Sleeper Hit

Two closely fought Tests, one of them a nail-biting humdinger. India blanks Australia. Sachin Tendulkar is Player of the Series. There’s little more an Indian fan might ask of a Border-Gavaskar Trophy Test series. Squeezed in to fortify India’s hold on the pole position in the ICC Test Rankings, it transcended the script of a potboiler in its journey from sleeper hit to blockbuster. Oscillating, as it did, between the subdued and the sublime, it rode the grind to showcase the grand. Blue collar in effort and yet blue chip in dividend.

Tendulkar has hardly ever given in to boisterous celebration of personal milestones, quite a few of which punctuated the latest duel with the Antipodeans. The roar of exultation that escaped him on completing the winning run though, betrayed the special regard he holds for the collective. The rare vulnerability to emotion provided a fascinating insight into what the latest achievement meant to the team. The legitimacy of India’s ranking is still sub-judice, but their A-game, as and when they unleash it, befits their top billing. For the first time since they reached the top of the totem pole, they played like they belonged there. Although stiffer challenges lie ahead, Dhoni’s men deserve to be proud of the last fortnight. A textbook Test series, gritty, intense and keenly contested, has also helped clear some of the murkiness brought on by the sleaze of spot-fixing.

The biggest peeve with 50-over cricket is its rote formula. And yet how fascinating was it to watch two Tests follow identical plots; screenplays whose singular idioms were the slow-burner and status quo. Except for days 3 & 5 in Bengaluru, neither team bossed a full day’s play across both matches. The said two days of Indian domination perhaps separated both the sides, by a margin that seems heavily exaggerated. Both stories unravelled slowly, proceeded in flux, seemed destined for stalemate until the cusps of climax, when a potluck of skill, fate, nous, gut and spirit contrived to produce a result. The much lamented absence of a third helping may have been rendered moot by the 2-0 result, but one cannot help but wonder if some of the tactics deployed by Australia may have been different in a longer rubber.

India will take a lot of heart from the fact that almost every individual did his two bit for the larger cause. Sachin lorded over the entire series and Laxman’s masterpiece in minutiae stole the thunder at Mohali, but an unfit Gambhir apart, not one member of the side can be accused of not making his presence felt. Dhoni himself didn’t have the best of times or tosses, but rang in an assortment of inspired moves to seize initiative. He enjoys the 90% luck that Richie Benaud deems crucial for captaincy, but also possesses the critical 10% skill without which the grey eminence of commentary doesn’t recommend taking up the job. When it mattered, both skipper and team always found an enforcer. It was a major triumph for Test cricket as the world’s leading T20 star played ombudsman to the grievance against awarding Tests to venues which don’t cherish them enough. BCCI’s deign off their high horse to scrutinise UDRS is also a significant step forward.

Watching Vijay & Pujara bat together on the final day made me rack my memory for the previous instance of 2 top order Indian batsmen in concert, neither of whom answered to the names of Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman or Ganguly. The best I could come up with was Jaffer-Karthik in 2007, and before that, Das-Ramesh in 2001. For a middle order pairing, we may have to go back to 1995. The duo also manned silly positions on either side, in a throwback to 1998, when 2 of India’s current slippers – Dravid & Laxman – cut their teeth at short leg & silly point. It isn’t quite end-of-an-era, but a reality check has never appeared as emphatic. Already, Raina has woken Yuvraj up to the rude fact that an injury might cost you more than just one game. Vijay, with Abhinav Mukund not far behind, must certainly have Gambhir sweating. Pujara, earmarked to step into Dravid’s shoes, tried them on for size, and found that he quite liked them. Amidst a flurry of piercing drives & rousing pulls was a nifty back foot punch, as he persuaded a grubber through extra cover to exorcise the ghosts of his first innings dismissal. A pinch of salt is not out of place, for the young guard, with a combined experience of a dozen Tests, is yet to be stretched beyond our shores by the rigorous investigations of swing, bounce & the end of honeymoon.

Let’s spare a thought for Ricky Ponting, who has surely played his last Test in India. Like England, it hasn’t been favourite destination for Punter the captain, and unlike the Old Blighty, for Punter the batsman too. It is a pity since he is one of the most captivating batsmen to watch. While he only managed about half the runs that the alpha male in the opposite camp scored, I hope his abbreviated masterclass in his final innings on our soil leaves a lasting impression in our hearts. May that rasping pull shot live on.

When Pujara walked out at the fall of the first wicket, a friend dropped me a line. He said, “Pujara in Dravid’s place is the sign of things to come. If you remember, something similar happened in Kolkata in 2001. My hunch is that this is going to help the team win with confidence and also set the ball rolling for the future.” One half of his hunch did come true. Now for the second!

An aside:

Isn’t it curious how a succession of promising Tamil Nadu middle order batsmen starting from S. Sharath (anyone remember him?), across Robin Singh & Hemang Badani and now S. Badrinath, have been passed over for white flannelled honours, in spite of solid first-class records? Curiouser, that the same fate has evaded openers from the land, going back from M. Vijay to S. Ramesh, W.V. Raman and Kris Srikkanth.

– TS Kartik

9 responses to “Sleeper Hit

  1. Great post. One thing I just couldn’t agree with, though – “legitimacy of India’s ranking is still sub-judice”. IMO, they’ve legitimately got their #1 rank – there can be no arguments there 🙂

  2. Thanks Mahesh!

    India is No. 1 alright, as in better than the rest. But there are always going to be (unfair) comparisons with the ruthlessness of the Aussies when they undisputed champs. Caveats will always be attached. The December tour of South Africa will hopefully shut a lot of doubters up (including me!)

  3. Kartik, great post. Enjoyed reading it. Add to the list of TN players TE Srinivasan too.

    Mahesh, you and I have to disagree on this point of #1. Firstly though, I do believe the #1 is “legitimised” by the relative weakness of the other teams that are part of the era. So, while I do not doubt the legitimacy of the #1 rank, even for a moment, I will not (personally) accept that India has the “aura” of Clive Lloyds’ Windies or a Taylor-Waugh Australia unless India wins in RSA and Australia. This India team IS good, mind you. But I’d like to see what happens in December in RSA. That is going to be a crucual/vital step for this team.

  4. Thanks Mohan. Yes I missed T.E. A little before my time! Lol. Also Sridharan Sriram.

  5. Srikanth Mangalam

    Great Article.

    Have to disagree about your comments on TN batsmen. I wouldn’t place Badani and certainly not Robin Singh in the same league as S. Badrinath. In that list, I would have to say that S. Badrinath was the probably the only one who truly deserved to be in the side. It would have been extremely difficult for any of those players (and many from other states as well) to get in the last 12 years or so since the quartet took over. At least one of the opening slot has always been a revolving door since Sidhu departed until the emergence of the Sehwag/Gambhir combo. I agree with you that folks like Gambhir and Yuvraj better be on their heels…

  6. @Mohan Current Indian team < Waugh/Taylor's Aussie Team < Clive Lloyd's WI Team – That one I agree with 🙂

    One could even debate whether the Australian team was better than the Windies, but I digress 🙂 – I agree that India don't have the aura that either of those two teams had.

    Those two teams were almost invincible, while the current Indian team is far from it. The point I was making is that India have reached the No. 1 rank based on a legitimate points system based on wins and losses over a period of time, and that can't be argued against.

    The No. 1 ranking is something to be proud of, and I see myself coming to India's defence everytime that is questioned 🙂 At the same time, I also feel that we should be careful not to put too much emphasis on the "No. 1" rank – Australia are placed No. 5 in the rankings, but that doesn't mean they are a weak team, while even with their No. 1 ranking India is not a really strong team. You just have to look at the closely fought series between Australia and India to recognise that…

  7. Mahesh…problemo! No way the Aussie team were better than the Windies of Clive Lloyd! 🙂

  8. India doesn’t have that aura…yet! But with a few years at the top, if they can stay there, and with talent coming through the ranks (more bowlers, PLEASE!), they can attain a similar aura.

    Here’s hoping! 🙂

  9. Definitely, the batting of India can be intimidating ( Sehwag, Dravid, Sachin and Laxman) and could be compared to the bowling of WI (Roberts, Holding, Marshall, Garner, Croft,…)

    However, if India bowling were a little stronger, the team would rank at much higher levels.

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