A TEST OF WITS

Print edition : January 05, 2002

India wins the Test series, but England steals the show.

CRICKET is as much a battle of wits as of talent. Though India won the recently concluded three-Test series 1-0, Nasser Hussain's England certainly 'out-thought' the home team in the second and third Tests.

Dogged second-innings resistance by Indian batsmen in Ahmedabad and inclement weather in Bangalore may have prevented the visitors from squaring the series. Yet the fact that this depleted England side stretched India, a strong outfit in these conditions, was testimony to the success of its 'reworked' strategy.

A repeat of the 1993 series in which India swept aside England 3-0 at home seemed very much on the cards after Sourav Ganguly's men registered a 10-wicket victory in the first Test at Mohali, where leg-spinner Anil Kumble and off-spinner Harbhajan Singh wreaked havoc. The events that unfolded subsequently were on very different lines.

Sachin Tendulkar, with the Man of the Series trophy.-N. BALAJI

Here are the men, the situations and the methods employed that made it a rather engrossing series.

The collapse at Mohali: Seizing the initiative is vital in a three-Test series, and the English batsmen, with a refreshingly positive approach, were threatening to do just that when the innings came apart against Harbhajan and Kumble. England, 172 for two on the first day, was bundled out for 238 in a dramatic fashion in the post-tea session, and Hussain's men were on the fast track to doom. Take away those two hours when the English batsmen lost their way hopelessly, there was little to chose between the sides.

The revival of a spin duo: Harbhajan and Kumble bowling in tandem in a home Test was an event awaited with keen interest. Kumble was out with a shoulder injury when the Sardar destroyed the Aussies with 32 scalps earlier in 2001, and it was widely felt that the two would be a formidable combination in favourable conditions.

Before going into the Test series with England, the two had to endure a difficult phase in South Africa. Kumble struggled to find his rhythm, after having been laid off owing to a shoulder injury, and Harbhajan found it difficult to cope with the pressures of expectation after his awesome exploits against the Australians, the World Champion side.

All this changed at Mohali. Harbhajan hastened England's end with five for 51 in the first innings and then Kumble, re-discovering his destructive ways, conjured figures of six for 81. Harbhajan's straighter one and Kumble googly caused much of the damage. The two, with their contrasting styles complementing each other, delivered for India.

The English 'leg-side' ploy: Indian batsmen are natural players of spin bowling, and in the absence of Darren Gough and Andrew Caddick, England lacked the firepower in terms of pace, especially in the subcontinental conditions. Hussain and coach Duncan Fletcher thus chose the practical option - choke the free-stroking Indian batsmen. That is, deny them the freedom to score runs freely, and the wickets will come. England's strategy was an admission of its limitations, but at least the team was being honest.

Left-arm spinner Ashley Giles was handed the job of wheeling away outside the leg-stump from over the wicket to a packed on-side field, making stroke-making a hazardous task. The principal target was, of course, Sachin Tendulkar.

Tendulkar and the 'battle within a battle': The most fascinating aspect of the series was watching England work on the patience of this great cricketer.

Tendulkar did produce a fine run of scores in the series - 88 in Mohali, 103 and 26 in Admedabad and 90 in Bangalore. He notched up his 27th Test hundred, crossed 1,000 runs in the year, and won the Man of the Series award. Yet, England's methods left him frustrated.

Anil Kumble (second from left) exults after taking his 300th Test wicket, on the second day of the Third Test in Bangalore.-K. GOPINATHAN

Proof? For the first time in his career, Tendulkar was dismissed stumped after he gave Giles the charge, in Bangalore - at 90. England played on Tendulkar's ego - he loathes staying quiet for long periods - and forced him to take his chances. Tendulkar jumping out to Giles only to see the young wicket keeper James Foster whipping off the bails was an unforgettable vignette from the series.

An unassuming cricketer's rise: When Anil Kumble trapped Matthew Hoggard leg before in Bangalore, he became the first Indian spinner to reach the milestone of 300 wickets. He did this in his 66th Test. It is a significant landmark. Kumble was "living an astonishing dream" before his family, friends and supporters, on the ground - Chinnaswamy Stadium - where he learnt much of his cricket. His unwavering accuracy, ability to extract a disconcerting bounce, resilience, and variations that are not inconsiderable, have taken him to a rarefied zone, where only three spinners, two of them his contemporaries, Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan, and a past great, Lance Gibbs, are ahead of him.

Never a big spinner of the ball, Kumble turns the ball just enough to find the outside edge of the blade, while his fizz off the pitch makes him extremely dangerous when there is a hint of assistance from the surface. The flipper is still his most feared delivery. However, over the years Kumble has developed a useful googly as well.

Being quicker through the air and seldom resorting to flight, he is different from the rest and has shown the strength of mind to retain his methods, even in the face of strong criticism on occasions.

In the event, it was a fine series for Kumble, even if he had to wait for long before scalping his victim No.300, English No. 11 Matthew Hoggard. He prised out eight batsmen in Mohali and then picked up 10 wickets in Ahmedabad. There is a lot of cricket left in him still.

The emergence of Tinu Yohannan and then the intriguing selection for Bangalore: The lanky Tinu, son of Asian long-jump gold-medallist T.C. Yohannan, made history when he was named in the eleven for the Mohali Test - he is the first Kerala cricketer to wear the India cap. He operated with fire, generating sharp pace and making a few deliveries climb. It was a stirring sight when he sent Marcus Trescothick's off-stump on a cart-wheel in Mohali even as the batsman shouldered arms. The youngster had made the right kind of beginning on the big stage.

Yohannan's omission from the Bangalore Test was puzzling. It brought to fore the compromises that are often made while choosing an eleven for a home series, a joint effort of the team management and the five selectors. On a newly laid pitch, and with weather forecasts predicting rain and cloudy conditions, the wise men actually went into the Test with just one specialist paceman, Javagal Srinath! Srinath turned in a lion-hearted effort, hounding the batsmen with pace, 'corridor' bowling, well-directed short balls, and changes in speed. However, he sorely missed a support seamer, who could have made life difficult for the English batsmen on a pitch in which there was enough 'carry' for the quicker bowlers. Just the kind of omission that sends the wrong signals to would-be pace bowlers in the country.

Handling of the ball, negative line, frayed tempers: The Bangalore Test may have been a truncated one, yet it did not lack in incidents and drama. Michael Vaughan, a technically well-equipped middle-order batsman, was going well on a well-compiled 64 when he failed to connect a sweep from off-spinner Sarandeep Singh. Even as the ball fell to the ground in front of him, he picked it up instinctively. Sarandeep appealed, umpire A.V. Jayaprakash nodded, and Vaughan walked back to the dressing room a distraught man.

The freak dismissal did not help the relations between the two sides. Things reached a flashpoint on the second day when Tendulkar, Hussain, Giles and the little opener Shiv Sundar Das were involved in an exchange of words, which forced match referee Denis Lindsay to get into the picture. Lindsay impressed upon the cricketers to play the game in the right spirit; he did not wield the stick. In the end, both sides had nice words to say about Lindsay.

Deep Dasgupta and the vexing question: The sound temperament and reasonable technique displayed by Deep Dasgupta at the top of the order suggests that the wicketkeeper-batsman provides the team with the vital option of either picking an extra batsman or a bowler. Dasgupta did put mind over matter to notch up his maiden Test hundred in Mohali, a patient effort. However, his wicket-keeping skills came in for scrutiny, with the West Bengal player having a nightmare of a game in Ahmedabad. He is young and can learn along the way, but the selectors may soon have to make up their mind about the immediate future.

A tale of two captains: Sourav Ganguly won the series but Nasser Hussain stole the show. The England captain came across as a refreshingly honest person, especially while throwing light on why England adopted certain tactics. Hussain's captaincy was astute, he batted positively, and he shrewdly took the pressure off his team by repeatedly stressing that England was the underdog. And had rain not intervened in Bangalore, England could well have squared the series.

The manner in which Hussain and Fletcher groomed the young pace duo of Matthew Hoggard and Andrew Flintoff in the series, who shouldered the burden manfully in the absence of Gough and Caddick, spoke much about their man management skills. Similarly, after all-rounder Craig White informed the team management that he would not be able to operate at full clip owing to injuries, they handled the issue efficiently. Flintoff was summoned from Australia, while White was rewarded for his honesty by being retained in the squad. He responded with a fighting hundred in the Ahmedabad Test.

In contrast, Ganguly appeared like someone playing more out of his memory. His uncertainty against short-pitched bowling by the quicks has dented his overall confidence as a batsman. These days the southpaw has often perished in the slip cordon, driving airily at deliveries slanted across him. It is time for the captain to lead by example, before it is too late.

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