<
>

Home sweet home

The destiny of nations is shaped sometimes not by the will of men or a conjunction of the stars, but by matters more mundane. India's cricketing fortunes for the last 15 years have been fashioned not just by human endeavour but, gross as it sounds, by a ball.

The SG ball has played the lead role - and been the only common factor - in every single series win India have had in the last decade and a half. Matches are won by bowlers, and Indian bowlers - even the pace spearheads - have been far more successful with the SG ball than with the Kookaburra or the Duke's balls used elsewhere. Its prominent seam helps the spinners achieve turn they don't get otherwise, and they are quite ineffectual without it.

If it seems cruel to ascribe so much success to a mere leather orb, consider this: Anil Kumble's non-SG bowling average is almost 40. A destroyer of the best batting line-ups at home, he is treated like a club trundler overseas. And Harbhajan Singh, who took 32 SG wickets against the mighty Aussies was greeted with contempt in Sri Lanka where the conditions were identical but the ball was Kookaburra.

The pleasantly chilled environs of Mohali proved a warm homecoming for India, reunited not just with their country, but their cherry of choice. An Indian spinner with an SG in his hands is an irresistible force with an eminently movable object; Harbhajan and Kumble seemed like bowlers transformed, worlds apart from the hapless figures of just a week before.

Harbhajan, despite a five-for on a first-day pitch, didn't look the same menacing figure he did in March; his wickets came because the England batsmen just hadn't figured out how to play him. Nasser Hussain in the first innings and Graham Thorpe in the second were the only Brits who showed both the footwork and the temperament to play the Indian duo - the rest capitulated, and one got the feeling that a lot of it was just first-day jitters.

There were less of those in the second innings, when Anil Kumble showed just what a master he is at home. His control has always been his trump card, and the metronomic monotony of his bowling seemed to induce a hypnotic stupor in the batsmen, which is when he threw in the googlies and flippers that got him most of his wickets in this match. India's biggest human matchwinner of the last ten years was back at his best.

On the flip-side, Sourav Ganguly showed again his tendency to underbowl bowlers he is not fond of. The three debutant pacers in the team, Tinu Yohannan, Iqbal Siddiqui and Sanjay Bangar, were picked without his fore-knowledge, just as Murali Kartik had been in the one-off Test against Bangladesh a few months ago. As with Kartik, Ganguly responded by keeping them fielding in the deep, instead of throwing them in at the deep end. In the second England innings, he brought on a twin-spin attack after just nine overs, this when Yohannan was getting considerable movement and Siddiqui was lurking in the corridor dangerously, like a demented voyeur.

Nasser Hussain also had second-string bowlers, but he was magnificent in the way he used them. He had a plan for each batsman, and his bowlers bowled unerringly to their field, mostly a defensive 7-2 or 8-1. This, in particular, was their strategy against Tendulkar - to bowl outside off, where the field was concentrated, and to dry up the runs. Initially, Sachin adjusted well, grinding it out and punishing any loose balls that came his way. But Sachin playing the patience game is a square peg in a round hole, and he perished just short of his hundred, fishing outside off to Matt Hoggard.

VVS Laxman was the second biggest cause for worry for Ganguly in this match; the biggest being himself. Laxman had been making pretty little cameos and then throwing it away; here, he made a dour little cameo and threw it away. The manner of his dismissal, slashing uppishly at a short, wide ball, made television redundant: it was an action replay of how he'd been dismissed repeatedly in South Africa the previous month.

Lack of application can be mended, but lack of ability? Ganguly's discomfort against the short rising ball is legendary, and he was made to hop-skip-jump around by Hoggard and, in particular, Andy Flintoff. No surprise then that he was out off a snorter; even if he retains his captaincy, can he hold his own in the team?

The accidental opener
Time stands still when Deep Dasgupta bats - because he's so very boring. He has a few strokes, but none of them are attractive to watch. He shows the ball the full face of his bat, but mostly in resolute defence. No paeans will be sung, no poems written, about the way he batted at Mohali, but he embodied everything Indian cricket needs today: grit, guts, character, tenacity, these will win you more matches than flair and beauty. If only Sachin, VVS and gang could pick these up from him. And if only he could keep.

Low-plying flanes
Every once in a while, the pensive buzz of the crowd would be drowned by a massive roar - a sound not made by human beings, but by what a spectator eloquently described as a "low-plying flane". Three or four times each day, these flanes plew over the ground, providing welcome relief from a crowd that was bored sick of the match. Great Test cricket comes from the contest between individuals - Lara vs Murali, Sachin vs McGrath et al. There were none of those here in a match that was remarkably drab, played between two teams engaged in a contest to see not who was better, but who was less bad. India should not celebrate winning that contest.