2001, the one that most resembles this, gave that impression too, but a young Sikh bowler and a delightfully self-effacing batsman (in commentary, he said he was "satisfied" with his 281!) modified the script. A couple of as yet unidentified Aussies could still do that. But if one of those is Nathan Lyon, he will have shown great courage and fortitude. It will be excellent for cricket if he has it in him to bounce back.

As Srinivas Venkataraghavan could tell Ashwin, it is not easy for a tall man to let the ball go high, unless there is a precision to his craft, for it must still land shorter than the batsman thinks it will

Ravichandran Ashwin is more a son of the soil than Dhoni. In his family and cricketing upbringing perhaps lies the transition between Madras and Chennai. He has made his name as a CSK man but when he bowled his offbreaks, tossing them, looping them, getting them to break back from outside off stump, he travelled back in time. The pause in the action, the quick ball darted onto pad, the rather too frequent carrom ball... they were largely absent - that was CSK. This was a Madras spinner going back to his roots to rediscover himself, even if so early in his Test career.

Just as Dhoni's assault was an exhibition of tactical acumen and skill, Ashwin's was a demonstration of his intelligence and his craft. He knew how he had to bowl on this track, and he ensured he was ready for it. His speed frequently dipped to below 80kph. As Srinivas Venkataraghavan could tell him, it is not easy for a tall man to let the ball go high, unless there is a precision to his craft, for it must still land shorter than the batsman thinks it will. Lyon, on the other hand, was pushed into bowling over 90kph; the ball had no time to hang in the air and dip. Ashwin's was as fine an exhibition of classical offbreak bowling as any you will see.

Both Dhoni and Ashwin kept at it for long periods, aware that a little burst of skill was not much use in a game that demands extended periods of excellence. Dhoni was at it for six hours and 265 balls, and late on the third day was charging back for the second run like a still-fresh young sprinter. And Ashwin bowled 444 balls in the game, more than he would in an entire IPL.

And yes, this Test match told us one other thing. Sometimes you can get too involved with the surface and end up playing the conditions rather than playing the ball. You can get out before you are in. Only Phillip Hughes in the second innings, and maybe Michael Clarke, were waylaid by the pitch. Some others were done in by the fear of what it might do. We in India know that well, often succumbing in the mind to the bounce before it has appeared. One thousand two hundred and forty-three runs were made on this surface at a runs-wicket ratio of 38.84. It wasn't easy but it wasn't impossible.

And if you wanted to show a young generation that wondered why ours was so in love with a game that lasted five days, this was the best gift Madras could give. I wonder if we can get a series with the class of 2001 all over again.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. He is currently contracted to the BCCI. His Twitter feed is here