Wednesday, January 05, 2011

History Beckons...Again

This might be the age of ratings and rankings but those who have watched test cricket over the years would largely agree that teams focus a lot more on a series than they do on calculating how many points they need to retain/improve their spot on the ICC ladder. That is why, while India have retained the number one spot irrespective of the result of the Newlands test, a lot of people are skeptical about their status as the number one. One of their arguments is that India have never won a series in either Australia or South Africa. It is also why a lot of people are touting England to be the best side in the world, even though they've been beating up on the weakest Australian teams since the 1980s.


There is no denying the fact that India's home win over Australia in 2001 was a watershed moment in the history of Indian cricket. That Australian team was the strongest to visit Indian shores since the 1994 West Indies side that hadn't lost a series since 1979-80. Back in 1994, India took a 1-0 lead after the first test but blinked in the second test when they had the chance to finish the series and tell the cricketing world that they were a force to reckon with. The Windies came back and forced a win on the back of an all out attack in the second innings of the third and final test. The Windies continued their streak, India continued to be underachievers. A few months later Mark Taylor's Australia who ended their dominance and in the process made Australia legitimate contenders for the best side in the world. It took them 4 more years to separate themselves from the pack but once they did it, they remained the undisputed best side in the world for almost a decade.


There have been quite a few series since 2001 when history beckoned India, who cheated themselves out of an historic result. In 2003-04 they faced an Australian team without its two best bowlers. After a brilliant comeback in the first test at Brisbane, India showed they had the resolve and the ability to bring the Aussies to their knees at Adelaide. However, they collapsed after Sehwag played one of the best Boxing Day knocks at the MCG. The final test saw Australia save their unbeaten home record of 10 years thanks to some docile Indian batting, inability to mop up the tail, shoddy wicket-keeping and dubious umpiring.


Three years later they had another chance, this time in South Africa. India were in all sorts of trouble going into the first test at Johannesburg. They had lost the ODI series 4-0, their captain had a broken finger, the relationship between the coach Greg Chappell and the players was deteriorating, and the chairman of selectors Dilip Vengsarkar had recalled former captain Sourav Ganguly - the man who was said to have been dropped at Chappell's behest.


The pitch that greeted the visitors was green and had cracks running through its length. Infact, the start was delayed because the curator thought the pitch wasn't ready. India won the toss and chose to bat in what was perceived to be a show of aggression. They didn't put up a big score but the South African reply put India's score in perspective, as the hosts were bowled out for just 84. A first innings lead of 165 was enough of a buffer as India won their first test in South Africa. However, just like in Australia, they squandered the advantage by losing the very next test. It was all the more sad because South Africa were without their best player - Jacques Kallis - for that test. The third test was played on an unusually rough wicket. India got the crucial first innings lead and looked set to push for an historic series win, when debutant Paul Harris tied down Dravid and Tendulkar on day four. India collapsed after those two couldn't kick on and Kallis anchored a fairly tricky run chase after captain Graeme Smith had played another one of his famous fourth innings knocks. Another series, another opportunity lost. This time serious questions were raised of Tendulkar's place in the side, as he was in the middle of a lean run and had failed to take on Paul Harris.


After a disastrous World Cup campaign, India started rebuilding and registered series wins in Bangladesh and England, as well as their first home win over Pakistan since 1979. Next up was an away series against an Australian side that had won 14 tests in a row, although 12 of those wins had come when Warne and McGrath hadn't retired. The selection for the tour betrayed a defensive mindset, as Wasim Jaffer did just enough to ensure the selectors wouldn't drop him and an out-of-form Rahul Dravid was moved to the top of the order to accommodate Yuvraj Singh. Shockingly, the selectors had completely overlooked Virender Sehwag as he wasn't even in the list of probables for the tour. I don't know how they went from that to picking him in the final squad but it was the only bright spot in an otherwise defensive selection policy. Maybe Ian Chappell's opinionated piece calling for Sehwag to be in the side tilted it, although going by the comments it seems like Indians thought he was trying to finish off the Indian team by making such an outrageous suggestion. The preparation for the test series was far from ideal as the side had just one practice match before the first test at the MCG, and even that match was hit by incessant rains.


Sure enough, India got rolled over in the first test as they failed to score 200 in either innings. Another heartbreaking loss followed in the second test at Sydney as India failed to bat less than a day to save a test they should have won. There were a lot of questionable calls from both umpires but if Anil Kumble is honest to himself he will know his side had no business collapsing on the final day. He should also question his decision to accept Ponting's pact on walking if the fielder claims a catch. I'm sure he accepted it with the best of intentions, but there was a reason why no other captain agreed to it. Kumble did lead his side to an inspiring win at Perth but the series was already over as Australia had retained the Border Gavaskar Trophy by taking an unassailable lead in the series. One couldn't help but think India didn't give themselves the best chance to register their first ever series win Down Under. A year later South Africa broke Australia's unbeaten home record of 16 years by winning two of the greatest tests in recent times.


India have crept slowly and surely up the ladder and are now perched on top of it. However, their position at the top isn't that steady and it needs a statement like the one Australia made in 1995 for the side to assert themselves as the undisputed number one. That this side has the ability and belief to bounce back is now known to even the skeptics. The Durban test took care of that, although one could argue that a better preparation going into the first test of the series may have helped the side draw if not win at Centurion.


But all that is behind us and with just one more day of cricket left in the series this Indian team has the chance to establish itself as unarguably the greatest ever to come out of the country. Weather interruptions notwithstanding, they have 340 runs to get in a minimum of 90 overs. It's a difficult target in the best of circumstances so it's probably more difficult considering South Africa's new ball pairing and the state of the pitch. Most sides wouldn't dare go for it and I suspect that's exactly what Graeme Smith is counting on. Tactically speaking, playing for a draw is only going to put more pressure on the Indian batsmen and I think they should play to win this test.Let me make it clear that by playing to win I don't mean they should go out and throw their bat at everything. To me, it starts with the openers actively looking to take singles against the new ball. The loose deliveries may or may not come, but rotating the strike will not only force Steyn and Morkel to frequently alter their line, it will also put Smith on the defensive. Over the past 13 months South Africa have failed to force a win on Day 5 on four occasions, two of which came at home. Kallis won't be bowling and if India get through to lunch at 100/1 or better, we might just get a close finish. The problem for India is Sehwag has had a bad series and he's never been a good second innings batsman. Also, Rahul Dravid has shown no signs of getting out of a funk that's seen him not score a hundred outside India or Bangladesh in four and a half years.

But there is a far more important reason I think India should play to win this test. Time and again they have blinked at the sight of making history. 20 years from now when people look back at what will be known as the golden era of Indian cricket, they won't remember the series India drew in Australia. They won't remember the series India lost in Australia or South Africa. And if India don't play to win today, people will sure as hell not remember the day India drew a test series in South Africa. But what they will remember is an Indian side that looked history in the eye and this time didn't blink, even if it means they ended up falling short in their effort. To me, settling for a draw is the easiest option India can take. However, there is a tougher option out there and it's given Dhoni and his men the chance to make this the greatest ever series in the history of Indian cricket. The flip side is a series loss, which is really no different from their past results in this country and won't be remembered as fondly or for as long as a series win.

50 years ago a West Indies side made history in Australia when Sir Frank Worrell won over the cricketing world with one of the greatest series of all time. The Windies lost the series 1-2 but got a rousing send-off from the city of Melbourne. To this day, that series is remembered fondly by players on either side. The lasting legacy of that series is it gave a name to the rivalry between two of the strongest cricketing nations. I doubt we'll have a similar legacy from the series going on in South Africa, but it can be an historic series nevertheless. History beckons...is India ready to make it?