There is a deliciously nostalgic feel to seeing four Indian fielders crouch around the bat as a spinner comes in to bowl – an image that evokes the era of the spin quartet at the height of their pomp.
Unfortunately, nostalgia ends right there, with that image – once the spinner in question bowls, you are left with a wistful yearning for times past.
On balance, off spinner Harbhajan Singh’s analysis of 7-3-9-0 leads you to believe he was weaving a web of spin; that it is just a matter of time. In reality, that analysis owes much to rigid adherence to a line, particularly mystifying in an off spinner, that begins around middle stump and takes the ball onto leg or outside.
The Indian spinners I grew up watching would have killed for 642 runs to bowl against; hell, they would have sold their collective soul to the devil for half that number. Against that, the reaction of today’s premier spinner is to immediately hit the sort of run-denying line [four deliveries in Harbhajan’s first over were middle and leg tending to leg] that would earn appreciation were this match being played in colored clothing, but is out of sync with a team trying to win a Test.
Blame who you like: a board that systematically over-schedules ODIs and T20s and as methodically cuts back on Tests; the absence of a bowling coach who can work with spinners on ideal lines and lengths; the absence of an Anil Kumble on a bounce-less wicket where straight wicket to wicket lines and minor variations yield big results; an off spinner who has so retooled his game for the shorter formats that he has misplaced the skills that catapulted him into the limelight in the first place…
Fact remains, there was very little in the 11 overs of spin, and indeed in the 24 completed overs of the Lankan innings, to hold out much hope of anything other than a long drawn, and thoroughly boring, game of attrition. The only question being asked of Sri Lanka – a team reared on slow, low-bouncing wickets — do you have the patience to bat forever and a day?
Earlier in the day, India’s batting display was inexplicable [oh I know, we got 642, what more do you want, are you never satisfied, yada yada. Right, take all that as read]. The morning featured a – another — commanding performance by Rahul Dravid, who batted fluidly to play the dominant part in an association with Sachin Tendulkar. Rahul is a quintessential Test batsman at all times; in these last two knocks, he has added a layer to his skill sets with an aggressive mindset, a fluidity of strokeplay and an ability to keep the board ticking over at all times that makes him the fully finished article.
Sachin, for his part, seemed to have misplaced his gearbox. His first boundary came after he had played 86 deliveries, and it was a waltz down the wicket to crack a straight six; four balls later, he went charging out again at Mendis in an unwonted, clumsy, neck or nothing fashion. As it turned out, it was nothing.
Yuvraj and Laxman both looked in good touch; the way they batted in the first hour after lunch seemed to suggest that the goal was to coast along risk-free at around 4 rpo, then open out heading to tea and immediately thereafter. Nice plan – except they read it upside down, and inexplicably got into a rut in the second hour of the second session; a comatose period that, in the final analysis, triggered a collapse from 613/5 when Laxman got out, to 642 all out – a loss of 6 wickets for 29 runs and a five-for to Herath, both gifts gratefully accepted by the weary Lankans [and immediately returned, when Tillekeratne Dilshan to the first ball of the innings played a flick too soon and holed out].
At close, Lanka was grinding it out at around 2.7 rpo – hardly the sort of stirring stuff that fills stands, but the Lankan focus is, and will clearly remain, ensuring the follow on is averted one nudge, one nurdle at a time.
We can follow that process, ball by ball, tomorrow. Or we can watch paint dry.
In passing, Dileep Premachandran on the pitches we make:
The facts are irrefutable. Over the past five years, nearly 50% of the matches in India [11 of 24] have ended in draws. And unlike a Cardiff 2009 or The Oval 1979, most of the stalemates have been mind-numbingly boring. In the same period, 11 of 35 Tests in England have been drawn. Leading the way in pitch preparation, as on the field, are Australia [two draws in 27] and South Africa [three in 29]. And just to prove that south Asia does not only do touch-of-grey Tests, Sri Lanka have had 18 results from 22 games.