Objectivity is hell, and other thoughts from the Test

Objectivity is an elusive creature – its lack easily spotted in others, its practice so hard when it is your turn.

My read of play on day one of the Dharamshala Test was that Australia had done badly with the first strike in conditions conducive to good batting, and left a good 200-250 runs on the pitch. And that still feels like the right call.

But from there, I called the Indian follow-up as an exercise in batting long and deep, the innings extending six sessions across two days to double the Australian score and still leave itself two full days to bowl the Australians out.

And that is where objectivity went for a toss, and I failed to factor in that if one side could collapse in a session against good bowling and tight fielding, so could the other; if one side could absorb the mental fatigue of a tiring session and come back strong and hard, so could the other; if batsmen on one side could forget their disciplines and end up throwing away good batting opportunities, so too could the other.

Tunnel vision lay behind my reasoning that if India could weather the morning burst with the new ball, the quicks would lose their sting. In any case, I figured as an extension of that reasoning, Pat Cummins in just his second international outing after an injury layoff extending more than five years could not physically sustain hostility over extended periods of time, which in turn would reduce Josh Hazelwood to bowling stock.

Sobering statistic: At tea Australia had bowled 59 overs. Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood bowled 29 of those, with the pacier Cummins bowling the odd extra over. Intensity? His last spell before tea was an extended five overs in course of which he first took out KL Rahul with a searing bouncer to go with some fiery words before; his first three balls to the incoming Ajinkya Rahane were all quick and sharp, the first drawing an attempted ramp, the second a pull, the third a top-edged pull.

And in the final minutes of the day’s play, with 19 overs under his belt, he was still sharp enough to take the second new ball and produce an unplayable lifter off good length, with sufficient late swing at peak pace to draw Saha’s edge and but for Renshaw shelling an easy catch at first slip, force another wicket. You want to stand for Cummins — to bowl that many overs at speeds that rarely if ever dropped below the mid-145k mark, and often inched up to the 149k level, is hard enough; to be able to bounce twice, thrice in every single over through a long day of Test cricket is the sort of effort that exhausts superlatives.

In similar vein I reasoned that where India’s two spinners, numbers one and two in world rankings at this present, could find neither consistent bounce nor sharp turn on day one, Nathan Lyon with a spinning finger rubbed raw and a split callus to add to the pain would never be able, in the optimal batting conditions of day two, be able to give the ball enough of a tweak to be sufficiently threatening – and again, to my surprise and some discomfort, Lyon turned on an exhibition of off-spin bowling that was straight out of the top draw: beautiful rhythm and balance, lovely loop and dip drawing repeated errors in the reading of length, great drift, big bounce, and almost square turn every time Lyon wanted it. It was a performance that put both my read, and Ashwin’s first innings performance, in perspective.

There was one other thing I missed: the essential quality of this Australian side, which lies neither in its good batting nor all-round bowling but in its collective spirit, in an ability to fight its way back every single time it falls behind in a game. Again, I should have known better, as should anyone who has been watching what is proving to be the best Test series in a long time: this outfit under Steve Smith has repeatedly showcased that bounce-back-ability in Pune, in Bangalore, in Ranchi. And now, here.

This is true: if you happen to be ringside when the irresistible force meets the indomitable object, the smartest thing to do is to shut the hell up, get out of the way, and let the game unfold as it will.

PostScript: Some days, events on the field of play seem to cohere into an overarching narrative. On other, rarer days the narrative shifts shape and form faster than you can follow.

Today was one such. Four hours of play resembled one of those old-time Western novels where the hero rides his horse across a featureless desert for page after page, the only point of interest being to see whether he or his horse collapses first.

And then everyone went off and had a cup of tea, and the last two hours somehow turned into a Jack Reacher novel with outsize heroes and outmatched anti-heroes and punches and pratfalls…

In my note to the FirstPost editors at close of play, this is what I said:

Follows, a few thought bubbles, fragmentary impressions, from the third day’s play. Fragmentary, because yet again in this series the two sides took turns in the driving seat and often, there seemed no logical, no visible reason, to explain the switches in control. So.

Here are those fragments, those thought bubbles from an engrossing second day at the cricket.

Dharamshala day 1 Match Report

A dozen playing days in this India-Australia series have produced more fairytales than the combined imaginations of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm managed in their lifetime. The latest in the string of unlikely stories to punctuate this see-saw series came in the unlikely shape of debutant left-arm chinaman/googly bowler Kuldeep Yadav.

Everything about his story flirts with the boundaries of probability, beginning with the very fact of his making it to the playing XI. The most foolhardy punter would have hesitated to put spare change on the possibility that with talismanic captain and number four batsman Virat Kohli pulling out with an injured shoulder, the team management would choose as replacement a tyro spinner — more so in a side that already boasts two spinners who have captured the top two ICC rankings.

That he made the side was surprising enough; that he then produced a series of brilliant deliveries to slice through the Australian batting lineup, after the visitors had taken control of the game in a free-flowing first session that produced 131 runs for one wicket in 31 overs stretched credulity to the limit and beyond.

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India V Australia, Test 4 Day 1

(My preview, written for First Post Friday evening)

C7hHt8wVwAAGBnm“MY GOD” reads a tweet from cricket writer and radio commentator Geoff Lemon, “LOOK AT THIS INDIAN PITCH oh no wait that is just some bread”. Judging by that post and others, Lemon is mildly annoyed with this cricket season’s version of the Great Indian Dope Trick.

There is an art to this. You say the following: It is hard. There is some grass on it but it is dead grass rolled in “as makeup”. There is a bit of moisture beneath the surface (duh!). In the first hour, it will give you some bounce and carry. It will become progressively lower and slower. It will crack up as the sun beats down on it and it will turn sharply. The turn, if any, will only be out of any rough created by the bowlers’ footmarks. The turn will become slower and the ball will keep lower as the game progresses…

You can say the above in whatever order you like, but you have to say all of it, with a suitably portentous expression. (To get the face right, pretend you have to go to the loo urgently).

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India v Australia Day 5

(This was written for FirstPost before start of play on the final day)

677 runs and 22 wickets in 360 overs over four days; eight of the first 20 wickets to those quick bowlers who were at peak levels of skill; control of the game shifting from one team to another at least once every day, often once per session — the first four days of this Test have been a template for what Test cricket at its best is supposed to be about.

If pitches could sue for libel, the JSCA would get millions without the jury leaving the box. “Rolled mud”? “Nothing like we have ever seen before”? Really?

The final day begins with one result — the draw — possible; another — an Indian win — probable. And odd as it may seem, Australia’s fate is entirely in its own hands — not in the pitch, not in the hands of the Indian bowlers and, while we are on the subject, not in the vagaries of DRS reviews that seem to be dominating conversations to an unwarranted degree.

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India vs Australia Day 4

(Before play, as posted to FirstPost’s live blog)

One hundred and eighty.

If you like turning over envelopes and calculating possibilities on the reverse, that is the number you want to put down first. 180 overs remain in this Test and every calculation, by either side, will be predicated on that number.

If you are an Australian point of view, you need to figure out how many overs you reckon you need to bowl India out in the second innings. This is neither Pune nor Bangalore and even in the last innings, you want to budget at least 90, 100 overs for the job.

Sounds like that is rating India too high, or selling the Aussie bowling too short? Their main strike bowler is Pat Cummins who, in just his second first-class game after injuries kept him out for five years, has had to combine the durability of the workhorse and the penetration of a shock bowler. He produced consistent, searing pace and headhunting bouncers; two of those got him wickets that would have been beyond the capabilities of most other quicks — but it’s been hard toil for a player not yet fully grooved into the demands of Test cricket in these conditions.

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Review: Azhar, the movie

“Who are you?” Steve Wozniak (played by Seth Rogan) asks Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) in the midst of an incandescent argument in the Danny Boyle-helmed biopic on the Apple founder. “What do you do?”

The questions are equally central to any exploration, fictional or otherwise, of the life and times of Mohammad Azharuddin.

Who was he? More crucially, *what* was he?

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