So India retain their world number one Test ranking and that status is now assured for atleast five months until they take on Sri Lanka in a yet to be finalized series some time in the middle of the year. One is pretty sure that when the last South African wicket fell, cricket pundits round the world would have torn their hair out. Especially the ones in England and Australia for whom our cricket is a bit too medievalist to be number one!
When India first took the numero uno position, Ian Chappell said that a poor bowling attack would see the team struggle to defend that newfound elevation. Indian cricket fans generally respect his opinions very much notwithstanding what his brother Greg did to our beloved team and its cricket. But on this occasion, one reckoned he may have been partly wrong. For on the crucial last day in the second Test at Kolkata, with only three full-time bowlers on the field, India romped home in stunning style, shattering the hallowed Aussie commentator’s words to bits.
Any bowling attack that can come out on tops in such a situation – their prima face bowler out injured – is quite a potent one. Think about it; the pitch wasn’t exactly a minefield. Hashim Amla, Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and MS Dhoni batted as if they were nearly sleeping through their innings. Even on day five, as Amla stroked to a second century in the match, batting was relatively easy for the pitch remained true. It was the unrelenting pressure that the Proteas buckled under, something that is not new for them.
In the melee, Harbhajan Singh stood out as the main protagonist. In Zaheer’s absence he led from the front and that was quite heartening to see after he didn’t turn up at Nagpur. There can be no doubt about Zaheer’s importance to this side but it is in Bhajji that India look for a match winning bowler, home or away. The fact that he only makes his presence felt occasionally nowadays is worrisome.
One school of thought says that lack of competition is the reason why he is struggling. He knows that unless he is injured, he will be the lead spinner in the side and that can sometimes get to a player’s head. Figure this; when Bhajji made his mark on the international scene in 2001, Anil Kumble realized that he had competition for a place in the eleven, especially abroad where Sourav Ganguly considered off-spin to be India’s strength. And so Kumble upped his performance accordingly and there is a marked difference in his wicket-count outside India, pre and post 2001.
The other school of thinking believes that T20 cricket is having its effect on his bowling. At Nagpur, devoid of any help from the pitch, he coiled into his shell as soon as the opposition started belting a few boundaries. Yes, bowlers have them shells too and that means bowling to a defensive field with an intent to restrict scoring rather than taking wickets. Bhajji does that way too often nowadays. His ability to flight the ball and induce turn then gets affected and he struggles, meaning India struggles. He alone has to find the will on such tracks, especially when his place in the side isn’t under the scanner yet.
Meanwhile there has been a debate raging forever as to what construes a good pitch. Is one that crumbles from the first day or the one that allows enough grass on it for fast bowlers to wreak havoc? Either answer results in Nagpur 2005 against Australia or Mumbai later that same series. We don’t want the green tops as in the former case for, believe it or not, there is something called home advantage. The Aussies, English and South Africans won’t lay out spinning tracks when India goes there so why do them a favor on their trips here?
Similarly we don’t want dustbowls as in the latter case for that wouldn’t be a real test for our side which is a world class outfit at the end of the day. One that is capable of winning on good pitches like in Kolkata. Yes, the track at Eden Gardens was an optimum definition of a sporting pitch. There was some movement for bowlers early on, good for batting till the end of the game plus a hint of bounce and turn for the spinners to exploit. It is telling what a veteran curator can do and one only wishes that such experienced men, who don’t kowtow to demands one might add, handle the turfs throughout the country.
That the series was drawn is a just result for no team deserved to come out on top in a two-match rubber. But there is no doubt that the hosts would have finished on top if it had been an extended contest. The reason for that can be found in one of the aforementioned lines. In the list of batsmen to do well in this series, there was only one South African name. Amla was given ample company by Jacques Kallis at Nagpur and only by Alviro Petersen at Kolkata. MS Dhoni’s men realized that they only needed to keep Amla at the non-striker’s end and work on the remaining on the last day of the series.
To win a series in India, you need a more concentrated effort than just one batsman accounting for 490 runs alone. That can win you a single Test match coupled with some lethal fast bowling but sooner rather than later the Indians catch up. And when they do, they make you squeal. Just ask JP Duminy - he averaged five in three innings!
(The columnist is a sports writer based in New Delhi, India.)