Friday, December 19, 2008

It takes a village-r

India chased down a daunting total to win the first Test against England. The win was engineered by the trigger-happy Virender Sehwag. MS Dhoni admitted as much in the post-match interview when he said that had Sehwag not fired, India would have played for a draw. Yet, the rest of the fine folks who report on the game seem to think that the entire team shared Sehwag's will to win. I hope I am wrong in thinking so, but there is only one uncluttered mind in the Indian dressing room and he plunders his runs from the opener's spot.

(Incidentally, South Africa is in a similar predicament in their Test against Australia but they do not seem to have the belief that they can win).

Here are some of the items caught my eye in the aftermath of the famous win in Chennai.
a) Sambit Bal, fast becoming one of my favorite cricket writers, thinks that the only team that believed it could win, did so.

b) Sachin Tendulkar's history of disappearing in the crunch was put to the test and this time he came through for what may end up being the signature century of his glittering career. Afterwards, he spoke about the moment and what it meant to him and millions of other folks.

c) The Englishmen were left to look for slender positives from the game. Simply showing up to play has to considered a win for them.

d) Sanjay Manjrekar provides the Indian viewpoint, as only he can.

e) The elephant in the room that no one wanted to talk about was not the failure of Rahul Dravid to score any runs, but rather the failure of the premier spinner on either side to fair well on a pitch that should have supported them immensely. The boy named Mudhsuden is the one that copped the most flak, but the person who deserved more criticism for his non-show was the Turbanator, Harbhajan Singh. Michael Atherton brings this up in his match review.
After England's defeat, the spotlight has been trained on Monty Panesar, but before he is condemned to the gallows in the rush to promote Adil Rashid, it might be instructive to compare him with India's spinners. Harbhajan has played 73 Test matches to Panesar's 34 and he has taken 193 more wickets than Panesar. He was also in the groove, having played a Test series against Australia and a one-day series against England. Panesar, bedevilled by bad luck and his non-selection in England's one-day team, had not twitched his index finger competitively for the best part of four months.

Even though Harbhajan was in form, bowling at a ground he knows well and at batsmen short of match practice, he made little impression. I am not entirely sure that Harbhajan is the bowler he used to be, now that an overextended use of the doosra - the ball that spins to the off - has affected his ability to drift and spin his stock ball, the off spinner. Nevertheless, England, and Andrew Strauss in particular, played him superbly well
f) Peter Roebuck, who is more engrossed in the Australia-South Africa, does find the time to talk about the Chennai Test in his distinctive style.
Judging from their responses to his vivid innings, England had not previously seen Virender Sehwag at his most audacious. Bear in mind that 12 months ago he had lost his place in the side. Australians, on the other hand, are well aware of his powers. Now he caused such disarray in the opposing ranks that in a trice fieldsmen were running hither and thither, most of them ever further from the bat. Yet Sehwag is no mere thrasher. Rather, he is an intelligent and consistent batsman who has managed to remain instinctive and creative. It is a most unusual combination. He is not remotely as barmy as he seems. Although he was removed before stumps, he had given the Indian innings its momentum and caused a furrowing of brows in the England camp.
g) To me, the best of them all was this extensive piece by Prem Panicker who, when his mind is focused on cricket, still cranks out well-thought out pieces that should be circulated to the cricket teams he dissects so well.
In the second innings, the team starts strong, but then two determined batsmen take the game away with controlled performances. At close on the third day the opposition is 247 ahead with seven wickets in hand; at lunch on day four that lead has been stretched to 319, seven still remaining in the hut.

Even occasional followers of Indian cricket will effortlessly recall dozens of such instances; they will recall, too, the inevitable denouement: India falls back on ‘defence’, which in context means spreading the field out and protecting the boundaries [‘They won’t mind the singles too much, it is the boundaries that will hurt’, commentators invariably say at such moments]. The result: the lead mounts, the home team’s hangdog air of oh shoot, we stuffed this up, let’s somehow get the misery over and done with, tomorrow is another day and another Test becomes more pronounced, and fans give up the ghost and go off to see if they can get tickets to Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi.

Not this time. For the second time in four Tests as captain, MS Dhoni employs his own version of active defence, packing one side of the field with placements aimed to make a monumental struggle out of every single taken. The bowlers all read from the same page, unwaveringly bowling the lines scripted by the think tank and operating with the fields set. The result – momentum snatched away [23 overs, 57 runs, 5 wickets] at just that precise point in the game when, in earlier times, the opposition tended to run berserk and bat India entirely out of the game.

And then the final, most welcome change: The team and its coach talk not of “saving the game” and “taking it session by session and seeing where we are” but of winning the game. Its buccaneer in residence then walks out to play an innings that would have attracted comment in a one-day situation, and was downright implausible in context of a Test match
h) Finally, as the 5th day was playing out, Prem Panicker blogged about it, leading off with a brilliant treatise on the man who could be the king of them all if he (Sehwag) is able to duplicate the feats of the first half of his career. He provides a lesson from the past to shed some light on cricket's last gunslinger.
To call Sehwag’s batting “instinctive” – that is, an atavistic response to a situation that is not based on thought or prior experience and do not depend on prior learning – is to call it wrong: Sehwag’s secret is not that he does not think, but that he has cleared the clutter and reduced thought to its barest, most necessary essentials.

In his connection, I always think of one particular example – and it relates to when England came touring under Nasser Hussain. Sehwag, then batting low down the order, was sitting in the dressing room, fretting at the sight of his senior colleagues “tackling” Ashley Giles’ round the wicket, wide of leg stump line with their pads, butts and other parts of the anatomy.

In course of an eruption of profanity of which saala is the only quotable word, Sehwag blasted his mates and, in prĂ©cis, said wait till I get out there, I’ll teach that &#%%$ a lesson.

Sure enough, his chance came. He greeted Giles with a murderous mow that almost decapitated short square leg, followed it up with a clinical reverse sweep, ran down the wicket to loft him over midwicket, charged down again to hit inside out over extra cover – and in the space of three overs, forced Hussain to take Giles out of the attack.

That was not “instinctive”, as the dictionary defines “instinct”. Rather, it was the result of Sehwag reducing the game to its essence: There was, he realized, no percentage in standing there watching the balls go by. Nor, given that line, was there the danger of his getting out bowled or leg before. That left “caught” – and reduced it to a straight contest between a bowler clearly unsure of his ability to effectively bowl the more attacking lines, against a batsman confident of his own mastery of the grammar of batsmanship

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