India in Sri Lanka /

Sri Lanka v India, 3rd Test, PSS, Colombo, 1st day

Muddle order

After the Indian middle order's latest fiasco in Sri Lanka, many will wonder just how many grains of sand are left in the upper half of the timer

Dileep Premachandran in Colombo

August 8, 2008

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Rahul Dravid has been a shade of his former self, making just 80 runs in five innings in Sri Lanka © AFP
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Less than five years ago, this Indian batting line-up - Aakash Chopra in place of Gautam Gambhir - reduced Steve Waugh's red-rag farewell at the SCG to one long leather-hunt. Though the series was drawn, they left Australian shores with a reputation comparable to that enjoyed by Hutton, Hammond and Sutcliffe. After the latest fiasco in Sri Lanka though, many will wonder just how many grains of sand are left in the upper half of the timer.

Never before has this vaunted middle order been so badly exposed. The numbers might have been poor on the tour of New Zealand in 2002-03, but both Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar played fine hands in the loss at Basin Reserve, and doughty cameos in a low-scoring thriller at Hamilton. There have been no such crumbs of comfort here, with indecision and uncertainly the leitmotifs of a dismal showing.

After five innings, Sourav Ganguly has 78 runs. Rahul Dravid has 80, and Sachin Tendulkar 81. VVS Laxman had been marginally better, aggregating 154 while being guilty of squandering starts in every innings. Once you take out Virender Sehwag (310 runs) and Gambhir (284), the runs column makes for sombre reading. A line-up that's made runs the world over in all conditions and every conceivable match situation now bats to the tune of Paul Simon's You Can Call Me Al ("Why am I soft in the middle, The rest of my life is so hard").

Between them, India's four most experienced batsmen have managed one half-century in 20 visits to the crease. Gambhir, Mr. Consistency on this tour, has managed three, while batting with a composure and fluency that has eluded more illustrious names. Till he was once again undone by Ajantha Mendis's wiles, Gambhir had played another superb knock, driving the ball with panache and using his feet decisively against the spinners.

He needed to do something special to justify his inclusion ahead of Wasim Jaffer, and he has certainly done that, scoring at terrific pace in tandem with Sehwag. Unfortunately for India, there has been no one to capitalise on those starts, and the travails of the middle order on the first day at this historic venue were entirely in keeping with how they've batted right through the series.

Tendulkar, Ganguly and Laxman have all enjoyed purple patches of late, and the real reason for India's batting being so rudderless in this series can be found in the decline of Dravid. Once as dependable as an Audi, he hasn't found the high gears for nearly two years now, with match-turning efforts like the 92 in Perth becoming the exception rather than the rule. The more he struggles, the more you wonder whether the old solidity will ever come back.

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The worst series for the Fab Four?
  • India's quartet of Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman have collectively averaged 19.65 in this series, the second-worst for Nos 3-6 in Tests featuring the four.
  • Tendulkar has scored 81 in five innings so far. His series average of 16.20 is his lowest in a series of two Tests or more.
  • Dravid has averaged 16; only twice has he averaged lesser, during the 1999-2000 Australia tour and in the one-off Test during the ICC Super Series.
  • Ganguly's average of 15.60 is the lowest among the four, while Laxman has done the best, scoring 30.80 per innings.
  • Laxman has been dismissed all five times by Ajantha Mendis, scoring just 60 runs off 108 deliveries against him. Dravid has made 34 off 78 and got out thrice. Both Ganguly and Tendulkar have not been dismissed by Mendis: Ganguly has managed 19 off 66 balls while Tendulkar has done splendidly, scoring 52 off 57.
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On India's last tour of the island, they ran into a young fast bowler playing his seventh Test. Dilhara Fernando wrecked their hopes of success in Galle with a spell of 5 for 18 in seven overs. This time, the relatively unknown wrecking ball was Dammika Prasad, who started off as a No.3 batsman in school. Though he was distinctly scattergun in his first spell, he generated enough pace to ask far more questions than Nuwan Kulasekara had managed over two Tests.

Movement away from the bat did for the in-form Sehwag, but there was no more than a hint of swing about the deliveries that accounted for Dravid and Tendulkar. In pre-umpiring-review days, both might have enjoyed the benefit of the doubt, but in a game that's otherwise terribly skewed in the batsmen's favour, we shouldn't begrudge bowlers this novelty of delayed justice.

The dismissals of Ganguly and Laxman were far more demoralising. Both had shown signs of being in fine touch, with Ganguly stepping out and clouting Murali to the sightscreen and Laxman executing one glorious flick through midwicket as he came round the wicket. But Ganguly was trapped in that halfway house between playing a shot and leaving the ball, while Laxman succumbed to the delivery that will forever be associated with this series - Mendis' wonder flick that behaves like a leg-cutter.

As well as he bowled though, the last-wicket partnership between Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma put what went before into harsh perspective. They defied Murali, Mendis and Prasad for 20.2 overs, adding 51 runs along the way. With the pitch expected to be even more batsmen-friendly on the second day, India will spend Friday night wondering just how they frittered away the advantage gained at the toss.

One of punk's pioneers, Johnny Rotten, once said: "Don't accept the old order. Get rid of it." It's perhaps too early for Indian cricket to start thinking on those drastic lines, but there were more than a few gusts of the wind of change at the P Sara this afternoon.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo

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Dileep Premachandran Associate editor Dileep Premachandran gave up the joys of studying thermodynamics and strength of materials with a view to following in the footsteps of his literary heroes. Instead, he wound up at the Free Press Journal in Mumbai, writing on sport and politics before Gentleman gave him a column called Replay. A move to MyIndia.com followed, where he teamed up with Sambit Bal, and he arrived at ESPNCricinfo after having also worked for Cricket Talk and total-cricket.com. Sunil Gavaskar and Greg Chappell were his early cricketing heroes, though attempts to emulate their silken touch had hideous results. He considers himself obscenely fortunate to have watched live the two greatest comebacks in sporting history - India against invincible Australia at the Eden Gardens in 2001, and Liverpool's inc-RED-ible resurrection in the 2005 Champions' League final. He lives in Bangalore with his wife, who remains astonishingly tolerant of his sporting obsessions.
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