Friday, January 07, 2011

The Test that wasn't

I'm an avid cricket fan. And I don't use the word avid lightly. I treat my love for cricket like any of my other loves. Very very seriously. And like someone who treats the game of cricket seriously, I have often derived life lessons from the game. I know this sounds corny to many (many of those being from the fairer sex), but I sincerely believe that sport can reveal a person/teams mindset, emotions and strategy towards life in general quite effectively.

Take for example the test match that could have been. I shall always remember the final test between India and South Africa as a fine example of how a risk averse approach can turn potentially epic moment of sport into one that is indistinguishable from so many others that were made of so much less.

Consider the premise at the start of the 4th day of the match. The worlds Number 1 and Number 2 teams were battling it out for supremacy in an eagerly anticipated and highly regarded clash. In Test No. 1, South Africa had humiliated India. Which considering India's form against New Zealand, didn't come as much of a surprise to the hardened Indian supporter. Simply because at the back of every Indian supporters mind is a strange base expectation. That the country will lose. I know this is a bold claim, but I speak as an Indian cricket fan who's seen his team let him down time and again over the past 15-20 years. They would show a flash of brilliance, sometimes even go out and win a series. But to win so many in a row. My God. It was almost like we were all waiting for the inevitable collapse.

And when SA hammered India in Centurion, I began to think the inevitable and inexplicable loss of form and slide from the top had begun. Inevitable for reasons I have clearly specified in this piece and inexplicable because India has almost always had an impressive team. The batting order has been the stuff of legend for years now and the bowling while lacklustre, was never plain bad. On paper, it always seemed like we could bat any team out. But again, I digress. Kallis hammered India with that fabulous 200 and while it looked like India had begun to wake up at the end of the test, I was still convinced that it would be too little too late. Mostly because the revival was driven by our ancient God. Sachin scored his 50th century in that test, but then like in so many other matches, all his teammates were able to provide as homage was heartbreak.

Then came Durban, and with it the most inspired revival I have seen in quite sometime. I say this revival was more special than those in recent memory (ref: the many many comebacks against Australia) because of the confidence and authority with which India returned. And this wasn't a draw, it wasn't even a slender win. This was a convincing victory against a side that had just hammered them, on their own turf. And on a pitch that so obviously suited South Africa's pace bowlers. It had pace, bounce and everything else that often makes our batting line up look like they suffered a heavy bout of amnesia.

The second test at Durban saw the resurgence of a bowling attack that had previously looked absolutely listless. Inspired in large part by the return of Zaheer Khan, the Indian attack hammered away at the South African pitch almost as if they had been bowling on it for as long as they could remember. The South Africans almost had a what-the-fuck-is-going-on-here take on things, and before they could process what the Indian bowlers were doing to them, the game had been wrapped up. It was the kind of morning where you run to your newspaper just to read the gushing reviews of India's triumph. The kind you want to live over and over again.

This set up the third and final test in an almost delicious balance. A balance that seemed to rest in stable equilibrium for an epic three days. Kallis with his brilliant 160 had done what Sachin had done for us in so many matches, take the team to a respectable total even as the rest of his team lost interest in the game. Sachin responded with a similar innings in India's response. At the bowling end, Steyn bowled what could easily be considered one of the best spells in recent memory. That image of him charging down the pitch and swinging the ball prodigiously reminded me of two of the greatest bowlers I've seen. The greatest compliment I can pay Steyn is that he looked like a hybrid of aggression of Allan Donald and the wisdom in swing of Wasim Akram. That Sachin survived that onslaught and scored 146, just re-iterated for the 51st time (!) that Sachin is the Master Yoda of cricket. Omniscient, omnipotent and unassuming (and short). From the Indian bowling attack we had Sreesanth bowling the spell of his lifetime with that snorter that took out Kallis and he too got a five-for.

And so it stood. Day three of the third test between the Number 1 and Number 2 team with the series tied and the third game balanced evenly after three days of brilliant batting and bowling. It was a series that deserved so much more. You could of course fault the Indian bowlers for not finishing the job after taking SA to 130-6. But as the fifth day amply demonstrated, the pitch then quickly transformed into one closely resembling a fortress. If all you wanted to do was defend, then you could dig in and bowlers, short of throwing rocks at you, could do little to get you out.

Thus this (finally) brings me to the point I'd like to make. For this test to become truly epic and be counted as one of the best that was ever played and thus making the series one for the ages, somebody would have to take risks. And in any given situation, there is usually one team that has the choice of playing it safe or taking the risk. On the evening of the 4th day, after a fantastic fightback, that option now lay with SA. If they really wanted to go for the win, the could have declared when the score was between 280-300.

This would achieve two objectives, one it would give the SA bowlers a real chance to bowl the Indian line-up out. In all the days of the test, 10 wickets in a day never really seemed like a possibility. Even on the last day, it took some really careless batting by the SA tail for India to close the deal and take the final 8 wickets. Secondly, it would also entice the Indian batsmen to go after the ball a bit because the carrot of a series win would be in front of them. By waiting to be bowled out, SA virtually guaranteed a draw.

The series between SA and India deserved, nay demanded a result. But some deflated bowling by India took the comprehensive result away. The risk averse approach by Smith and his men, on the other hand, did something far worse. It deadened a contest that was begging to occur. Today, as I sit here typing this out, I can for the first time in my lifetime as an Indian cricket supporter say this: I honestly would've loved it regardless of who won.

How tragic then, that in such a beautiful contest, we were all denied the chance to feel. We were denied a result. Damn you Smithie, you coulda won this. If only you were man enough.


kudva said...

Nice post Sahil,but i don't agree with the conclusion.To declare for less than 300 against an Indian line-up that off-late has pulled off quite a few fourth inning miracles is something no captain would/should do.Smith,therefore can't be held responsible for the no-result.

What was heart-breaking is the fact that with 340 runs to fetch in 90 overs (a run-rate of about 3.5/over) Indians never really looked like they even considered chasing the target.The way Viru started out(Strike-Rate of 25) and then the way Sachin(Strike-Rate of 15) approached the game,it was clear to every Indian cricket fan (excluding Ravi Shastri,who is ever the pimp, by the way) who was not man enough.Indians were chasing the 'final frontier' and they should've gone for the kill.

Anonymous said...

Lovely post and I couldn't agree more :)



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