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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • TR on March 3, 2013, 3:24 GMT

    Yes Madras was and Chennai is very sportive and hosts lovers of good cricket. Probably the only Indian city where the performance of opponent players are applauded well as Gavaskar has also mentioned few times. I remember early 70's the people applauding loud when the touring WI, Eng fielders would throw the ball to the keepers gloves accurately from the boundary line. Such was their love for good cricket. Does not matter who performs. Such applauds of Madras have reduced some what in the Chennai, but still Chennai is way better than other cities in such appreciations. No wonder MSD is accepted as their son, does not matter if he can speak Tamil or not.

  • Nanda on March 2, 2013, 19:06 GMT

    One of the best things about Dhoni is he is not afraid of fast bowling. Swing is what has troubled him, but swing is a problem for everybody. Of course he destroyed Lyon, no surprises there. The only people who were surprised were purists who still can't bring themselves to recognize Dhoni as a batsman. That's because he is an original, he is not a product (shame he endorses way too many :) ).

  • Raghav on March 2, 2013, 18:53 GMT

    Chennai has had more memorable matches than maybe all Indian stadiums put together.. Chennai's probably been the most ardent supporter of Cricket as a game.. And definitely the most knowledgeable crowd.. Dhoni's knock is the latest addition to a very long list of great matches.. Remember Chase 387 v Eng 2008.. Remember 2 wkt win to beat Aussies 2-1 in 2001. Remember Sehwag 155 in 2004. Remember Shane warne breaking world record for maximum test wickets when he took Irfan Pathan's wicket in 2004.. Remember Sachin's painful but masterly 136 against Pak in '99. Remember the standing ovation given to Pak in '99. Remember the Sachin 155* in '98. Remember the Sachin 165 vs Eng.. I have been fortunate to witness all these and more.. Arguably the Greatest Stage for Cricket in India.. Hail Chepauk!!

  • Rahul on March 2, 2013, 14:09 GMT

    Yes, i fully agree with Harsha on that MSD severe batting on Lyon could be series defining moment and as it turned out, Australia No.1 spin bowler was left out of the second test match. Nice article Harsha !

  • Dummy4 on March 2, 2013, 12:54 GMT

    I remember hearing the commentary when Viswanath made that incredible 97. If memory serves, it had 21 fours in it and the unstoppable Andy Roberts met his match, at one end, at least! GRV added twenty one with Chandra for the last wicket of which Chandra Indubitably, it was Chandra who was more crestfallen when he finally succumbed, leaving the original Little Master stranded on 97.

  • Prem on March 2, 2013, 0:47 GMT

    I agree. Australians, and indeed Englishmen complain about the nature of the pitch, but it was a solid one that lasted five days with batting getting progressively tougher, but not impossible, as demonstrated by Moises Henriques' innings. A couple of wickets to the pitch in an entire Test is justified, cos otherwise how will there be a result? It might have not looked good (gleefully "tweeted" by Warne every morning) but it played well.

    As for Dhoni's innings, not only did he force Lyon to reconsider his lengths and pace, but what he also did exceedingly well in that innings was he negated Pattinson's plans by deliberately hitting him over the top in the first overs of his spells. It led to the bowler doubting himself, however slightly, and Dhoni getting an over with balls bowled at less pace than the bowler's capacity. Very well paced innings, with perfect balance of attack and defense.

  • Gopu on March 1, 2013, 23:13 GMT

    Chepauk is one of the beautiful ground in India whic hosts some wonderful test matches and the crowd is awesome.Luckily i got 5 day pass for this test match and i enjoyed every ball of the innings.Whatever Harsha told is right the Madras crowd is so crazy about test cricket and in weekends statdium is almost full.The most craziest thing i remember on final day when Shewag got out,Even though crowd is small the roar is high when 'GOD' came bat for India in second inings.Not only that time crowed cheered ever moment when he was in fielding.Crowd also cheered for clarke and warned for their gangam moments and their sportsmanshop.Simply this test match is a long treat for the cricket lovers

  • Sudhakar on March 1, 2013, 22:25 GMT

    Some of the most memorable Test matches in Chennai have been those where there was always something in the pitch fast & spin bowlers alike. As a child, I remember people lavishing praises on GRV's 97 against a super fast Andy Roberts and sweets being distributed when India won. And then there was this win against a second string WI where Sylvester Clarke headed the pace attack. The pitch had lot of seam and bounce and India stuttered along in a chase of 126 and still won. Neil Foster once shot India out for 273 on a wonderful track. Kapil has had a 12-for against Pakistan. The list can go on and on. Chepauk was always remained the best Indian track - one that aids fast bowlers on day 1, batting beauty with ball coming on to the bat on days 2 &3, and spin from tea day 4 on-wards. This test match is a disappointment in that the pitch was "doctored". Sad that even Madras had to give in to populistic demands. This is not to take away credit for India's victory. Its just not sweet enough!!!

  • Sam on March 1, 2013, 20:43 GMT

    A. I was good to see an enthusiastic crowd at Chennai. BCCI usually schedules Tests in places where they rarely attract a large crowd (in addition to scheduling them, sometimes, in the middle of the week!) Unnecessary rotation of Test centers is, well, unnecessary. Both players as well as the TV audience love an exciting atmosphere so traditionally strong centers should always host the Tests. B. Why were considerable parts of the stadium still empty when people outside, when they were interviewed on TV, said that all the tix were gone? C. I hope Laxman's delivery (stutter, level of enthusiasm, etc.) would improve over time but his analysis could use much improvement as well. I love his batting but good cricketers are not necessarily good comms. D. Bringing up the roots & family in certain ways is Roebuckian. It suggests that we ultimately expect people's interests & achievements to match types so we are glad or surprised when they don't. It feels anachronistic.