Saturday, January 8, 2011

We’re No.1 – Well Whoopty doo

The last ten overs of Day 4 and Day 5 of the final test match of the 3 match series between India and South Africa confused me slightly. This was a contest between the 1st and 2nd rank test team in the world, then why why in the world were they playing the way they were. Now I understand a lot has been said and written about this already, saying it was a "fair result" and so on and so forth. Well, yeah 1-1 is fair if you didn't want to win, if you wanted to win and you wanted to win badly, then 1-1 is a smack in the nuts. This is something which stood out about the Australian test team and the Australian Cricket team in general during the 1990's and and till around 2008, they hated losing. Yes, sometimes they went too far, as they did in the Sydney Test against India in order to secure a win, but in general the Australian team for a good part of 20 years made a habit out of winning, and it was born out of an extreme distaste for losing or even drawing a game.

The South African strategy was a bit puzzling for me in the last 1 hour of day 4, when they were already 300 plus runs ahead. An aggressive team with two of the best bowlers in the world may have been inclined to declare after Kallis's hundred and give themselves an 8-10 over burst at the batsmen before stumps, these 10 overs may have produced a couple of wickets and then day 5 would have taken on a completely different tone. However, they didn't declare, instead they got all out on the last ball of the day and set India a chase  of 340 on the last day.

The Indian strategy for Day 5 was quite apparent. It was apparent from Harbhajan Singh's press conference post Day 4. He was asked to comment on India's chances to chase down the South African total and all he could say was that we need some "fire crackers" (whatever that means) from Viru. There was a sense, that if Virender Sehwag comes off, we can make a fight of it, otherwise let's just draw this and go home with a smile on our face. Well, depending on Virender Sehwag to get away to a flier in a test match second innings aborad against the most potent opening new ball pair in the world, was like depending on the MET department to forecast the weather. Now don't get me wrong, I am not going after Viru because of one bad series. I'm simply saying that he has done it once before in tests, albeit in a memorable fashion, but it was done in Indian conditions and that to only once. In all his tests, Virender Sehwag has been a 1st innings player, his second innings average is quite poor also he has not been the most reliable of our batsmen in the situation which the team found itself facing on day 5, and to therefore rely on him alone was slightly ambitious and foolhardy to say the least.

There seemed to be no belief that this Indian team which has pulled of two improbable chases in 2010 and one very difficult one, could make a match of this. There was no quiet confidence that, "hey we've done this before, maybe we'll do it again". It was not that naïve to think that, we have Sachin in the best form of his life, Gambhir rediscovering his touch, and that man VVS who has been there and done it and done it again, may be we could fashion something more memorable than a draw. Watching test cricket all these years, I assumed that, that's what No. 1 teams do. That's what Australia did time and time again, they did it with such alarming regularity that it became near inevitable for a while. So when team India became No. 1 and then went to South Africa and beat South Africa in Durban, yanking the rug from under their feet, along with the momentum in the series, I expected on Day 5 that they would have the confidence to go for it. It was improbable to win at the PCA Stadium in Mohali with Laxman having back spasms and only Ishant and Ojha for company, but we did, so was it so improbable to expect them to give it a shot here.

MS Dhoni in his post-match press conference said that he was disappointed that they couldn't break the partnership between Kallis and Boucher quickly and that they gave away too many runs to the tail hence taking the match beyond India's reach. Well no one asked him, why didn't you give it a shot anyway. Was it so improbable a target for an Indian team which aspires to greatness? In the chase during the 2nd Border Gavaskar test at Bangalore, Sehwag failed in the second innings chase, he fell for a single digit score, so Dhoni sent in Pujara who was in his debut test, at No. 3., Rahul Dravid had been struggling so Dhoni thought that maybe Pujara could give the innings the impetus needed to get the chase going, it worked, Pujara scored 72 runs of 89 balls in the second innings of his debut test in a run chase. Was it then such a stretch of the imagination, to send in VVS Laxman at No. 3 at Cape Town, the man who has done it time and again for India, a man who is no doubt, the form of his life, who in Durban once again proved that he can bat fluently in conditions where other batsmen can't even survive.

I don't purport to be an expert in cricket strategy and I can't really predict what was going on in Dhoni's mind when it came to this run chase. But I can say this much, that while giving his post-match press conference, it came through that as a captain Dhoni preferred to draw the series than entertaining even the slightest chance of losing it. It is quite sad though, as this series and especially this test match, which produced so many memorable moments, definitely deserved a more fitting finale than an anticlimactic draw. And if India does wish to maintain its number 1 ranking and continue improving and touring better, I hope that this 1-1 felt like a smack in the nuts, and not a "fair result".

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