The perfect ten, times three

(This column was first published on Scroll, Monday June 6)

There is something about the French.

The unforgiving clay of Court Phillipe Chatrier has broken hearts and melted minds, revealed invisible weaknesses and brutally exposed carefully-hidden fragilities. It is the kryptonite of tennis, denuding demigods of their strength.

“It was the worst loss of my life, a devastating defeat: sometimes it still keeps me up nights.”

John McEnroe, not given to admitting fallibility, wrote that in his autobiography Serious, some 18 years after his loss, in his only final appearance at Stade Roland Garros, to the then Grand Slam virgin Ivan Lendl.

“It’s even tough for me to do commentary at the French,” McEnroe wrote. He had stormed into that final in the midst of a dream year, flattening Jimmy Connors for his 42nd straight win on the bounce. And yet.

“I’ll often have one or two days where I literally feel sick to my stomach at being there and thinking about that match,” he wrote. “Thinking of what I threw away, and how different my life would’ve been if I’d won.”

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This game needs adult supervision

It beggars belief that the BCCI chose to publicly air stump mike recordings to make a particular case – one that, if deemed serious enough, should have landed in the court of the ICC-appointed match referee, not used to deliberately fuel flames that are already burning bright.

I thought that the Lodha Commission and the Supreme Court had between them had ensured that the BCCI would be run by adults?

Not that I have any time for Steve Smith’s “disappointment” either. He was not merely stood there when the Ravi Jadeja-Matt Wade incident happened – he was a willing, even active, participant throughout.

The issue is not about the nature of the words exchanged, or even the fact that any words were exchanged at all. No one is naïve enough to imagine that it was all one-way traffic, all the time, that the Indians have not chattered at opposing players. The problem lies elsewhere.

I was calling the play over by over at the time, for FirstPost.com. And while I had no means of knowing what was being said, I made the point that Wade was repeatedly, deliberately, talking at Jadeja as the batsman was settling into his stance.

That is not sledging or mental disintegration or any of the other euphemisms that have entered the lexicon to provide loutish behavior a linguistic fig-leaf. The egregiousness of the incident lies in the fact that it was a deliberate, and repeated, contravention of the rules governing cricket. Smith, maybe, needs a refresher, so here it is:

Law 42, governing fair and unfair play, begins thus:

The responsibility lies with the captains for ensuring that play is conducted within the spirit and traditions of the game, as described in The Preamble – The Spirit of Cricket, as well as within the laws.

Item #4 is headlined ‘Deliberate Attempt To Distract The Striker’, and it says:

It is unfair for any fielder deliberately to attempt to distract the striker while he is preparing to receive or receiving a delivery.

Which part of that sentence does the Australian captain need explained to him in words of one syllable and accompanying hand-gestures?

The clip provides additional clarity to what anyone who was watching saw in real time: During that passage of play, the chatter was constant, high-decibel, and it occurred even as Jadeja was preparing to receive. On one occasion, he had pulled away and walked off to square leg to regain his equanimity, and as he walked back he got more of the same.

To repeat, Smith was not only part of it, he and his mates continued the practice even after Jadeja had once taken his frustration to the umpire.

Smith is “disappointed”? Frankly, so am I. He is a brilliant batsman – it is, in fact, a travesty that Kane Williamson, Joe Root and Virat Kohli are being held up as the triumvirate of modern batting when Smith has shaded them all. And as captain, ignoring his fairly ordinary game awareness for the moment, he has managed to hold a young team together through a very tough transitory period and is well on track to restoring it to a measure, at least, of its former pomp.

But these brain fades of his, and his seeming ignorance of cricket’s governing laws, are now becoming a marked blemish. If he saw the clip the BCCI aired, he has every right to be “disappointed” – not that it was aired, but that under the pressure of a rescue operation mounted by Jadeja and Saha, he so far forgot his role and responsibilities and became a willing party to some extremely sharp practice.

All of which is also why this was an issue the BCCI and team management should have taken to the match referee. It seems, though, that we live in different times, where the first and often last recourse is social media – not that it does anyone any good.

In passing – the BCCI did the reveal because it owns the feed and therefore it could. But has it considered for a moment that this is a two-edged blade? And that sooner or later, in an age where we celebrate this new-look, aggressive, take-no-prisoners Indian side, we can and likely will find ourselves on the business end of that sword?

No point asking, at the time, “Where were you in 1984 when the Sikh riots happened?” or some other equally asinine form of whataboutery.

A song of fire and ice

THE following happened in the space of 11 deliveries:

A fast bowler produced a searing delivery from around the wicket in the channel around off, seaming away late while climbing. It was good enough to beat attempted aggression by a well-set batsman playing his preferred area square on the off, to find the thick edge and fly to slip, where a regulation catch was shelled by probably the worst fielder in the side. (The fact that he was standing there testifies to this — captain Rahane wanted fleeter feet in front, and despite having caught like a dream at slip all series, opted to pull out of slip and post himself at mid on).

A little later the batsman takes that same line at that same pace backed by a field set exactly for that shot, and nails a square drive that drills a hole through the point region to the fence. To the same length and very nearly the same line, the batsman then pulls fiercely, taking the ball from outside off and despite pace around the 140k mark, hitting across the line and defeating the best opposition fielder at mid-on. The batsman wants either a one or a three to retain strike; it ends up as a two as the fielder recovers quickly.

At the other end, the man who had just dropped the catch gets a ball in perfect line, just close enough to the stumps to compel the batsman to play, the ball bouncing off the deck, turning sharp and late and finding the edge. The fielder at second slip gets down low quickly, gets his fingertips around the ball, holds, appeals, gets the decision, and races into the pavilion because he has to come out shortly and bat.

The decision meanwhile is reviewed and it turns out the ball kissed the turf just the tiniest bit. The player who pulled off the catch (Vijay) has to come dashing back out from the pavilion and onto the field of play. The bowler and fielders are upset; an umpire actually gives one fielder a sympathetic pat on the back in passing.

And one ball later, the bowler makes one go through straight to defeat a batsman on the lookout for turn, hits the pad, gets the LBW, triggers another review, and this time gets the ruling in his favor.

Eleven deliveries from start to finish showcasing good quick bowling (Umesh Yadav), fierce batting (Wade), desperate striving to keep control of the game in his hands (Wade again), intelligent spin bowling that gets a batsman almost out with one kind of delivery, then uses it as set up and takes the same man out with the other type (Ashwin). And sandwiched somewhere in there, both bad catching and good.

That was how the Australian second innings ended, and that in microcosm is how this entire Test series and particularly this final Test has been: dramatic, packed with incident, its plot points coming so thick and fast that it becomes impossible to chronicle, or even catalog, them all.

THE events of the previous day’s play had me musing on the irresistible force/immovable object paradox, which the Chinese began pondering as early as the third century before Christ.

Neither they nor anyone else has solved that one yet – but if and when they do, they can get started on the Dharamshala Corollary: to wit, what happens when the two opposing forces change roles, now irresistible, now indomitable, so often that it becomes impossible to tell the other from which?

When play began this morning, Australia was in control. 52 runs ahead in a game where every run has to be excavated at the cost of blood and sweat with just four wickets left to take. An hour into play, India had assumed control – the deficit wiped out, the wickets still intact, the batsmen in the middle batting with increasing nonchalance and near-immaculate control.

In the very next hour, Australia takes back control, blasting out the remaining wickets, allowing just 28 more runs to be added to the 4-run lead. At the end of hour three, India – are you managing to keep track of all this? — are right back in control, having taken three wickets in the space of 11 overs, with the opposition a mere five runs ahead of the game…

Test cricket is about momentum, control, shifting from side to side. But almost invariably, these swings of fortune happen over time and are the result of the slow action-reaction sequences triggered by opposing strategies and tactics.

What has distinguished this India-Australia series is not that fortunes have swung end to end– when two closely matched teams take each other on, you expect that to be the norm. What makes this really special is the pace at which such swings have happened – look away for half an hour, any day of this series, and more likely than not the two teams have changed the narrative on you and taken the storyline in totally unpredictable directions.

While memory is fresh on both sides, someone needs to chronicle it, capture the many events as they ramified, and preserve all in a book. And some day maybe a decade from now, someone born in the age of Twitter and weaned entirely on the compressed versions of cricket will read it and dismiss it all as wild exaggeration.

PostScript: My post-play report is here. And below, please find a couple of thought bubbles, spinoffs from an enthralling day of Test cricket at its very finest:

#1: Ravindra Jadeja gets a bad rap on social media, where he has been ironically knighted. It’s taken a while, but Jadeja is now the one laughing last, loudest, longest.

Even by the standards of a home season that has seen him match, at least statistically, the batting numbers of his presumed betters such as Pujara, Kohli, Rahane, Vijay and Rahul and equally, match and then overhaul the performance of his bowling partner and world rankings topper with the ball, this final series against Australia could be the breakout performance he needs to establish himself as the first name picked in any format, on any conditions, in any country, against any opposition.

That he has learnt to take the pitch out of his equations when he bowls has been evident for a while; that he has learnt to be equally penetrative against left handers and right handers, top order batsmen and tailenders, is also increasingly self-evident. Of more recent vintage is his self-discovery as a complete batsman. He came in to bat when India was down and almost out; he top-scored to leave India in a position to win the game. But what was remarkable was not the runs he scored, but the manner of it.

His wagon-wheel here was exemplary. On the off side, he stroked 11 through the covers and six in the mid off region; on the on, he had six to square leg, 12 through midwicket, 14 to long on. It was an amazingly even spread on a track where the best batsmen on either side were reduced to mostly playing on the on. Accentuating that is the fact that where edges and nudges were the default mode of scoring for most, Jadeja only scored five behind the wicket, on off and on sides combined.

Where everyone found Nathan Lyon unplayable, Jadeja stroked an easy 27 runs off  34 balls faced. His authoritative six off O’Keefe, hit with casual contempt, meant that Steve Smith never used the left arm spinner for the duration of Jadeja’s stay at the wicket — that is to say, for a span of over thirty overs. He left what he had to and defended when he must, playing out 68 dot balls, and he still ended up scoring his runs at 66.31 – quicker, under more pressure, than Smith and Warner had done in the Australian first innings. And this controlled innings came on the back of the one in Ranchi where, with the tail for company, he went after quick runs and batted with freewheeling enterprise.

#2: Ajinkya Rahane is a quiet fellow who goes almost unnoticed on the field, particularly in a team led by the tempestuous Virat Kohli. Even his celebrations are muted – a slight smile, a token high five more for form’s sake than with any vim. In a lippy team, he is the one who has nothing to say to the opposition – and yet, when it comes down to it, he turns out to be the most aggressive of the lot.

Every Indian captain I have watched as part of my work, and that is a list that goes all the way back to Azharuddin, would in the Australian second innings have gone with in-out fields, trying to find a balance between taking wickets and defending runs.

Rahane attacked flat out – three slips, gully, point in, cover in, mid off in, mid on mostly in, midwicket drawn in, square leg well inside the ring… His intent was clear: he was willing to concede runs if the opposition was good enough to make them, but his first priority was to back his bowlers.

Equally, every captain I’ve watched would have had either Ashwin or Jadeja opening the bowling or, if they felt unusually ambitious, used the debutant hero of the first innings first up. Rahane slipped the leash on Umesh Yadav and Bhuvaneshwar Kumar and let them bowl 13 straight before he even turned to spin.

There was considerable appreciation in the commentary box for India’s aggressive bowling in the second innings, but insufficient acknowledgment of the fact that no bowling unit can attack consistently unless they are given sharp teeth in the field.

Consider, too, his perfectly weighted bowling changes. That he brought Kuldeep Yadav in as early as the 14th over, as the first spinning option ahead of Ashwin and Jadeja, owed to the fact that the debutant had dismissed the two batsmen then at the crease, Maxwell and Handscomb, in the first innings.

When Maxwell went after Kuldeep in his second over, hitting him for a six and a four off successive deliveries, and smacked another four in the next over, Rahane allowed the youngster yet another over and kept the field up. Contrast with Smith, who took O’Keefe off after just one show of aggression by Jadeja and kept him off for the entirety of that partnership. Also consider what it means to a young bowler when the captain shows faith, doesn’t banish him after one expensive over.

Kuldeep’s spell was 5-0-23-0. After that 5th over, you knew he was going off. At the other end, Jadeja was bowling beautifully (4-1-9-0), and yet it was Jadeja who came off to give place to Ashwin. And then in the very next over, Jadeja was brought on at the other end. Ashwin got Handscomb in his second over; Jadeja took out Shaun Marsh in the very next over, his second after the change of ends.

You could dismiss all this as happenstance. When things go well for you as they sometimes will, it is easy to hype molehills into mountains. But go back and consider the post-lunch session on day one, and you see similar patterns.

Rahane is an outwardly quiet lad, but an aggressive one who doesn’t need words and pumped fists and incestuous suggestions to channel his aggression. He is, too, a noticing lad; he sees things and he acts on them.

Kohli will come back once he recovers. And he will take back the captain’s armband, which is both fair and natural. But his injury timeout has had one unlooked for benefit: India has found its next captain, for when it needs one.

(My match report for First Post)

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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It’s about the space between the ears

Speaking at a sports-themed lit-fest in Pune earlier this week, VVS Laxman unlocked the mystery of cricket performance with one crisp comment.

“It is not about how difficult it looks from the outside, or even to others in the dressing room,” he said, referring to his iconic 281 against Australia in 2001. “It is the state of your own mind, your confidence. Everyone talks of that knock, but it wasn’t at all difficult for me because at that point in time, I was totally confident. There were other times, easier conditions, when I didn’t play as well because I wasn’t so confident then.”

Laxman that day pushed us into looking beyond the usual tropes of cricket analysis, and to see the performance in this Test of the likes of Renshaw, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon, Steve O’Keefe, Ravi Jadeja and Umesh Yadav in a whole new light.

Smith compiled his 10th Test century as captain, to go with 10 fifties, in a span of 22 Tests and 37 innings; it was also his fifth in succession against India in Tests to go with his four in four on the 2014 India tour of Oz. It was rarely pretty – Smith at the crease, with his hyper fidgets and the strokes that cause dyspepsia among the purists, never is. But it was smart batting organised around a simple principle.

Before the start of the Test, Smith said the Australian strategy was to give the Indian spinners only one edge to work at, and he walked that talk in the middle. Batting with bat in front of body and playing well inside the line of the ball, Smith allowed the telegenic turn and bounce to take the ball well past his outer edge, ensured that his inner edge was never in play, and used his bat only when the ball was coming in or straightening on line.

He hit hard (11 fours) when the bowler afforded him the slightest opening, he nudged the ball around (51 singles) to rotate strike, and he left with remarkable patience any ball that did not force him to play. He left 38 of the 67 deliveries he faced from Ashwin while still managing 45 runs (21 singles, four twos and four fours). Against Jadeja this was even more pronounced – 64 of 81 balls faced were left alone, and off the rest he scored 31 runs including 11 singles and four fours.

Smith was reprieved thrice on day two, then again once today India’s remarkable prodigality with their DRS reviews meant there was none available to take a Jadeja appeal for LBW up to cricket’s appellate court. That is more than half a cat’s lifespan, but what mattered was the calm assurance with which he shrugged, smiled, fiddled with his pads even more frenetically, and settled in to face the next ball.

Steven O’Keefe came into this game as everyone’s ‘why him’ choice and his bland opening spell on the second morning reinforced that view. But he did his homework during the lunch break, worked with consultant Sridharan Sriram to practise the fuller length, and ripped the guts out of India’s first innings in the second session en route to a remarkable six wicket haul, before returning in the second innings to reel in six more including the always vital scalp of the Indian captain.

He accomplished this by, like Smith, reducing his craft to its simplest essence. On a track where turn was measured in feet, O’Keefe focussed on a metronomic line around off, quickness through the air, length on the better side of good, turn measured in centimetres, and a smart use of the occasional big-turning ball to keep the batsman off balance.

Ravi Jadeja is another who is supposed to be in this Test team on sufferance, the one-trick bowler best deployed to bottle an end up while the stars did the job at the other. And yet, through this extended home season, he has wheeled away for a remarkable 561 overs for 51 wickets. In the Australian second innings, he kept it up for 33 overs, buying his three wickets at just over 21 apiece and going at 1.9 runs per over in an innings where the Aussies were scoring at 3.3. What was most remarkable about his performance was a buoyant confidence that contrasted remarkably against the drooping shoulders and general flatness of his mates.

On similar lines, you saw that sense of calm confidence in the batting of the tyro Renshaw on the Australian side, and the experienced Umesh Yadav for India — two players plainly confident in their craft and at ease in their skins, able to perform without reference to the nature of the wicket or the match situation. You also saw it in the catching and ground fielding of the Australians, who performed not as the underdogs hype suggested but as a team at home with their game and in the conditions.

The corollary is equally true. Virat Kohli, faced with the prospect of a first home defeat after a 17-Test streak, collected a zero and a 13 in his two knocks and never looked like he had his head in the game – a fact best exemplified in the horrific misjudgement of line, length and direction that saw him leave an O’Keefe delivery that straightened to hit off. Similarly with Ravi Ashwin, who in conditions he should have revelled in took seven wickets across two innings, but went strangely off the boil about halfway through that marathon opening spell of 16 overs in the Australian second innings.

The mechanics of India’s second innings collapse is unimportant, really – everything that could go wrong, did. Vijay played for turn that wasn’t there, as did KL Rahul, as did Kohli; Rahane skipped down the track and chipped a gentle catch to mid-off, Ashwin failed to pick the ball straightening in to him and, as in the case of his batting betters, played for non-existent turn, Pujara got tangled up playing around his front foot – it was, briefly, the story of inept batting against disciplined, thoughtful bowling by two spinners who, without the weight of starry expectation, buckled down to their job with rigorous professionalism.

The numbers underlying Australia’s totally unexpected 333-run win are eye-opening. A batting line-up that scored over 600 in its last three outings lasted a mere 76 overs across its two outings here; and they managed a combined 212 across both innings – 73 short of what Australia managed in its first innings alone. Five of India’s second innings wickets fell to the LBW and a further two were bowled – a remarkable statistic testifying to the efficacy of the straight ball on a track whose square turn was the most talked about feature.

With the story of sustained dominance fresh in memory, you have to excavate the record books sedulously to remember the last time the side has been so thoroughly outplayed across all three disciplines. We have seen and enjoyed the dominance; it’s going to be illuminating to see just how this team reacts to the unfamiliar position of having to play catch-up.