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If I can just give to the world more than I take from it, I will be a very happy man. For there is no greater joy in life than to give. Motto : Live, Laugh and Love. You can follow me on Twitter too . My handle is @Raja_Sw.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Lions at home, lambs abroad

In all the euphoria about India’s run-chase and a “missed opportunity” for the game to be closed out due to bad light, it is very easy to overlook the ground realities of this opening test of the series. Don’t let that last two-hour chase fool you. Extremely entertaining though it was, it cannot quite cover for the events of the four days that preceded it.

The fact is that most of the match was dominated by just one team – England. They were the team facing a crisis – of injuries, absentees, lack of experience, rookie captaincy. They even had to call upon their players in the West Indies to take a flight and land in India to do duty with the seniors team. In fact, if it had not been for a sporting declaration by Andrew Flintoff, England could have very well shut out and demoralized India completely.

Before the game at Nagpur, nobody gave England a chance. Not that India was the flavour of the moment, what with the Karachi defeat still fresh in many minds, but surely at home, there was no way India was going to end up second-best in a contest. The Indian batting was not exactly dependable but kingpin match-winners at home, Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh , would once again knock the opposition over and everything would be back to normal again.
Well, guess what ? Nothing of the sort happened. What’s more, nothing of the sort looked like happening. You can quickly bring up the misfortune of Anil Kumble on day four as evidence that he was hard done by but that would be trying to gloss over what is now fast becoming India’s worst-kept secret. And that is that somehow, somewhere, at some point in time, Indian spinners have stopped “foxing” the opposition. Yes, it hurts – for Indian spinners have been the lifeline of Indian bowling since time immemorial, doing a great job to cover up for inadequacies in the pace department.

But times change and the game changes. Opposition teams visiting the sub-continent are far better prepared nowadays than ever before. They come with specific game plans for every sort of wicket, be it a slow turner or a green wicket or even a dustbowl. They have plans for every batsman of consequence and for every bowler of relevance.

In this context, both Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh are open books. They are no doubt masters of their trade but they have plied this trade for long enough to have been thoroughly analysed by any opposition team.

The results are there for all to see. It has become increasingly difficult for them to run through sides, except in conditions entirely in their favour. For obvious reasons, this is not always practical. On overseas tours, wickets are prepared to local strengths and not to pamper Indian spinners. Even in India, there is a limit to which a wicket can be prepared to suit Indian spinners.

In fact, I believe it is a dangerous trend to prepare wickets for specific bowlers or types of bowlers. It demeans the remaining bowlers in the side. What message should they take from this ? That they are not expected to play a match-winning role in the game anyway ? Which bowler , with any self-respect, does not believe that he is a match-winner for his side ?

It is very common nowadays to explain away a bowler’s wicketless bowling performance on the wicket itself. Whether he is a fast bowler or a spinner, the standard comment is “he is getting no help from the wicket”. It almost sounds patronizing.

Isn’t a bowler supposed to bowl in all conditions ? Just like a batsman is supposed to bat in all conditions ?

Murali Kartik summed it up best – and completely bamboozled me with his wisdom about this subject. After the infamous Mumbai Test between India and Australia, on a dustbowl where even part-time bowler Michael Clarke bagged an embarrassing 6 for 9, Kartik was interviewed about his good performance in the game.

When asked whether he was happy that he had been given a spinning track to bowl on, Kartik surprised me (and many others I am sure) by saying “It was not difficult to take wickets on this pitch. I wish it had not been a spinning track. I would like to take wickets on normal pitches”. (Thanks, Kartik, that is what all of us have been waiting for from you – that you take wickets on normal pitches).

The point is - if you really are a master at your trade – whether as a batsman or a bowler – you will not depend on the conditions to make your task easy. You will be more than equal to the occasion, whatever it is. That is the true mark of a champion.

That is why I hold Shane Warne in such high regard. There is no doubt that he is feared on the last day of a Test match but sometimes he has been called upon to bowl even on the first day. And he, on the most dead of wickets, seems to cause the batsmen trouble. He does not turn every delivery, but he does just enough to keep the batsman guessing. And that, as any experienced batsman will tell you, is half the battle.

I am not suggesting that wickets should not assist bowlers at all. In fact, the best wickets have always been “sporting” wickets – with something in them for both batsmen and bowlers. The wickets for the first two Tests in the recent Pakistan-India series were the worst advertisement possible for the game.

It is not as if there have not been wickets reputed for specific types of bowling in the past. The WACA at Perth has always been a fast bowler’s paradise, as was Sabina Park at Kingston, Jamaica till the early 90s. The Chepauk stadium at Chennai (Madras) was the fastest wicket in India in the 70s and was, thanks to Andy Roberts of the West Indies, scene to some of the best fast bowling ever seen in India. Similarly the Sydney Cricket Ground has, for long, had a reputation to help spinners.

But I cannot recall anytime in the years that I have been following the game where there has been such an obsession with developing home pitches for specific advantage. Nowadays an inordinate amount of pre-match time seems to go into just discussion about pitches and how much the grass should be cut to favour which bowler. In the past, if at all there was a discussion on this, it would usually be an in-match discussion about a captain’s choice of using the heavy roller or the light roller.

Perhaps this is just another indication of how the game has changed. Use every weapon in your armoury to beat the opposition – and if you are having a home series, why not tailor-make your wickets to suit your bowlers and batsmen.

This probably applies not just to India but to other countries as well. But there is no doubt that India is well and truly obsessed with this.

I have no doubt that the Indian batsmen will do splendidly in the remaining Tests of this series. England, most unexpectedly, has fired the first salvo. With the entire country’s support, the Indian team will raise its level and fire back. The wickets will be doctored to the Indian team management’s specifications. The series will be won (or at worst, drawn with huge scores from the Indian batsmen).

And, on the surface, all will be well.

The ineffectiveness of our spin bowling will be conveniently forgotten.

The inability of our world-class batsmen to play nipping inswingers will be conveniently forgotten.

And I will continue with my disillusionment at seeing lions being created at home to become lambs abroad.

Oh, for another Karachi !

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