A classic comeback

Print edition : April 14, 2001

After tasting defeat in the first Test, India makes a remarkable recovery to win a series at home against world champions Australia.

JUST about everyone had given up. The Indians, crushed by the marauding Australian team in the first Test in Mumbai, were following on in the Kolkata Test... everything seemed lost.

Mathew Hayden and Harbhajan Singh, who shared the Man of the Match award in the Chennai Test.-N. BALAJI

Then came the astonishing turnaround at the Eden Gardens, which concluded on the gripping fifth day of the final Test at the M.A. Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai with the hosts clinching the series 2-1.

For the Indians, despair had now given way to hope - hope for a better, brighter future for cricket, especially after the dark of the match-fixing scandal. For the Aussies however, the 'Final Frontier' remained unconquered.

Ultimately what won the series for India was the change in the batting order. Australia seemed set to deliver the knock-out punch at the Eden Gardens, when came an inspired piece of thinking from the Indian side.

V.V.S. Laxman, who had shown glimpses of form during his fighting 58 in the first innings in Kolkata, was sent in at No. 3.

The shift also enabled vice-captain Rahul Dravid, who had allowed the bowlers to dominate when he batted at No. 3 in the first innings, regain his confidence at No. 6. The rest is contemporary history.

Laxman produced a stroke-filled 281, the highest individual score for India, surpassing Sunil Gavaskar's 236. Dravid made a solid 180, and the two added 376 for the fifth wicket, while the Aussies endured a barren fourth day. India won the match by 171 runs.

Laxman's was an epic innings. The stylish batsman from Hyderabad was under considerable pressure after his twin failure in Mumbai, but displayed the resolve to fight his way back in a truly memorable manner.

In Laxman's success is a bigger message. That a gifted player will eventually find his way through the maze, and cannot be kept down, even if the 'wise men' do not always show wisdom. Making Laxman open the innings earlier was a mistake - thrusting the opening slot on middle-order batsmen is not going to pay in the long run.

This was also the 'Breakthrough Series' for off-spinner Harbhajan Singh, who bagged 32 wickets in the series, became the first Indian to achieve a hat-trick in Test cricket, and bowled his team to a fine series victory. India had discovered a match-winner.

The young Sardar bowled a lovely off-stump line - he had worked on this aspect during the conditioning camp prior to the series - extracted bounce and spin, flighted the ball tantalisingly and made the odd one drift away from the right-hander - the key delivery really. The fizz was definitely evident in Harbhajan's bowling, and he displayed the happy habit of running through sides once the breakthrough was made.

Harbhajan had been through a lot in his career - he was hauled up by the International Cricket Council (ICC) for a doubtful action, and then banished from the National Cricket Academy on disciplinary grounds. But now he has shown that he has the mettle to bounce back. Even during the testing moments in his career, Harbhajan never gave up. And when the opportunity presented itself, he slipped into the role of a strike-bowler effortlessly in the absence of the injured spearhead, Anil Kumble, making the mental transition with ease. Man of the Series he certainly deserved to be. Harbhajan received fine support from the field too, with Laxman, Dravid and Shiv Sundar Das bringing off superb catches close to the wicket - catches that eventually mattered.

Yet there was hardly any spin support for Harbhajan. As many as three left-arm spinners - Rahul Sanghvi, Venkatapathy Raju and Nilesh Kulkarni - were tried in the series with no great success. That Sachin Tendulkar, with three wickets on the sensational final session at the Eden Gardens, emerged Harbhajan's most successful 'spin partner' does not augur well for the future. The return of Kumble, as and when he recovers, should definitely help.

Pleasingly, India's series victory was not achieved on tailor-made pitches that could assist the spinners. The wickets at both Eden Gardens and Chepauk were essentially good strips with natural wear and tear on the final day. And on a stark turner in Mumbai, it was Australia that emerged triumphant. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learnt here.

The other valuable contribution came from maestro Sachin Tendulkar who got his 25th Test hundred in Chennai, an innings that was both crucial and delightful.

There was also the lovely 84 from opener Das in Chennai. Sadagopan Ramesh chipped in too. The openers were under fire in the early part of the series but showed the character to fight back.

However, the real test for the Indian batsmen will come when they take on the quicks on the bouncy tracks of Down Under, or in South Africa. The need of the hour is not to get carried away by the victory at home. With a busy 'away series' schedule ahead of India, there are battles that remain to be won. And maybe several reputations still to be earned.

CONQUERING India in India in a Test series was the 'ultimate dream' for Steve Waugh, the last frontier in a glittering run of away-Test series victories. In the end, he failed - by just two 'tail-end' wickets. It was a moment of crushing disappointment for the tough-as-nails Aussie captain when he lost the series in Chennai.

Did he err in enforcing the follow-on in the second Test? After all, his bowlers were tired after putting in a whole-hearted effort in the first innings, and then there was a possibility that his team could bat last on a deteriorating pitch.

In hindsight it might seem a mistake, but then Steve Waugh's decision had seemed logical - his team's confidence was sky-high with an unprecedented 16 successive victories in Test cricket, and nobody had expected Laxman and Dravid to put in such a brave front.

Where did the Australians go wrong? The continuance of Ricky Ponting in the team was puzzling. The Australians have in the past been ruthless with the selections. Leg-spinner Stuart McGill's omission is a case in point. Yet, when things began to go horribly wrong in India, the visitors refused to make the required changes. The hopelessly out-of-form Ricky Ponting was persisted with for the deciding match in Chennai, and the results were disastrous. Steve Waugh defended the decision saying "I want to back my batsmen to get the runs" but the argument did seem unconvincing, especially since Damien Martyn had been dropped earlier in the season after two crucial efforts against the West Indies.

Retaining leg-spinner Shane Warne was another mistake the Aussie captain made. Although coach John Buchanan did not want Warne for the Chennai Test, Steve Waugh did. Buchanan's thinking had sound reasoning since the Aussies' game plan for the series was to field three pacemen and a spinner, and off-spinner Colin Miller was certain to play in the final Test. Australia had to pay a heavy price for its captain's hesitation to take a tough decision. In the close finish that the Chennai Test was, all the runs conceded by Warne proved decisive. Warne was dismissed ruthlessly by the Indian batsmen, while Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie - both of whom bowled their heart out in the series, generating speed and extracting movement - desperately missed pace support.

Omitting paceman Damien Fleming after the first Test was a blunder since he is a 'genuine mover of the ball', and can take 'big' wickets.

The Aussies lost seven wickets in a dramatic post-tea session on the final day at the Eden Gardens. In a situation where defending with a straight blade - Gillespie and McGrath showed the way later - might have done the trick, the Aussies resorted to horizontal strokes and the approach was hard to understand, especially from a side that had displayed tigerish resolve in the past. For instance, Adam Gilchrist, who produced an audacious, match-winning century in Mumbai, just refused to understand that his tactics - sweeping the ball from off-stump - would not pay off every time.

Most of the Australian players struggled against Harbhajan Singh's off-spin. With the ball turning and bouncing, and the close-in cordon firmly in place, it was a very different ball game for the Aussies. The Australians would do well to undertake an 'A' team tour of India that will enable some of the young players to get a feel of the Indian conditions. Tackling off-spinners has been a traditional failing for the Aussies. The team's middle-order caved in much too often.

Michael Slater's verbal outburst, after his catch off Dravid was disallowed in the Mumbai Test, earned him a fine and a suspended sentence, and he was never again the same player in the series. For a team that plays the 'mind game', Slater lost the mental battle. Slater is a crucial player for the Australian team and his loss of focus hurt its chances.

Another significant aspect is that although Australia still has a formidable team, it is an aging one. Steve and Mark Waugh are 35 plus now, and the Australians may have to find replacements for key middle-order slots. The depth of talent Down Under has not been in question, but then replacing giants is no easy task.

Matthew Hayden, who made runs, and made them in style, was Australia's unexpected hero. The key to the hefty and brave opener's success - he made 549 runs in all with a double hundred, a hundred, and a near hundred - was that he used his feet to the spinners and was never caught in two minds.

There were a couple of doubtful decisions that went against the Aussies in the second Test - umpire S.K. Bansal came under scrutiny here - but generally the quality of umpiring passed muster. Nevertheless, the ICC might do well to have two 'neutral umpires' for Test matches in order to remove any cloud of suspicion.

Finally, a word about the Indian captain. Sourav Ganguly was not in the best of form, especially with his personal life being under public scrutiny, but some credit can go his way for a famous series victory over a formidable rival. That he came up with the right moves on the field, cannot be forgotten. And full marks to coach John Wright and fitness trainer Andrew Leipus, who really made a difference in a quiet, non-obtrusive manner.

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