Sourav Ganguly's innings of 87 on the third and final day of the Ahmedabad Test summarises the story of India's batting of late: some of the best performances have come when they've been written off, but they haven't always worn the favourites' tag well.
The way India's day started, stumbling at base camp while staring up at Everest, it seemed defeat was perhaps a quick lunch or tea away. Enter Ganguly, in a way living on hope, like his team. Nothing in Perth, nothing in Adelaide, nothing in Chennai, a duck in the first innings here. There were reports before this Test suggesting the team management were in favour of picking Yuvraj Singh over him, so he could have well been batting for his place.
But he did it again, as at Lord's in 1996, where he came back from the wilderness, and against fierce criticism, to score a hundred on Test debut. Or as at the Wanderers, circa 2007, when he returned from exile to silence his critics. Ganguly has had his share of failures but it's usually been dangerous to write him off, like India.
As he had during his warm-up 83 in Potchefstroom, an innings that put him in excellent stead for his Johannesburg comeback, Ganguly's technique rarely failed him today. Standing upright in his crease, head balanced, body weight distributed, a short backlift allowing him to play straight, the lighter bat coming down well as he defended the fast bowlers confidently, he produced a gutsy innings.
Ganguly ducked Makhaya Ntini, left the ball gracefully, tucked off the hips, hopped across to defend, intent always writ across his brow. And then, just to remind us of what he's really capable of, he would occasionally lace Dale Steyn past mid-off or drive Morne Morkel for a silken straight four. A couple hard-handed defensives off Paul Harris dropped tantalizingly short of the fielder under the helmet, but he also rocked back to cut the left-arm spinner for four. And then there was the repeated sweep, a shot he has never pulled off efficiently.
Unlike his top-order mates he was taking it back to South Africa, relying on instinct. He was battling against adversity and thriving, like India abroad recently. But, like India, it's also dangerous to expect too much of Ganguly. Having pulled Steyn for two singles - it wasn't about the runs, it was the intent - he flashed at full one and was adjudged out, though the Snickometer said bat hit ground.
|Ganguly overcame his demons 18 months ago to enjoy one last run at this level. India need to summon that same resolve as they battle to draw a series they were expected to win|
"It was a pity he didn't get a hundred," his captain Anil Kumble said after the match. It was more of a pity that India sleepwalked through this Test. On seaming tracks in England and South Africa, and lively ones in Australia, they battled it out to notch inspired wins. Some of their most celebrated batting feats in recent memory, like in Perth, came when few expected it. Everyone spoke of the pace and bounce in Perth but India stunned Australia. By the same token, India drew in Chennai and surrendered on a distinctly Indian track in Cape Town . People expected a paata surface in Ahmedabad but India were jolted on a greenish track.
Expectancy, after their recent overseas highs, hurt India. They came to Ahmedabad amid talk of a spinners' surface, and crumbled embarrassingly on a green track the first day. This was their backyard and a venue on which they have had success but they looked overwhelmed, as if in a trance. The hunger was absent, the ticker slowed down. Faced with three days to try and salvage a Test, other top-ranked teams might have batted and batted but India collapsed from the start. The application was faulty against a revved-up pace attack - their minds seemed elsewhere.
"We have been in this situation before and we are confident we will bounce back," Kumble said. "Our record at Kanpur shows that we have done well there and we will be trying to do the same."
Ganguly overcame his demons 18 months ago to enjoy one last run at this level. India need to summon that same resolve as they battle to draw a series they were expected to win. Years from now, when Ganguly's role in Indian cricket will be explained to keen young minds by grey-haired seniors, his prodigal-son-like return at the Wanderers will perhaps be used to summarise just how frustratingly unique his career has been. Similarly, Ahmedabad 2008 may be looked back upon as a black mark in a chapter that holds some memorable highs.
Jamie Alter is a staff writer at Cricinfo