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Every (Under)dog has its day by Srinivas Kanchibhotla
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August 15, 2007

Every (Under)dog has its day

It is not often that Indian batsmen and bowlers start firing on all cylinders on a consistent basis, test after test, against formidable oppositions like Australia or South Africa, that too on their home turfs. But it is very often they find themselves grasping the short end of the stick, even if they are playing well, on account of announced visits from the rain Gods, that nagging last wicket partnership that refuses to breakaway, that sudden burst of surprise attack by a novice opposition bowler, just when everybody thought that the test/series was in their kitty, as the supporters and the support staff anxiously await in the galleries and the balconies, ready to cork off the champagne. Back in 1985, right after the famous Benson and Hedges Mini-World Cup win, Indians were chalking up centuries by the dozens and picking up wickets by the bushels touring Australia, only to be deprieved of the elusive win test after test, either because of the sudden downpours or because of the unbreakable last wicket partnerships. That was the closest Indians came to conquering the Kangaroos in a completely one-sided contest. Yet the scorecard recorded a dead rubber. Nice way, for the opposition, to be saved by the (weather) bell. A few years ago, again Down Under, it was Waugh who denied the much coveted win in contemporary cricket (win on Australia in Australia), by sheperding his side to safety, until there just weren't enough overs for the Indians to run through the rest of the tail - Saved by the bell again.

An year ago in Carribean, it was down to the last opposition wicket - a confirmed sitting duck - to face the last over of the match from a bowler, who is as much known for his ability to swing the ball like the Foucault's pendulum on seaming wickets, as for his his impromptu break-dancing skills. Sreesanth had 6 opportunities to take India to its first historic win in more than 20 years. But it was not meant to be. The sitting duck held his ground as the Indians walked away from the game felt beaten. The next test was an action replay of the previous, except that it was the rain that played spoilsport. It was as though the Indian could never catch a break abroad and that the foreign Gods had no bilateral agreement with their Indian counterparts whatsoever - which is why it should come as a welcome surprise when the gravy train finally stopped by the Indians' way as they were saved both by the bell and the rains. If what has gone around, finally came around, well, it is about time.

First - the things that need to be looked at, to look past everything and savor the sweetness of success. Take Zaheer, R.P.Singh, Sreesanth and even Kumble out of the team, and have England come play in India, and beat India at home. That is exactly how the English might be feeling about the current series loss - disappointed, but not dejected. The attack, a certified second string one at best, did quite an admirable job (not to mention a fantastic effort in the first effort) to not allow the Indian batsmen from rolling them over completely, thanks to good, intelligent use of the ground and the weather conditions. At no stage did the Indians look completely at ease with the gentle pace and great swing of Sidebottoms and Andersons. Even the huge scores that everybody posted in the last test were courtesy of magnanimous fielding efforts and much vaunted catching abilities of the English, than the explosive destructive capabilities of the much touted Indian batting line up. Dravid never seemed to find his groove throughout the series (and not to cause any more consternation than there already is in the Indian camp, for the second time in a row, following the South African debacle). Tendulkar had to rely on his patient more than his potential and his patented strokes, though his scores at the end of the day would have everyone believe otherwise. Whether wholly intentional or stricly coincidental, Sachin's inability to dominate the opposition, as is his wont, continues to rake in the numbers, a trend that started since the Bangladesh tour. Though runs are what that matter in the end with scant regard to the manner of accrual, it is unfortunate that Sachin is finding himself more and more in that category. These aside, the place of Laxman is turning out into a matter of huge concern. Granted that he had a couple of good runs, and involved in good partnerships with the tail, but he seems so obviously wasted and under-utilized in his current slot, that by the time his number comes up, his choices are reduced to partnering either with the last recognized batsman in the fray or with the tail, which, going by the Indian history, has the habit of not wagging for too long.

This series, if anything, brought into great relief the three main questions above, which fairly inquisitive teams like an Australia, or a South Africa, scheduled to tour in the next few months, would like to press more for reasonable answers.

Now, the brighter side. What was advertised before the beginning of the series as the battle of stalwarts (more like, show of their strengths), Sachin, Dravid, Dhoni et al, turned out to be anything but. Instead the lesser known inmates have taken over the asylum. Jaffer's laid back cut to spill over the boundary over the gully region, Karthik's tempered aggression, Ganguly's new found positive apporach, and not to forget, the lone century from the Grand Old Man of the team, became the signature of the series. One needs to jog the memory way far back into the past, to find such a reversal of fortunes and such a resurgence of the written-off. This series wasn't decided on one performance. If Dhoni held out the longest and wait for the rains, curbing his natural game to deny England of the win in the first test, Zaheer owned the second one fired up by the combustible beans, if R.P.Singh held his line throughout to get the vital break-throughs, it was Kumble who tormented the English, with the willow this time, instead of his usual weapon of choice - the cherry. If this would not constitute as a total team effort, it is time to to shun Websters. When, at most of the post-day press conferences, Dravid kept tirelessly repeating about "the boys", their hearts and their collective efforts, he was truly meaning it every single time. This wasn't the time when stellar performances from a few, or brilliant singular performances, thrust into the fore and stole the show. This was the day of the Underdog all throughout - the side-lined, the taken-for-granted, the satellites show, which did not figure Dravid's usual heroics, Sachin's bombastic swashbuckling and Ganguly's mauling of the weak and the timid.

In all the recent series victories abroad, the big guns fired at an alarmingly consistent rate, just as expected, while the little ones were left to clean up, after the parade passed through the main road. But this time, the party was strictly relegated to the bylanes and the side-roads. And nothing would validate that statement more than Kumble's lucky lemon cut to the fine-leg boundary that fetched him a well-deserved first career century. Whereas any other regular batsman would have become more circumspect approaching the important milestone, preferring to get there in cautious singles, Kumble's attack on Pietersen put the term "nervous nineties" to shame. Kumble hits straight off Pietersen for a 6, Kumble cover drives Pietersen for a 4, Kumble tries to go over the top again only to get a inside edge for another 4 - it is not everyday that cricket witnesses such an entertaining reversal of roles - which only highlights the contributions of the tireless (and seemingly, ageless) old warrior in an entirely different light.

Though Kumble had been written off on foreign tours, considering his inability to tweak the ball in the traditional sense, quite a while ago, his performances oflate in the past 4-5 foreign tours have been anything but uninspired and listless. What he lacks in ability, he more than makes up for it with his tenacity, what he lacks in a general sense of genuine talent, a la Warne, he more than accounts for it with his grit. It cannot get any better for Kumble than this. Helping himself for a good share of wickets, finding himself in the top rung of run getters, plotting breakthroughs whenever needed, and cleaning up the tail on a consistent basis - Kumble has become a bonafide all-rounder, even if it is just for this series. Whereas age acts as a detriment for batsmen (one needn't look far for an example than the once be-all and end-all of Indian batting), dulling their instincts and lulling their reactions, it works quite the opposite way for the bowlers, particularly for the slower variety, as in evident in cases like Warne and Murali, only if one commits himself to adding experience to his existing bag of tricks. Kumble's interrogation techniques that consist of constant probing and continued questioning, coupled with his ever-present dogged persistence, have only gotten better with age, serving as an example to the simile for the one about wine and age.

If the new found cost of victory on foreign soils come at the expense of the age and the ebullience of these fringe players, the team is better off stuffed with the have-nots and has-beens.

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