Tuesday, January 11, 2011

India return from their South African tour having denied the hosts a series victory for the first time in 5 Indian visits. A comparison with the 2006-07 tour is instructive in my view. India won the first Test at Johannesburg in that series, only to lose the next two, the third, despite scoring 400 in their first innings and taking a 41 run first innings lead. That Cape Town Test Match saw the advent of Paul Harris as South Africa's spin bowling option. The 2011 Test may among other things, signal the end of his short Test career, especially if Imran Tahir is in fact the leg spinning wonder that he is made out to be. In that Cape Town Test, India's batsmen got stuck and got out, in this one, they got surer as they shut shop.

The South African team of 2010-11 was a better team than the 2006-07 one, as was the Indian team. Mahendra Singh Dhoni's team went to South Africa undefeated in a Test series, and has protected that record. That was very much a mid-table clash, this, a top-table one. In this Test Match, India created many situations from which it could have gone on to win. At all times, it was thwarted by one of two South African champions - Jacques Kallis and Dale Steyn. On Day 1, Kallis produced 80 classy runs as India's fast bowlers recovered from their usual shaky start and improved towards the end of the day. On Day 2, Kallis turned 283/8 into 362 all out, at least 50 runs more than India would have thought reasonable once they had SA 8 down. In the Indian response, Dale Steyn eliminated the threat of Virender Sehwag, and then, when India felt they had worn down the South African bowling attack through the 176 runs Tendulkar-Gambhir stand, Steyn returned to wreak havoc with the second new ball, having done everything other than dismiss Tendulkar earlier on Day 3. He would return to finish the Indian innings. He finished with 5/75. In the South African second innings, India had reduced South Africa to 6/130, before that man Kallis and Mark Boucher produced a 103 run stand that took South Africa from deep trouble, to relative safety. At 233/7, India would have felt reasonably good had South Africa folded up for a further 25 runs. But Kallis was not finished and added a further 106 for good measure with Morne Morkel, Dale Steyn and Lonwabo Tsotsobe. At this point, after four hard days, India's last chance to force a victory was gone, with only 90 overs of play remaining in the game.

The South Africans were now ascendant. Test Matches are rarely won by risking defeat, despite the romantic rhetoric associated with captaincy which involves such claims. Teams only risk defeat against opponents who they are confident of being able to outclass. When Adam Gilchrist tried it against England at Headingley in 2001, in a dead rubber, no less, England chased down 315 in the 4th innings. There was no pressure of the clock. Far more Test Matches have been won by shutting the opposition out, forcing them to play for survival for an extended period of time, and then exploiting the way in which this complicates the assessment of risk thereby forcing batsmen to bat outside their comfort zone. This was the position Jacques Kallis prepared for South Africa on the 4th evening.

As it turned out, the hosts made little headway into the Indian line up, which produced a textbook display of defensive batting, Virender Sehwag included. It was not an easy wicket. The ball was exploding off the surface on occasion and the variety of the South African attack might have proved daunting to many batting line ups. Morne Morkel was able to get steep bounce from short of a good-length, but Gautam Gambhir played him with aplomb. At the other end, Virender Sehwag dealt with Dale Steyn expertly, but then fell to Morkel. In India earlier this year, Sehwag had marked Morkel as the South African danger man, and not Steyn on account of the uncomfortably steep bounce that Morkel could generate. It was this steep bounce which accounted for him. The length had Sehwag trapped on the crease, fending. He did eventually get forward, but only after he had played at the ball.

Rahul Dravid entered and for nearly two and a half hours, withstood everything the South Africans threw at him. His reflexes are not what the used to be, and his priceless innings today revealed his current limitations as much as it revealed his monumental accomplishment in the Test Match arena. Time and again, Dravid would get drawn into playing the fuller balls outside off stump, but unlike 4-5 years ago, he always seemed late on those forward strokes. Where in his prime those sucker balls would have been dispatched to the cover boundary, these days he gets only two or three for those, if anything. The slowing reflexes also showed themselves when Dravid played to leg. There was a time from 2001 to 2007, when Rahul Dravid missed almost nothing on middle and leg, whether off the front of back foot. Recently he has missed these run scoring opportunities. These are clear, undeniable signs of decline.

And yet, such is the foundation of the man's batsmanship, that he is able to defy a high quality attack of great variety for a full session and more on a very iffy 5th day pitch. I do not envy the selectors job given the decision that they must inevitably consider about Rahul Dravid's future in the Test team. To anybody who appreciates great batsmanship, the temptation to stick with one as accomplished as Dravid must be obvious - Dravid has a lot of class. The selectors though are charged with higher concerns. If his decision to quit the captaincy is any indication, Dravid will quit the minute he stops enjoying the grind. It is one thing for the players himself to say (as Gavaskar did), that he would rather quit while people are asking why, rather than why not, but it is quite another for armchair critics to beat up a player like Dravid with the trope. I consider the latter to be in bad taste, but then, taste has never quite been the armchair critic's forte. Dravid is still one of the six best batsmen in India in my view, and he will know, more than anybody else how hard it is to become a successful Test batsman. I have little doubt that he will step away at the right time.

The Cape Town wicket was a magnificent one. It kept batsmen honest, without turning batting into a lottery.  Even on the 5th day, while the ball lept and reared regularly off the tired, battered parts of the pitch, it gave the batsman a little opportunity to adjust. To the tough player who was willing to take blows, the wicket was a difficult, but not impossible ally.

The last session of play saw some immaculate defensive play from Sachin Tendulkar, who batted nearly as long as Rahul Dravid did, and seemed entirely disinterested in scoring runs. Even though South Africa were never realistically close to forcing the issue, the wicket kept everybody interested, to the extent the Graeme Smith tried the 2nd new ball as a final gamble, before conceding that he would not be able to force a result.

Lonwabo Tsotsobe, South Africa's third seamer performed the support seamer's role brilliantly. For someone who has hardly played Test Cricket Tsotsobe is remarkably proficient in bowling both round and over the wicket. At various times in this series, he has swung the ball back into the right hander, moved it off the seam both ways, bowled a disciplined defensive line outside off stumps, and attacked the batsman with short of a length bowling. After an indifferent Test at Centurion, he recovered superbly.

The final day of the series then, was an excellent day of cricket. I have little time for the chatterati (or twitterati) who will condemn it as a tame, boring day's play, for such a view exposes a mistaken conflation of cricket with victory on their part. These are people who seek victory. Cricket is merely a convenient vehicle. Cricket is about much much more than that. For example. Dayle Steyn and Morne Morkel bowled 1 over each with the 2nd new ball. If I were to take those two overs and show them to some of these people obsessed with "turning the strike over" and other such sillyness, and  then show them any other new ball over bowled by Steyn and Morkel, they would not be able to tell the difference. And they would be right, because there was no difference. Both were serious overs - immaculately delivered, and immaculately met by the batsmen. The mark of the highest quality and professional committment.

It has been a memorable series which has tested players, captains, umpires and opinion makers. It has tested and demolished cliche, and produced some classical old fashioned Test Cricket, in which the bowlers relied on high skill and the batsmen were kept honest. It is no surprise that Jacques Kallis and Sachin Tendulkar stood out as the two best batsmen for they are both truly great batsmen in great form. It is a pity that they will not play a Match for at least six months.

It has been a fine treat, and a great beginning to the year 2011.

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