Test 3, Day 3

“Sri Lanka clearly hasn’t learned the art of putting the boot in when it can,” I said at the start of my blog post on the first day’s play in this Test match – right quote, wrong team.

If India wins this Test – and despite the quality of its play on day three, it still can – it will thanks to the ICC’s incomprehensible number-crunching find itself elevated to the number one slot on the Test table.

By its play today, however, it indicated that it has a long way to go before it can translate that statistical anomaly into undisputed – even by the likes of Simon Wilde — reality.

Australia’s unchallenged hegemony through the nineties and early ‘noughties’ is widely attributed to a rare concatenation of outstanding talents with bat and ball, an unprecedented array of individual match-winners who collectively became even greater than the sum of their parts.

What is not as often discussed is that the real driver was the ruthlessness developed during the latter part of Mark Taylor’s captaincy, and honed to a fine art during the Steve Waugh years.

During its decade-long dominance of international cricket, Australia reveled in putting opponents down on the mat as soon as it possibly could, and then putting the boot in with a ruthlessness that sent a message to future opponents that they too could expect no mercy.

As a result, teams took the field against Australia having already lost the mental battle; their sights were fixed not on winning, or even holding Australia at bay, but in not being totally disgraced. “If we can draw the first Test, we have a chance,” Rahul Dravid once told me the day before the team was setting out for a tour Down Under; then BCCI board secretary JY Lele more pragmatically said the team would lose 3-0.

Avoiding a whitewash was the substance of not just our ambition, but of the rest of the cricketing world, whenever they padded up to take on Australia.

And it was not just that Australia was ruthless – it was also relentless. It never let up, no matter the quality of the opposition nor even the status of the series. Thus, it would play at the same levels of intensity against an England and a Bangladesh; it would play tooth and claw cricket in the first game of a series and in a dead rubber after the series had been sealed 4-0.

It is this lesson India is a long way from learning – champion sides [and individuals] don’t just win, they dominate; they intimidate oppositions, they put the fear of god into them.

India ended day two on 443/1, motoring along at a rate close to six rpo and occasionally hitting the high sevens – unprecedented that early in a Test match innings. In the process, it reduced Lanka’s most potent weapons, the spinners Muralitharan and Herath, to abject submission.

In the first two sessions of day three, batsmen of the accomplishments and experience of Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Yuvraj Singh managed 186 runs in 56 overs for the loss of six wickets. That is to say, those four storied players managed a combined 212 runs in 383 deliveries faced; this in contrast with the 254 deliveries Virender Sehwag faced to score 293 runs.

Here’s another illustration: India’s champion batsmen, for the most part, scored at or under 3 runs per over on day three, against an attack that had already suffered the death of the thousand cuts. Had India scored at that pace on day two, it would have ended at or around 237, some 150 runs behind the Lankan score, and we would have been talking this morning of the need to play cautiously, focus on going past the Lankan first innings score, and then consolidate and build a big lead. ‘India fight back,’ the headlines of this morning’s papers would have read.

The contrasting attitudes are best exemplified in this: “Murali is a big challenge to face,” Sehwag said at the end of day two. “If you have to play against a spinner like him, you have to attack him. Otherwise, he will come and dominate you. So instead of allowing him to dominate, I dominated right from the first ball and pushed him onto the back foot.”

Sehwag faced 77 deliveries from the off spinner, and scored 83 runs including 11 fours and two sixes. By the end of the day, Murali was a shadow of his world record-breaking self, reduced to bowling around the wicket, from wide of the crease, into the spot a foot outside leg stump.

Against that, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman and Yuvraj faced 112 deliveries of the same bowler, managed 65 runs, and saw him end the innings with 4 face-saving wickets while Herath, who had similarly been reduced to the ranks of the impotent, came back with two today, taking his tally to three.

None of this will likely make much difference to the outcome of this particular match – but what the Indian team needs to learn is that momentum needs to be seized and built on when it presents itself; it cannot be pickled and put away for a rainy day. Get into the habit of riding the adrenalin, and it serves the collective cause in the face of sterner examinations; bat at half throttle simply because there is no apparently urgency, and you find it that much more difficult to move up the gears against the better sides.

Having reduced the Lankans to complete submission on day two, today was the opportunity to demonstrate the ruthlessness of champions, the chance to administer the coup de grace and put the opposition so far behind the mental eight ball that the Indian bowlers could pretty much have things their own way against a totally demoralized opposition.

Related, ruthlessness – the so-called “killer instinct” – cannot be switched on and off at will but needs to be cultivated as a constant; an attitude that permeates the team as it steps across the white line. Absent that quality, this team with its “best batting lineup in the world” will continue to do well against the likes of Lanka, Bangladesh et al, but will struggle when it goes up against the mentally stronger big boys at the top of the table.

As far as the match goes, thanks largely to MS Dhoni’s late order power-hitting on the back of the two double century stands powered by Sehwag, Vijay and Dravid yesterday, India is in full control.

Lanka faces the task of batting out 180 overs knowing that even if they succeed, on a tougher wicket than Kanpur, the best they can hope for is a 0-1 result – not the kind of mindset conducive to extended concentration and focus. To trot out a tired cliché, it will be a “test of character” for the Lankans and, for the home side, a measure of their desire to attack relentlessly in the quest for the best possible result. [Oh, and another chance for Pragyan Ojha to give it a go and put himself permanently in the frame].

PostScript: There are three television screens within eyeshot of where I sit, in the Rediff office – and yet, yesterday, I struggled to follow the Indian innings because of the crowds in front of each of those screens. It was not just my editorial colleagues; our fellows from across the ‘border’, from the marketing, sales, tech and allied departments all gave up on work for the day, and only went back to their seats once the umpires had downed stumps.

Today, only one of the three screens was turned to the game, and even that had no ‘attendance’ – the first ‘crowds’ began trickling in around 4 pm, when Dhoni, with only Ojha left for company, began opening his shoulders.

Just saying.

On another note: Sambit Bal salutes Virender Sehwag for what he is: the most destructive act in cricket. Period.

Oh, and by way of weekend homework: Check out the blogs in all categories. Support the good ones. A blogging universe in its infancy can use all the backing you give it.

Wilde thoughts

Dear Simon Wilde:

In a cheerless world — you would have noticed this morning another example of India’s lack of self-belief; Virender Sehwag was four boundary hits from being the only batsman in the world to have scored three triple hundreds, but couldn’t make it — thank you for providing something to laugh at.

It takes a mind operating at its best to tie in the ICC ranking system, India’s lack of fibre, Lalit Modi and the IPL millions, all into one “article”.

Quick note: The ICC devised the points/ranking system. The ICC decides the FTP. Together, these two things decide who tops the table. If India does not “deserve” the number one spot earned through such ratings, then by definition no team that ever made the number one slot deserves it — they all got there through the same means [SA beating Bangladesh to become world number one, remember?] except Australia.

So — suck it up.

Thank you