After two consecutive whitewashes, it's hard to resist the temptation to go all nostalgic about the great India-Australia contests of the past. I'll partly resist that temptation and pick my favourite passage of play between the two teams instead: the best four-ball spell ever. If cricket was an individual sport, the Tendulkar-McGrath rivalry in the 2001 series would have ranked right up with the Borg-McEnroe Wimbledon final of 1980, and the 2008 Wimbledon final between Federer and Nadal.
In the first Test in Mumbai, Sachin Tendulkar walked in two balls after Glenn McGrath had finished his spell, and got off to a cracking start with a flurry of stunning boundaries against Jason Gillespie and Damien Fleming. When McGrath came back with his probing line and disconcerting bounce, Tendulkar went through half an hour without scoring a run, played him out and continued his stellar show against the rest. In his next spell, McGrath resumed where he left off earlier, luring Tendulkar to play the drive on the rise, only for him to edge it through to Adam Gilchrist.
When Tendulkar came out to bat in the second innings, there was a distinct change in his stance. From his usual leg stump guard, he had changed to a middle stump guard to counter McGrath's metronomic ability to hit the corridor of uncertainty. By getting himself closer to the line, driving McGrath would be a less risky venture. As if to demonstrate the rationale for the change, Tendulkar opened his account with two delightful, starchy-crisp off-drives against McGrath. He continued to be cautious against McGrath after that but was a lot more decisive throughout this innings than he was in the first ... only to eventually get out in the most bizarre fashion, when a full-blooded pull shot off Mark Waugh ricocheted off Justin Langer's shoulder at short leg for Ricky Ponting to scamper across and complete a spectacular diving catch.
The teams then moved to Kolkata. With the score 34 for 2, Tendulkar walks out to join Dravid in the middle. McGrath has three slips and a gully in place - you wouldn't expect anything less with India still trailing 411 runs. And then you notice something unusual. McGrath, at the top of his run up, purposefully works on the shine of the ball. For someone primarily relying on seam movement, McGrath usually goes about shining the ball in a Pavlovian way, but never with so much intent. The first ball is yet to be bowled, but you can already see the contest shaping up. Tendulkar marks out the middle stump guard again; McGrath is constantly rubbing the ball against his trouser.
"McGrath bowled all of four balls to Tendulkar in this innings, out of which three could have got him, and one eventually did. Brilliant conception and masterly execution"
McGrath runs in to the rhythm of the Kolkata crowd - the rhythm which is partly fuelled by anticipation and partly by nerves. It reaches the crescendo at the point of delivery and beautifully fades out between the ball leaving McGrath's hand and Sachin reacting to it. But when the ball leaves McGrath's hand, it doesn't head to the usual destination of the corridor outside off. This was a sharp, precise, venomous inswinger on its way to Tendulkar's pads ... but Tendulkar just about manages to bring the bat down and flicks it, unconvincingly, to square leg for a couple.
Is that the cunning plan? Bowl it fuller, closer to the stumps, swinging in for Tendulkar to fall over and trap him in front? Is this a response to Tendulkar's change of guard which makes him more vulnerable to the lbw? Is Tendulkar so preoccupied with negating McGrath's corridor line that he wouldn't be prepared for this?
As if he had made it too evident with the first ball, McGrath follows up with a dummy short ball outside the off stump. Next comes the sucker ball again, nearly identical to the first one - a full, sharp, inswinger that catches Tendulkar unaware and offering no shot. McGrath appeals, nearly celebrates but Tendulkar survives by the thinnest of margins.
End of over.
Six overs later, Dravid picks up a single to get Tendulkar back on strike to face McGrath for the first time since the lbw appeal. Again, McGrath working on the shine of the ball at the top of his run-up he runs in and bowls the inevitable inswinger on a length, pitches just a tad outside the off stump, moves just marginally enough to beat Tendulkar's bat, but not too much to drag down the leg side. Bull's eye. McGrath knew it the moment it hit the pad, umpire Peter Willey fulfilling the formality of raising his finger while McGrath was already on his celebratory run.
In all these years of watching Tendulkar bat, I have never seen a bowler so clearly outfoxing him. Some people have popped out vague theories on his weaknesses before but nothing so specific, and surely never so precisely exploited. McGrath bowled all of four balls to Tendulkar in this innings, out of which three could have got him, and one eventually did. Brilliant conception and masterly execution.
Glenn McGrath. Legend.