This was a day when the current crop of Indian cricketers, led by the stoic Rahul Dravid — one of its cleanest, finest and most faithful servants — had the opportunity to write themselves strongly into the history books. Instead, it appeared that the team collectively jumped into the history books to slip comfortably into clothes that were easily, comfortably and regularly worn by Indian cricketers of the past as they mapped out three of the darkest few sessions in recent memory for Team India.
Rahul Dravid’s men had the opportunity to (continue to) set the pace of this Test match; to set themselves a wonderful platform from which they could claim a 2-0 series result. Team India had played strong, determined and positive cricket ever since that first innings at Lords’. But, like rabbits caught in the headlights, they reverted to type! They were on the threshold of a move to being recognised as a good team.
Team India did not sieze the moment.
Instead, they signalled very early in the piece that they were comfortable with a 1-0 result. A safety-first mediocrity mindset ruled. The “adjust kar lenge” (we are happy to settle for this), “bus, yeh kaafi hai” (this result is enough) mindset ruled. They put safety first and history-creation last. They gave too much respect to this England side. They also allowed England fans the opportunity to ponder, “But for the rain at Lords’…”
Would an Australian side have played the way India did? I do not believe so.
Would an England side have played the way India did? Perhaps not.
It was a confusing day for everyone. India started off the day by bowling R. P. Singh and Kumble. This telegraphed the signal to almost everyone that India would enforce the follow-on. After 26 minutes, when Kumble had Panesar out and India had a lead of 319, India chose to bat instead! Apparently this decision was made the previous evening itself! Now if that was the case, why open the bowling with Kumble and R. P. Singh?
The rationale for batting on was there. I actually think that ‘not enforcing the follow-on’ was the right decision, given the series-context. Mark Taylor, as astute a reader of the game as we have had in recent memory, always said that a captain in a such a situation should entertain thought of enforcing the follow-on for only a brief moment before chosing to bat again! India — and in particular, Kumble — would have wanted last use of the pitch. India would have wanted to set the pace in the game. India would have wanted to retain control of the momentum of the game. India would have wanted their bowlers to rest a bit before coming back again — after all, by not bowling Sree Santh and Zaheer Khan in the morning, they telegraphed to one and all that what they were interested in was in giving their prime pace bowlers a bit of a rest! This was complicated a bit further by the news — that filtered through later on — that Zaheer Khan was nursing a mild thigh strain. So, all of these pointed to India batting again. And if all of the above did not convince India to bat again, there was always the memory of Kolkata!
India was 319 runs ahead and one would have thought that the team would try and get about 150-to-180 runs in quick time and then put England in with lots of time to spare. Instead what we got was a slow-crawl to the finish line. The mental approach defied belief, defied the 1-0 series-scoreline and defied the current form of this England batting side. The style of play that emanated from this mindset was a throw-back to the days of the past when Indian cricketers would run to occupy a safety-first, eliminate-the-opposition-win-out-of-the-equation position before even entertaining the possibility of an India win! It was depressing, to say the least.
This mindset suddenly saw India reeling at 11 for 3. This also saw Dravid make a painful 12 off 96 balls. The history books will not say that Dravid was booed on his last appearance at The Oval. But he was. It is likely that he will point everyone to the scoreboard and say, “Hey the score reads 1-0 in India’s favour”. But the point would be lost. Here was an opportunity to make history. Instead, we were dragged back into a rather ugly past-mindset. While Dravid displayed an ugly, bloody-minded and stoic preference for a safety-first approach, Sourav Ganguly bucked the trend to play an attractive game.
In the end, India set England a total of 500 in 110 overs at an almost impossible asking rate of 4.54!
The England openers played solidly to end the day at 56 for no loss. England are still 444 runs adrift. With 90 overs remaining, England need to score at nearly 5 runs an over to win. This would be most unlikely. In setting such a high — and potentially unachievable target — India did wipe the possibility of an England victory out of the books. It would require something of heroic proportions to fashion an England victory from here! But there again, India missed a trick. If they wanted to win this series 2-0 and head to second spot on the ICC Table, India ought to have set England a ‘gettable’ target.
One could be pardoned for asking for a blood sample to test what Vaughan had been smoking if Vaughan had said, “Mate this is an easy gig, we are going to go for a victory“, in response to the target his team had been set! A gettable target would have meant that England would have gone for it. This in turn would have yielded India wickets and a possible 2-0 result! Once again, this safety-first mindset had dominated and clouded thinking.
India need 10 wickets and this is still possible. However, the opportunity to keep the foot on the pedal was lost. The opportunity to complete the series 2-0 was probably lost. The opportunity to take the winning momentum into the ODIs was lost. The opportunity to future-build — as opposed to current-secure — was lost.
It is not necessary to play chest-thumping, fist-pumping, adrenalin-rush-creating, attractive cricket all the time. Not every Australian cricketer plays attractive cricket all the time. But it is necessary, in my view, to play positive cricket. The game is all about mindset and momentum. India had a terrible mindset on this dull day at The Oval. India had the momentum, but gracefully handed it on a platter to England, who, by my calculations, won all three sessions of the day; the session-by-session scorecard reads 7-4 in India’s favour.
On a day when things ran contrary to plan, it was nice to see consistency from one quarter though! Umpire Ian Howell continued his command performance by sending Wasim Jaffer packing! Ian Howell declared Jaffer out lbw to a ball that was so high it would have struck Matt Prior in the mouth; the same mouth from which he appeared to remove the sock that Ian Chappell had shoved into at the start of this Test match! A few years ago, cricket fans ran a petition to get the name of Ashoka DeSilva, the Sri Lankan elite umpire, changed to A-Shocker DeSilva. Unless Ian Howell’s umpiring standards lift, fans may start a petition, requesting Ian Howell’s name to be changed to Ian Howler!
The days’ play went completely against all the pre-game positive talk that Dravid had indulged in. So, was that all purely rhetoric?
It is at times like this that one yearns for a coach… It is possible that Dravid’s mindset was dictated by fear of the flak he would have received had he returned home with a 1-1 series result. A coach may have dispelled these dark thoughts and erased the nagativism in his thinking. Who knows? These are hypothetical ponderings left for another day and place and confined to the yet unwritten history book titled: “If Only…“!
India may still win this game. But by setting an unreachable target of 500, India has made the draw the most likely outcome. One almost yearns for England to still go for the target and perhaps even make it — for the sake of the romance of the game, if nothing else.