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What's in a number?
by Srinivas Kanchibhotla
Jan 09, 2007
Sometimes statistics gives one a completely opposite view of what actually transpired on the battleground.

The scorecard records a double century against Ravi Shastri's name batt(l)ing the Aussies Down Under in Shane Warne's debut series fifteen years ago. It offers a completely different view of what actually happened on the field when Shastri had more than his fair share of luck to accumulate that very impressive score, when he had struggled bery much against the same set of bowlers during the first 4 tests in the series.

Statistics and numbers do not concern themselves with the 'how'. They just record the 'what'. Same was the case when a lanky and lazy opener from Tamilnadu was picked for the Indian side against a touring formidable West Indies pace battery. W.V.Raman's score of 90 odd runs might read as a very brave piece of courage and valor in trying circumstances. But what infact happened on the day full of snicks, mis-times, mis-hits and edges does not concern the officers assigned to the often detached task of book-keeping.

Coming to the just concluded test series in question, 2-1 might read as a rather close, hard fought, see-saw series, which might have gone either way, had lady luck sidled by one party while giving a slight to the opposite one. Particularly, when considering Indians' not so impressive record on foreign soils, the rubber should bring some sort of consolation to the fans, officials and to the players themselves, that it was not a complete wash-out as almost everybody has predicted even before the first ball was bowled at the Wanderers stadium.

Performance against 'important' teams like Aussies and the South Africans are measured with a different yardstick, when compared to competing against fellow subcontinent teams, and the second tier teams like England, West Indies and New Zealand. So when the second tier teams (including India) are competing against the top 2 teams, comfort is often taken in the margins of the losses than in the losses themselves. An innings defeat which is where it starts, is the bottom-most in the list. Slightly above it is the completion of the ritual in less than 5 days. Loss by a few wickets if the Goliaths are chasing to win, or loss by a few runs if the minnows are chasing the win, are somewhat respectable. Second from last is shaking the hands on a draw. And topping the list is the Act of God, when the second tier goes on to slay the demon. That is when records like 'first victory on South African soil' are notched up.

It has been the tradition of the Indian teams visiting South African soil that they surrender meekly to the hosts in the first 2 or 3 tests, one with an innings defeat, the second within the scheduled 5 days and the third in a more respectable fashion, and go into the final couple of tests with nothing to lose. That is when individual brilliances come to the fore, in batting and bowling, which ultimately no bearing on the final result whatsoever. Indians stuck to the same game plan during the initial ODI series, making it virtually a shut-out, no-contest affair.

And before the test series started, not much is expected of them and the final result was supposed to have read either 2-0 or 3-0, accounting for an odd rain here and there. Now, after the series is relegated to the books and the record reads 2-1 for the South Africans, conventional wisom calls for a celebration of sorts. The Indians did not capitulate, the Indians were not beheaded, and importantly, they were subjected to abject humiliation as before. But this results of a 2-1 would sting more than a 2-0 or a 3-0 and statistics would not even come close to console this ill-feeling.

After the one dayers charade was done away with, Chappell, one who does trade bitter truth with buttery diplomacy on any day, pointed out a troubling aspect with the Indian line up, even when it won a record 16 consecutive times while chasing scores, even if they were in excess of 300s and 350s. His point was that the numbers were just an illusion that masked the brittleness of the batting lineup and that more time is needed and more samples need to be taken, before the team was crowned as second in line to the invincible Aussies. Once again statistics proved detrimental or an impediment when understanding the true nature of the beast. Of late, during the past 4-5 tours abroad, Indians have been notching up series victories, either in the longer version of the game or the abridged ones, and that assuaged the wagging tongues braying for blood, which is an almost ritualistic thing after every foreign tour. The drubbing in the one dayers was compensated by a thumping win in the test series.

A humiliation in the test series was more than made up by a jubilation in the opposite version. That somehow swept the core issues under the carpet by calling for a moratorium on the real troubling question - just how good is the team, not just in batting, not just in bowling, but as a unit as a whole. And the just concluded tour provided the much needed bitter pill.

It took an abysmal batting performance, not by the Indian side, but, in a comedic twist of irony, by the South Africans to pin point the issue.

Had it been a clinical and a methodical rout by the Proteas, when their batsmen posted scores in excess of 500s and their pace battery cleaned up the Indian lineup, it would have been another (expected) miserable tour of South Africa (or Australia, for that matter). It was only because the South Africans competed with the Indians on an even keel, raising (or lowering) the (batting) bar with each outing, that it even came this far and this close. The most troubling fact is the way Indians seems to be get tangled up in their own web when touring abroad, like how the West Indies handed a 4-1 loss in the ODI series playing on Indian like pitches (slow, and low bounce) and Indian like conditions (hot and humid). Same was the case when the captains inpsected the pitch in the final test match to come up with completely contrasting reactions. While the South Africans fumed at the Indianness of the pitch, the Indians rejoiced that it was playing like playing in their own backyard.

After the match was over, and South African captain boasted that they adjusted their game to suit the subcontinent style, the Indians were busy eating their humble pie making a mess of the manna from heaven.

When Chappell's methods regarding experimentation were roundly and soundly criticized, as he tried to alter the batting lineup in order to acclimatize the team to different conditions and unforeseen situations, thereby getting each player out of his comfort zone at his pre-determined slot, he was anticipating exactly conditions like these, when sometimes the team is caught in "beware what you wish for" headlights in their eyes. As the Indians failed to negotiate slow, low bounce, spinning deliveries on an Indian-like pitch despite posting a healthy score just a couple of days ago, and the Proteas sensing the impending danger, switched to the sub-continent mode at just the right time, guess who is having the last laugh, in a sardonic way, having tried once too often to inculcate a sense of switching to different gears in different conditions?

Parting Shot:

Sehwag's place in the team has past the point of question. It has become a certainty that he would be made to back to his (preferably, grass) roots to rediscover his old form. If Vengsarkar's statement, about how preferential treatment is a thing of the past and that automatic tenure based on seniority has been abolished, is to be taken seriously, the first one to be made an example of, despite posting healthy scores in all the three matches but still under-par with his real potential, is Sachin Tendulkar. If all that is needed for a Ganguly is to be shown the exit door, to comeback a dedicated player and top the run getters list in the series for the Indians....if what is good for the goose is good for the gander, then what has worked for Dada, should equally work for Lala...

If Dinesh Karthik, who was brought into the team as a batsmen first and a reserve wicket-keeper next, has put up some good numbers, guess what the other guy, who has been sent back in the middle of the tour for not posting good numbers in the bowling department, would have done, had he taken up the Sehwag's opener's slot, where he even scored a century and a half century, just a match before.... Which certainly goes on to show - What's in a number?

 
More Views by Srinivas Kanchibhotla
  The road to rebuild
  India can win from anywhere
  No clear cut winners and no outright losers
  India's lower order works twice as hard!
  India-South Africa series have been Even-Stevens
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