Australia's sequence of nine victorious Test series, starting with the 1994-95 Ashes, was ended by India, who had not lost a series on home soil for exactly 11 years. There had been one blip in Australia's record before this, also involving India, when they lost a one-off Test in Delhi in October 1996. But India's 2-1 victory - the Australian win came in the dead last game - was only the second time they had had the better of Australia over a Test series. The last was in 1979-80, during the Packer era, when the Australian team was gravely weakened.
Their 1997-98 successors were not at full strength either. Two frontline fast bowlers, Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie, were left at home recovering from injuries. Then Paul Reiffel, one of only two experienced seam bowlers in the party, suffered a recurrence of his shoulder injury; he played no further part after the First Test. Michael Kasprowicz was forced to play the dual role of strike and stock bowler. These misfortunes explain Australia's inability to win, until the very end, but not the two heavy defeats. Their batsmen were the best they could call on, yet they failed time and again against an attack as limited as their own. The two Australia centuries, by Mark Waugh and Mark Taylor, were scored after the series was settled; Michael Slater, too, was slow to make an impact.
The fact that the last series Australia lost was in Pakistan, in 1994-95, suggested that they are still not at ease touring the subcontinent. But there were no overt signs of unhappiness, except that Shane Warne could not manage the cuisine and had cans of baked beans and spaghetti flown out. A more plausible explanation for the poor performance was tiredness, exacerbated by extreme heat and humidity. In the 17 months since their last visit to India, Australia had played 20 Tests - five against West Indies, six against South Africa, six against England and three against New Zealand. They had also played 33 one-day internationals, culminating with four in New Zealand just before arriving here.
Pre-series hype concentrated on the head-to-head contest between India's batting champion, Sachin Tendulkar, and Warne, the greatest contemporary bowler. The two jousted five times during the Tests and only once was Warne the winner. Of the Indian bowlers savaged by Don Bradman in the first-ever series between the two countries, in 1947-48, a handful survive: watching Tendulkar blasting away at Warneet al might have left them with a sense that vengeance had come at last. The 446 runs Tendulkar scored in the series, at a strike-rate of 80.65 per hundred balls received and a Bradmanesque average 111.50, were the product of sheer genius. The Australians had been given a warning of the storm to come in their opening fixture against Mumbai, when Tendulkar made 204 not out from 192 balls. Warne's ten wickets in the series cost 54 runs apiece; his career average previously was 23.81. The Indians, using their feet, played him expertly. But the limitations of the pace department and the inexperience of his fellow spinner, Gavin Robertson (ironically, Australia's main wicket-taker), thrust on him the colossal burden of holding the fort as well as attacking. And the figures were unkind: there were times when he bowled really well, though at a slower pace than usual and without trying to turn his leg-break extravagantly.
Tendulkar's dramatic return to top from probably owed something to his loss of the captaincy. Mohammad Azharuddin had been reinstated in January, a move not universally approved at first. But he seemed more committed than for a long time, while Tendulkar, far from brooding, revelled in freedom from the onus of leadership. In the field, he often volunteered advice, and Azharuddin often sought it.
India's other batsmen were by no means eclipsed. Tendulkar had scope to flourish because he invariably went in with the innings well established, thanks to Navjot Sidhu, who was only once dismissed for less than 50, and the solidity of Rahul Dravid at No. 3. In the Second Test, Azharuddin cut loose with a vengeance to score 163 not out. V. V. S. Laxman returned in the same match with 95, pressing his claim to the opener's spot, while Mongia, almost faultless with the gloves, did his bit with the bat too. India's bowling strength did not run as deep: they were completely reliant on Javagal Srinath and Anil Kumble. Although the pitches were not amenable to pace, Srinath was hostile, willing and intelligent. His absence from the Third Test through injury weakened his side badly. Kumble, cutting down on his pace and harnessing variations to spin and bounce, rose to great heights and finished with 23 wickets. Venkatapathy Raju, the left-arm spinner, took six wickets in the First Test but was ineffectual afterwards. While Australia's fielding sometimes fell below its usual high level, India's had improved, especially close in, where Dravid and Laxman were brilliant.
The series was played in congenial spirit. However, the referee, Peter van der Merwe, twice took punitive action for dissent: against Mongia in First Test, and Ganguly- suspended for one match - in the last. Crowds for the Chennai and Calcutta Tests were large and exuberant but well behaved, and the conspicuous camaraderie between the locals and a substantial group of visiting Australian supporters was most heart-warming.
|M. E. Waugh||3||6||2||280||153*||1||1||70.00||1|
|I. A. Healy||3||5||1||165||90||0||1||41.25||6|
|S. R. Waugh||2||4||0||152||80||0||1||38.00||2|
|M. A. Taylor||3||6||1||189||102*||1||0||37.80||3|
|M. J. Slater||3||6||0||162||91||0||1||27.00||0|
|R. T. Ponting||3||5||0||105||60||0||1||21.00||3|
|S. K. Warne||3||5||0||105||35||0||0||21.00||0|
|G. R. Robertson||3||5||0||90||57||0||1||18.00||1|
|M. S. Kasprowicz||3||5||1||54||25||0||0||13.50||1|
|G. S. Blewett||3||6||0||48||25||0||0||8.00||2|
|Played in one Test: A. C. Dale 5; D. S. Lehmann 52 (2 ct); P. R. Reiffel 15, 8 (1 ct); P. Wilson 0*, 0*.|
|A. C. Dale||28||7||92||3||3-71||0||30.66|
|G. R. Robertson||111.4||13||413||12||4-72||0||34.41|
|M. S. Kasprowicz||116||29||312||8||5-28||1||39.00|
|S. K. Warne||167||37||540||10||4-85||0||54.00|
|Also bowled: G. S. Blewett45-8-152-2; D. S. Lehmann 7-1-27-1; P. R. Reiffel 24-5-59-0; M. E. Waugh 32-1-149-2; S. R. Waugh 12-1-38-0; P. Wilson 12-2-50-0.|
At Mumbai, February 24, 25, 26. Mumbai won by ten wickets. Toss: Australians 305 for eight dec. ( M. J. Slater 98, G. S. Blewett 47, R. T. Ponting 53, P. R. Reiffel 30; R. V. Pawar three for 59) and 135 ( G. S. Blewett 50, R. T. Ponting 37; N. M. Kulkarni five for 23); Mumbai 410 for six dec. ( A. A. Pagnis 50, S. V. Manjrekar 39, S. R. Tendulkar 204 not out, A. A. Muzumdar 42, R. Sutar 45) and 31 for no wkt.
Manjrekar announced that this would be his final first-class appearance. Tendulkar's 204 not out, his maiden double-hundred, lasted 269 minutes and 192 balls and included 25 fours and two sixes.
At Vishakhapatnam, March 1, 2, 3. Drawn. Toss: Board President's XI. Board President's XI 329 for four dec. ( S. Ramesh 58, V. V. S. Laxman 65, H. H. Kanitkar 102 not out, V. Pratap 59 not out); Australians 567 for eight ( M. J. Slater 207, G. S. Blewett 57, R. T. Ponting 155, M. E. Waugh 52, Extras 35; A. Kuruvilla three for 105).
Slater's 207 lasted 236 balls and included 22 fours and six sixes. He added 206 with Ponting.
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