All fall down

The very best of Virender Sehwag was on view today. So was the very worst.

[That sense of schizophrenia did not apply to the rest of the side – with the honorable exception of Badrinath, who celebrated his long awaited call up with a level-headed half century before triggering the post-tea slide, what we got from the rest was their unalloyed worst].

While the other batsmen, lulled by a two year diet of largely batsman-friendly tracks and the kind of “pace” provided by teams such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh et al, seemed completely overawed by the speed and fire of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, Sehwag motored along at a health one day rate, taking 34 off 38 Steyn deliveries and 21 off 38 from Morkel.

More than the runs scored, what stood out was the application Sehwag brought to his task. While Gambhir, Vijay and Tendulkar collapsed around him, Sehwag batted in his own zone, defending when it seemed to be called for and counter-punching whenever the bowler lapsed even marginally in line and length.

As his innings developed the Proteas, despite being well in control, seemed to be feeling the heat – the bowlers resorted to defensive lines, the fielders dropped back a few yards, and debutant Badrinath was able to find his feet under the senior batsman’s shelter.

And then, shortly after he had gotten to his hundred and the water cooler conversation had turned to his penchant for scoring big once past the century mark, Sehwag threw it away with a flashy shot he had no business playing.

With Sehwag and Badri looking assured against the quick guns, Smith had been forced to turn to his second, and even third, string bowlers. Wayne Parnell, who Sehwag had taken for 24 runs off 17 deliveries faced, resorted to bowling as wide of off stump as he could, under the more lenient Test norms, get away with. Sehwag could have let them go all day, but after four successive deliveries wide of off, the batsman chased at the fifth, sliced it to the cover fielder standing back on his haunches, and walked off shaking his head.

If he was as disappointed as he looked at having given it up, his team mates gave him a chance to get over it – a spectacular post tea collapse against the extreme pace and reverse swing of Steyn, that saw India lose six wickets in 46 deliveries for 12 runs, gave Sehwag a second chance.

He came out swinging – through the slips, over cover, whatever, in a display as ugly as it was unexpected. Steyn made one climb outside off; Sehwag let it go, chastised himself for his leniency and mimed the upper cut that he, at least by his lights, should have been playing. Before you had the time to say ‘bad idea, dude’, he went for the next ball, fuller outside off, got the edge, and found a delighted Smith at first slip.

The best of Sehwag, the worst of Sehwag, all in one day that saw India get a long delayed comeuppance against genuine pace. Much was made of the reverse swing the Indian bowlers had tried, and failed, to find when the Proteas were batting. In a devastating day long display, Morkel and Steyn showed that even on relatively harmless tracks, sheer pace through the air can smash past the defenses of good batsmen [Gambhir, Vijay, Tendulkar in the first innings before Sehwag and Badri steadied the ship] and that a quick bowler operating with the older ball, bowling the full length at extreme pace, can harness reverse to lethal effect [Steyn, whose post tea spell read 3.5-2-1-5].

During the euphoric period when India under MS Dhoni were unbeaten in Tests, there was always the nagging thought that somewhere, some time, the “law of averages” was going to kick in. More accurately, there was the thought that one of these days we would find ourselves against opposition that didn’t have names stretching 140 characters.

Ironically, India found such opposition only because the BCCI, seduced by the team’s statistical feat of climbing to the top of the Test charts, saw the sponsorship opportunity inherent in a “World Championship” Test series, and managed to shoe-horn one into the calendar.

It may not seem like it at the time, but this series is already proving to be a blessing – we can finally put our sense of notional superiority aside and find out exactly where we stand in terms of being a high quality Test side, and start work on building the sort of team that doesn’t require a buffet of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka to climb ranking ladders.

It could be a process that involves some considerable short-term pain, but it could also be the start of a team building exercise in the real sense.

Meet the new home minister

Cricinfo reports on a meeting at Matoshree:

Pawar, also president of the Mumbai Cricket Association, was accompanied by current Indian board president Shashank Manohar to Mumbai to meet with Thackeray and his son Uddhav, and the four sat behind closed doors for an estimated two hours. “We presented our viewpoint before Thackeray on this critical issue,” Manohar told reporters. “We tried to convince him that only one or two Australian players will participate in the IPL matches and by not allowing all IPL matches it is the state players [Marathi players] who will lose ultimately.

“We also explained to them the format of the IPL teams and matches and how there were one or two Australian players in each team. Thackeray has asked for a detailed presentation on the issue which we will be providing in couple of days and thereafter he would consider our request.”

How ironic is this? Shashank Manohar hasn’t had to make a similar presentation to the Federal Home Minister to ensure security for his event — but he feels the need to treat an unconstitutional authority — to wit, the head of a regional party whose influence has demonstrably eroded even in its own area of operation — with such deference? And worse, he is accompanied on this mission by a Federal minister, no less, and a colleague of Mr P Chidambaram.

If Pawar, a member of the Federal Cabinet, prefers to deal with those who hold the state to ransom through the threat of violence rather than depend on his own Cabinet colleague and on the home ministry to ensure security within the country, why then should we ordinary citizens trust our security to the government? Maybe all those who are of non-Marathi origin living in Mumbai need to make our own ‘detailed presentation’ to Thackeray, and ask for his protection?

Seriously, just what is it going to take before someone calls the Sena’s bluff?

Day three, open thread

Work-wise, this was a packed weekend — which worked in my favor. The sessions and periods of play that I watched in the first two days of the first RSA-India Test sufficed — total immersion would have been akin to being strapped to a chair and being forced to watch paint dry.

The cricket was, in a word, boring — for all the hype about AB de Villiers taking on the spinners, fact is none of the South African batsmen, batting on day two from a position of considerable comfort, were proactive; they never seemed inclined to try and step up the pressure. An overall run rate of 3.17 tells its own story; when that run rate is achieved on the back of a first day that produced 291/2, it becomes a bedtime story for the habitual insomniac.

If South Africa played to its patented safety first template and showed no real urgency in run-making [Kallis, his mind fettered by the desire for that elusive double ton, was as strokeless on day two as he was positive on day one], the Indians were equally disappointing. The wicket had bounce and sharp turn [we could yet come to regret not having taken the courageous step of going in with five bowlers, and including Pragyan Ojha in the mix] — the kind of conditions spinners revel in and batsmen, especially from teams like SA that are not known for their skill at playing the turning ball, dread. And yet the lines were flat, the bowling uninspired. Amit Mishra inspired oohs and aahs with sharp turn — but a foot of turn is of debatable value when the bowler is hitting the line outside off as his stock ball.

As for Bajji, any time you find an off spinner bowling the bulk of his deliveries from around the wicket to right handed batsmen, you’ve got to figure something is way wrong. The likes of EAS Prasanna, newly picked as one of India’s two spin bowling coaches, will tell you that when there is turn to be had, the off spinner’s stock ball is the one just short of driving length outside off, turning in to hit the top of off. That line forces the batsman to play the turning, bouncing ball from beside it, without the protection of his body behind the bat; Bajji’s preference on the other hand seemed to be to bowl off, to off&middle and middle stump lines — just right for batsmen to get behind it, watch the turn and play it down and away through the “leg trap” for easy runs.

Add missed chances and an umpire seemingly unschooled in the fact that the LBW is a legitimate mode of dismissal, and it all made for less than compelling viewing. More of the same, I suspect, today, though as I write this Sehwag has already hit Dale Steyn for the first four of the day — India with a batting lineup missing the solidity of Dravid and the silken grace of Laxman has to make 359 as its first target, to get past the follow on mark, and then fight its way to 558 and beyond. Coach Gary Kirsten spoke of how there is yet a chance for the home side — but realistically speaking, there are only two results possible: a draw, and a South Africa win. And the way the game is set up, by the end of play today we will have a fair idea which of those two results we are likely to get [oh, and between that four and this sentence, Gambhir’s been taken out by Morkel].

Add post: The first hour is not yet done, and already SA has a firm grip on the game. Gambhir, Vijay and Tendulkar back in the hut — and all three batsmen undone by the extra pace of the Morne-Steyn combine. Pace through the air — the quality the Indian seam bowlers lack — is proving to be the key differentiator. Two quicks regularly hitting speeds in excess of 145k, coming at them from either end, appear more than the Indian batsmen have the will, or skill, to handle. Gambhir got the kind of ball no batsman wants as the first delivery of a session; Vijay misjudged the line and extent of movement; Tendulkar made a mess of trying to counter away swing generated at great pace — and India, 60/3 at the time of writing this, are now dependent on Sehwag, two debutants [one of them a reserve wicket keeper] and captain MS Dhoni to save their blushes.

Open thread, people, for any comments that may occur to you in course of the day’s play. Will check back off and on…