Sunday, August 8, 2010

Big Ones win it for India

The last time Sri Lanka lost a Test at the P Saravanamuttu Oval in Colombo was in 1994. They have won six out of their last seven Tests at this ground. The last time Sri Lanka lost a Test Match in Sri Lanka after winning the toss was at the Sinhalese Sports Club ground in Colombo against England in March 2001. In 20 Home Tests in which the Sri Lankan captain has won the toss since that game, Sri Lanka have won 15 times and drawn 5 times. Sri Lanka have lost only twice in 37 Tests in which they made at least 400 in their first innings (batting first or second) in Sri Lanka before this game. This is the third. These were the odds. And yet, without meaning in anyway to gloat, I will revisit my observation at the end of play on Day 4. My reading of this match was different from that of a lot of other observers, including Sanath Jayasurya.

The wicket is still playing well. It is far from unplayable as the scores and the number of runs made by the tailenders suggest. Still, Sri Lanka have a better bowling attack, with more bowlers capable of attacking the stumps. It's not going to be an easy win for Sri Lanka tomorrow, not unless they bowl like magic or India bat poorly.
India's bowling attack - a generous phrase for India's 4 bowlers, produced twenty wickets, thanks to some bad batting by the Sri Lankans in both innings, and some superb batting by the Indian later middle order in their first innings, which built some pressure on the Sri Lankan line up on Day 3 and Day 4. Pragyan Ojha was steady without ever being brilliant, while Amit Mishra came into his own only in the Sri Lankan second innings. Ishant Sharma bowled better in the third Test than he had in the first two - he bowled fewer ordinary spells in the final Test than he did in the first two, but his style of bowling requires plenty of help from the wicket, since he doesn't attack the stumps. Abhimanyu Mithun showed that he can bat in this series, but not bowl.

But it was left to the Indian batting line up to rescue India. Rahul Dravid and Gautam Gambhir were the only notable failures, and Gambhir missed two Tests through injury. Tendulkar made 390 runs in the series, VVS made 279, Sehwag 348 outrageous runs, and Suresh Raina made 223 runs in two Tests. On these wickets, Raina can be a bully once he gets used to batting in Test Cricket. Over the last 10 years, India's batting lineup has ensured, that despite a perenially modest (and sometimes extremely ordinary) bowling attack, India have invariably competed with the opposition and survived. Occasionally when the chance to win came, the galacticos have invariably succeeded.

Here's an interesting statistic. Of the 145 occasions when a 4th innings target between 250 and 300 has been set in a Test Match, the team batting 4th has won 29 Tests, while the team fielding 4th has won 43 times. There have been 73 draws, but i wouldn't read too much into this number because in some cases there hasn't always been enough time to realistically bowl a side out. In Test Matches in the sub-continent (India, Pakistan or Sri Lanka), there have been 40 Tests in which a 4th innings target between 250 and 300 has been set. There have been 6 successful run chases, and 13 unsuccessful ones, with 21 run chases being inconclusive.

Run chases in excess of 250 are relatively rare in Test Cricket, and more prevalent in England or New Zealand or South Africa, where many wickets are at their batting best on days 4 or 5.

Tendulkar was magnificient as usual. As I watched him walk in this morning with Ishant Sharma, I thought to myself how wonderful it would be, if in his world record 169th appearance, the great man would set victory and defeat aside and just set about blasting the bowling. He would have probably produced 30-40 screaming runs before getting out, but it would have been something. But even as I was finishing that thought, I had doubts. This, I was sure would be another day when Tendulkar grafted for every morsel at crease. As a short man, he is invariably at a disadvantage on 5th day tracks because of his limited reach. This was clearly demonstrated today by the easy brilliance of VVS Laxman. But Tendulkar came in at a crucial time in India's run chase - 27/2, very late in the day. He took India through the tricky end of the day, and then played right through the first session today. Yes he was lucky, but it's not his fault that Dilshan dropped that catch, and I dare say that it's not his fault that he had trouble with Randiv's immaculate leg-trap.

At the other end, a genius was at work today. I've seen VVS Laxman play like this a few times. The first time I saw him in a 4th innings run chase was in the Irani Trophy Final against Bombay, where he and Rahul Dravid chased down a 340 run 4th innings target. As in this innings, VVS watch very watchful at first, but then, with seemingly no extra effort, he shifted gears once he got to 35, and raced to a century. There was no apparent additional risk, he just seemed to find scoring opportunities where previously he was content to block. The man is a magical batsman and anybody who thinks he ought to be dropped because he can't field very well in the outfield ought to watch Test Cricket quietly, without offering any opinion about anybody for the next 40 years. He was 46(77) at Lunch and 60(91) when Tendulkar was dismissed. He made 42(58) after Tendulkar was dismissed, bad back and all. In those 42 runs, Virender Sehwag nearly ran him out once.

Keeping VVS company was Suresh Raina, and the contrast between the calm magic of the Hyberabadi genius, and the young tyro from UP couldn't have been greater. Raina came with all the confidence of 98 ODIs worth of experience in run chases of all kinds on various types of wickets, albeit with Limited Overs restrictions. He seemed to convey an impatience to finish the match. He was refreshingly keen on stepping out to the spinners, and notwithstanding his early petulance against Malinga, whom he tried to cream into the Indian Ocean, played with an assurance beyond his years. In Suresh Raina India have found a keeper, at least in sub-continental conditions. It remains to be seen whether Raina will emerge as a Samarweera or a Sangakkara.

All in all, India played like the World's Number One Test team in this game. A World's Number One team on crutches, no doubt, but still, a really good team. Without their first choice fast bowling pair, and their first choice spin bowler, they beat a team which has been notoriously hard to beat at home. They have now won series the last time they visited England, New Zealand and West Indies, lost series but won Tests in South Africa and Australia, drawn a series in Sri Lanka, and lost 1-0 in Pakistan. To add to this is a Home record in which they have beaten England, Australia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and West Indies, and drawn against New Zealand and South Africa. West Indies and New Zealand have not toured India for 8 and 7 years respectively.

India have their batting to thank for such excellence.

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