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It's high time for introspection - Partab Ramchand column
by Partab Ramchand
Jul 28, 2008
These are worrying times for the Indian Test team. When you are beaten by the third heaviest margin in your history in a little over three days of playing time; when a couple of spin bowlers run amok to shape the rout and when a lustrous batting line up with the top six accounting for more than 40,000 runs and over 100 centuries between them is bowled out twice for totals of 223 and 138 in 118 overs, there is more than enough cause for concern. Add to all this, the fact that two bowlers who between them have taken nearly 900 wickets are this time able to take just two wickets conceding almost 300 runs and the agonizing picture for the Indians is complete.

The reputation of the Indian batsmen being the best players of spin bowling in the world took a severe dent in Colombo. It was pathetic to see a star-studded line up with class, skill and experience groping while trying to negotiate a rookie playing in his first Test. The Indians have also generally got the better of Muthiah Muralitharan but such was the lack of will to fight that the magician with the mesmerizing eyes finished with eleven wickets.

The main interest, however, centered round Ajantha Mendis. From the moment he turned the Indian batting inside out with that spell of six for 13 in the Asia Cup final there was considerable speculation how the Indians would handle him in the Test match. Some people shrugged off his performance at Karachi saying that it was achieved against a young Indian side. Anil Kumble himself expressed confidence more than once that the batsmen would sort him out in the Test match. And given the fact that the 'Fab Four' who did not play him at Karachi would be around in Colombo was a heartening factor. But none of them played Mendis with confidence and it was obvious that they too had difficulty in picking him. The fact that he dismissed both Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman in each innings was the ultimate proof of this.

If events at the SSC are any indication then it will not be easy for the Indian batsmen against Mendis in the two remaining Tests too. The 23-year-old spin sensation, or 'mystery bowler' as he is being termed has a bag of tricks that is quite unfathomable and it will certainly take more than two Tests to figure out what he is bowling. In the past, batsmen could play cautiously against Muralitharan with the hope of picking up runs at the other end. Now that option is closed. A little twist on the old saying of "If Lillee don't get you, Thommo must" and it is now "If Murali don't get you Mendis must."

Indian debacles in the past have generally been brought about by pace bowling. Wesley Hall and Roy Gilchrist did the damage when India crashed to defeat by an innings and 336 runs against the West Indies at Calcutta in 1959. Fifteen years later, it was Chris Old and Geoff Arnold who mowed down India for 42 on their way to bowling England to victory by an innings and 285 runs at Lord's. At Manchester in 1952, it was Fred Trueman and Alec Bedser who handed India a defeat by an innings and 207 runs in three days. But this is the first time that spin has played such a major role in shaping a devastating defeat with Murali and Mendis sharing 19 wickets. The fear is that they have already achieved a big psychological advantage over the Indian batsmen who will now be all edgy and fidgety the moment they come on to bowl.

If the batsmen did not exactly cover themselves with glory neither did the bowlers. Allowing Sri Lanka to amass 600 for six in less than two days does not speak well of a line up that has the third highest wicket taker in Test history in its ranks along with a match winning off spinner with almost 300 wickets and a left arm medium pacer with over 170 wickets. The plain fact is that both Kumble and Harbhajan bowled badly. In fact, a closer look at their records will underscore the point that both have been pretty ineffective in the last couple of years particularly when bowling away from home. It is about time the duo was reminded of the presence of Pragyan Ojha, Piyush Chawla and Amit Mishra. To be candid, the Sri Lankan batting has just two players of class and the fact that they got so many runs with one of them failing is the most telling comment on the waywardness of the bowling.

A lot of introspection will be required by the Indian think tank if the visitors are to have any chance of coming back in the series. Kumble says there is no need to press panic buttons; all the same drastic denouements call for drastic measures and the tour selectors should wield the axe without fear if required. Playing on past reputation is out and perform or perish should be the mantra.
 
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