Test two, day one

When constructing narratives, you tend to look for plot points. For those moments that mean little at the time, but which you recognize, post facto, as the fulcrum around which the storyline turns on its axis.

The first came with less than half an hour to go for lunch. Hashim Amla, who by then had been batting long enough against India on this tour for his beard to have grown an inch or two more, and debutant Alviro Petersen, who from the first ball he addressed batted with the aplomb of a veteran, had weathered the inevitable early dismissal of Graeme Smith, bowled through the gate by Zaheer Khan [while on which, few bowlers have had the wood on opposing batsmen so thoroughly in recent times].

Harbhajan Singh came on to bowl after we had already seen enough from Amit  Mishra to realize he was not going to be the one to slice through the opposition on this day. And the off spinner started with just a slip and short square – but no bat-pad on the off, and no leg slip for the bounce and turn across the body that Bajji normally revels in at the Gardens.

It was a strangely non-aggressive field, especially when you consider that this was an off-spinner who owns this ground, bowling to a Test debutant who had never faced him before.

At that point, South Africa controlled the game. The Proteas have in recent times been slammed, with some justice, for a safety-first mindset with the bat. In Indian conditions, and with the advantage of winning the toss, that mindset became an asset – unlike the Aussies, for instance, who look to dominate and come to grief on grounds where patience is the key, the South Africans are adept at playing the waiting game. With Amla and Petersen growing in stature by the over, it was set up for the visitors to bat long and bat big, and to take the game away from the home side.

For 63 overs either side of the lunch break, nothing happened to change that impression, though Zaheer did take out Amla and Petersen after their respective centuries.

In the 64th over, Harbhajan bowled one on off and middle turning to leg; AB de Villiers stayed back and with the turn, tucked the single behind square. Nothing unusual there – Harbhajan had been bowling that line ever since this series started, and batsmen had been taking the singles, and more, being offered to them on a platter.

Except that this time, as the batsmen ambled across, Bajji wandered off to the side of the pitch and visibly berated himself. The words were unclear; the message was unmistakable – Bajji seemed to be reminding himself to bowl outside off, as his craft dictates; to make the batsman play beside the line and not behind it.

At the end of the over, Bajji was going 15-0-53-0; his series analysis was 61-1-219-2. From that point of self-realization on, he was to bowl a dream spell of 8-2-7-3.

The outside off line, and the bounce he got on this track, first defeated a Jacques Kallis sweep – part of an effort by the batsman to dominate the spinner, but on this occasion flawed because the bowler had kept the line wider of off; the turn in to the bat and the bounce off the deck found the top edge and VVS Laxman, making amends for a horrid drop off Amla when the batsman was in the sixties, provided that moment of magic every team needs, when he ran back from slip to take a tumbling catch as the ball came down over his shoulder.

Bajji’s form – or lack thereof – and his focus on bowling flat, defensive lines has in recent times triggered justified queries about his continuance as the team’s number one spinner. Every once in a while, though, sometimes sparks in that brain of his – and then he becomes unplayable.

Maybe it is a combination of the Eden Gardens and the number 250 – it was around that point that in his break out series against Australia he began turning it around with a hat-trick, before the Laxman-Dravid combine scripted one of the most stirring second acts in contemporary memory. Here, again, it was with South Africa still in control at 253/4 that magic happened.

Ashwell Prince came out; Bajji immediately went around the wicket to the left-hander. The batsman read that as an indication of the bowler’s ploy to hit off and turn it away from the bat, with a slip in place. He played for turn; Bajji bowled the one that went through with the arm, and nailed Prince bang in front.

Jean Paul Duminiy must have been too busy putting on his gear to watch Prince get out – he came out, got the exact same delivery, and departed in the exact same fashion, to put Bajji on the verge of another hat trick. Even before the umpire’s finger went up, the offie took off, not towards his celebrating team mates but towards the spectators thronging the one gallery that is not down for renovation.

There is nothing quite like the Eden Gardens when India is on top. Reports put the attendance at around the 40k mark, but the buzz around the ground was reminiscent of the Gardens in all its 95k glory – and Bajji, and the Indian team, fed off it.

It often happens with this team that when one player sparks, the rest catch fire. Zaheer Khan took out de Villiers with a great run from mid off to cover and a pick up and throw that caught the batsman out of the crease after Dale Steyn, who had survived Bajji’s hat trick ball, sent him back.

Ishant Sharma, who outside of a spell after lunch with some great short-pitched bowling particularly at Hashim Amla [a rare recent good spell, only for the good work to be undone when Ishant overdid the short stuff] and Amit Mishra then came to the party, and when umpires called a premature halt to play, the Proteas had lost eight first innings wickets for 45 runs and squandered the advantage of the toss. India, for its part, had scripted one of the most compelling turnarounds in recent memory.

Now it is India’s turn to make all the running. 280, tops, seems the most the Proteas can hope for from where they are; conditions are good for batting [though Steyn’s pre-series comment that when you are bowling at 150-plus, the nature of the pitch really doesn’t matter still holds good], and the home team can afford to take the better part of two days to build the sort of score Bajji, with this confidence going for him, can work with.

India has one other advantage going for it – the X factor that is the Eden Gardens itself. That is what I’ll be looking forward to tomorrow – the peculiar buzz that this ground more than any other in the country can create when the home side is doing well.

It is also what I will miss most about tomorrow’s play – the 50,000 spectators who will not be able to stream into the ground, and put the wind behind the home team’s sails.

PS: For those complaining [both in mail and comments] about my being non-responsive: I watched this day’s play partly from my new, and as yet incomplete, home; partly from the Yahoo guest house in Bangalore; partly from an airport lounge. And now I’m writing this, at 1 am, from a hotel room in Bombay where I am overnighting, before an early morning flight to Chandigarh. Sorry, time is a bit of a luxury just now. Back tomorrow night with a take on the day’s play — and back to regular blogging after I return to home base in Bangalore Wednesday. Be well.

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…

The Sehwag factor

# It’s faintly curious that Viru Sehwag, who earlier this year renounced captaincy ambitions “to concentrate on his batting” and even promoted the cause of his Delhi mate Gautam Gambhir as the logical captain in waiting, was picked to lead during MS Dhoni’s enforced absence.

If Sehwag is serious about not wanting to lead India [the buzz at the time was that he was miffed that the captain’s armband had slipped past his grasp and gone to Dhoni, and that his renunciation was an expression of his unwillingness to be permanent bridesmaid, with no real prospect of ever becoming the bride], this seemed like a good time to give Gambhir a go, always assuming the selectors have identified him as a future captain.

# Viru and MS share certain characteristics as captain; the ability to remain collected and refrain from excessive hand-wringing and on-field gesticulation being the chief among them. The most notable difference between the two is their approach to defense [A codicil: We only have six random games to judge Sehwag’s leadership by, so perhaps what follows is a bit of a reach. But still.]

When the momentum is with the opposition, MS tends to try and slow things down; his preferred tactic is to pack one side of the field, get his bowlers to bowl those lines to the extent possible, make it as hard for the opposition batsmen as conditions and his resources allow, and then wait for the game to break his way.

In similar situations, Viru tends to attack a bit more proactively. For someone who loves to get his runs through boundary hits, he has as a batsman always been aware of the importance of the single as an attacking weapon; on the field, he carries that same awareness into field settings. Thus, and not for the first time, he yesterday started the turnaround by ignoring the boundaries the likes of Dilshan, Sangakkara and Upul Tharanga were hitting at will; he brought his fielders well inside the circle to make singles difficult to take [Dilshan had one, and not for want of trying to turn the strike over; Tharanga played out 42 dot balls to 27 singles] and banked on the fact that this would force batsmen intent on pushing the accelerator through the floor to take increasing risks with their hitting.

The other noticeable aspect of his captaincy was the recalibration of bowlers’ roles. Ashish Nehra as first change works far better than having him bowl with the new ball. The corollary of course is that Ishant Sharma went for plenty in the opening overs — but that is proof merely that the quick bowler is yet to fully find his rhythm, and not of the tactic itself [incidentally, Ishant looked a lot better when, during his second spell, he took to pitching the ball right up; makes you wonder how long it will be before the coach, or even senior pro Zaheer, talks to him about this].

Similarly, where Dhoni prefers to hold Harbhajan back as long as he can, often bringing him on after Jadeja and a part timer have had a go, Viru invariably uses the off spinner as early as possible, and in an attacking role [It helps that Bajji has in recent weeks rediscovered his bowling rhythm and now tends to bowl a little less like a wannabe seam bowler and more like the offie he is supposed to be].

None of this is to suggest that Viru is better than MS or vice versa — I doubt there is enough evidence on the table to argue the case one way or the other; suffice to say they are subtly different in their on-field thinking. There’s one more game to go with Viru at the helm, and that’s another opportunity to check out his captaincy style in contrast to MS.

#For once, India got a target to chase that did not require a boundary hit off every other ball, and that translated into a calm, measured response kick-started by Sehwag and guided throughout its course by a Tendulkar batting with clearly defined purpose. The 7-wicket win with 44 balls remaining was almost too easy — but personally, I found yesterday’s game far more absorbing than the two preceding thrash-fests.

#Back to recent events in Australia [for the last time], a couple of friends Down Under mailed, signaling their disgust with the behavior of their team at the WACA in particular. Neither wanted their mails reproduced, but the gist is that they had developed a respect for the West Indies thanks to Gayle and his men refusing to be written off, and the behavior of the likes of Haddin and Watson therefore stuck in their craw. In parallel, there is a tendency on the part of some to dismiss critical comment as the ravings of “crazies” — what this section of readers don’t get is that the Australian cricket team is almost universally admired for the all-round skills they bring to the table; hence some of us find it hard to stomach when the team blots its copybook with infantile behavior not consonant with what is expected of a champion side.

On those lines, here’s Greg Baum in The Age. An extended clip:

In this context, the sanction against Watson — 15 per cent of his match fee — was pitiful. A cricketer’s chief income is his base payment. The match fee is the icing on the cake. Fifteen per cent is a few specks of icing sugar. It is open to Cricket Australia to apply its own punishment and essential that it does. Otherwise, its code is merely a piece of paper.

The unexpectedly robust showing by the West Indies made for an engrossing series, but it also exposed an old Australian tendency to tetchiness under pressure. Three Australians other than Watson were disciplined in the series. So was West Indian Sulieman Benn, who got the most severe penalty, a two-match suspension.

In this, it was not hard to detect a familiar undercurrent. “Word” emerged from “contacts” in the Australian rooms that Benn had been a rude, precious and prickly opponent all series, and that in engaging with Benn in Perth, Brad Haddin and Mitchell Johnson had merely been standing up for their mates. These “contacts” remained nameless.

It is hard not to be cynical. If Benn has shown himself to be volatile, you can be certain that the Australians have not missed an opportunity to prod and provoke him. When he reacts, they throw up their arms, as if shocked and affronted, their innocence plain for all to see.

We have seen this demonisation path before: remember Harbhajan Singh, two summers ago? Here is one line the Australians have found that they can scuff without crossing it.

Of course, some of the Australian cricket public love this. As far as they are concerned, there is “us” and there is “them”, and they are fair game, a schoolboy mentality.

But a sizeable proportion of cricket fans were disgusted by Watson’s display of triumphalism and discomforted by the brawl over Benn. These incidents jar on their sense of how cricket should be played.

Easy does it

The man of this particular match should be the curator.

Baby commentators are taught, along with the alphabet, to react to every incident with an instantaneous pitch diagnosis: “It’s keeping low”; “The bounce is very good”; “It is taking turn”; “The pitch has evened out”.

Sometimes, if you are particularly lucky – as happened during one particular period of play today – you get all four conflicting judgments in the span of a few overs. Must be something in their contract that says you get docked a Scotch or two if you don’t do this.

The Brabourne wicket started off on day one with bounce when the bowler extracted it; movement for when you got the upright seam to hit the deck just so; turn for bowlers prepared to give it a tweak; and full value for shots played by batsmen with the nous to handle a track that had something in it for the bowlers as well.

Consider the Samaraweera dismissal: Zaheer Khan, who on the day recovered both his lost rhythm and his smile, went around the wicket and hit the deck hard, back of good length and on the kind of line just outside the off that forces a batsman to play at it; the ball climbed and seamed away just late enough to find the edge and nestle in the soft hands of a diving VVS Laxman at second slip. It’s the kind of dismissal you look to see on day one of a Test; this was day four, and the ball was then exactly 58 overs old. Equally, when the spinners – particularly Harbhajan – bowled, there was turn off length and such perfect bounce that MS Dhoni, standing up, was taking them just above the waist. Moral of the story: good pitches can be made in India, if you have both the skill and the intent.

All of this has made for a fascinating fourth day’s play. Wickets didn’t tumble in a heap, as they tend to on rapidly deteriorating tracks; the bowlers had to work their victims out. Dhoni gave his bowlers well thought out attacking fields, the kind that allowed them to concentrate on one batsman at a time without worrying about him taking a single and sneaking away to the other end, and put a high premium on mistakes.

The most costly mistake of the day was the one made by Darryl Harper, though. Tillekeratne Dilshan got a bummer for the second straight time – the ball he was deemed out to hit him on the outside of the front thigh; it was clearly turning sharp, and bouncing enough to miss the stumps for both height and direction — and that was a pity, for he seemed to come out with positive intent. [Bajji has at the time of writing this only got the one gift wicket, but no matter. He did pretty much everything right: stuck to good lengths, gave the ball air, probed away around off, occasionally varied trajectory by going around the wicket, and built such a deal of pressure that he stymied any thoughts the Lankan batsmen may have had of trying to break out of jail. He has in the past bowled far worse for much greater rewards, and likely will again.]

His dismissal cued a period of play that tested the bowlers’ patience. Kumar Sangakkara dug deep into his reserves of will to grit his way through his ongoing bad patch; Paranavitana at the other end displayed good technique against spin, playing either fully forward or back, always with bat in front of pad, and always playing the ball below his eye line.

It took a peach of a delivery to dismiss the opener – and Sreesanth produced it in the first over of a fresh spell, when he angled one across the left hander, got it to bend in the air, and straighten on middle. Sree looks a whole different bowler when he cuts out the gratuitous theatrics and turns his focus inwards, on his craft. To his credit, despite the crowd repeatedly egging him on to kick over the traces, he stayed focused throughout this game, and bowled with considerable thought, skill and, when he needed it, pace. The ball that got Paranavitana was a beauty, but it was shaded by one he bowled to Mahela that had everything: pace up around the 139k mark, the full length, lift, and the kind of impossibly late moment that left even a batsman of Mahela’s class looking helpless.

Zaheer has sleep walked through much of this series; in the post-lunch session he suddenly rediscovered his rhythm and produced two lovely dismissals. The one of Samaraweera was the prettier one, but the take down of Mahela was a classic of conception: Zak started the over with a ball straightening on off; the next attempted to duplicate it, but drifted into the pads a touch and went for a couple; the third was angled across the right-hander, landed outside off and kept going, and then came the one angled across again, but this time hitting length around off, forcing Mahela to play, and seaming away just enough to find the edge.

Zak’s two quick strikes, in the 54th and 58th over, pretty much knocked the Lankans out of the game; Pragyan Ojha nailed it down tighter when, on the cusp of tea, he tactically worked out Angelo Mathews.

Ojha clearly has some distance to go before he gets comfortable bowling to left-handers. Against right handers, though, his use of flight and loop, the fuller lengths he bowls and the turn he extracts makes him a bit of a handful. To Mathews, he got the ball to turn sharply off length, looking for the edge; when he found it and saw the ball sneak through the slip cordon for a fortuitous four, he adjusted his length fractionally to the short side, providing more room for the ball to bounce, and again found the edge – this time to Dhoni.

Sangakkara and Paranavitana are still out there, with the Lankan captain showing some sign, after the break, of wanting to go down fighting. But with half the side back in the hut, a 170-run deficit remaining as I write this, and with four sessions to go in the game, this one’s done and dusted.

Time enough for series post-mortems later; time now for me to hit the road on a trip I’ve been pushing off all afternoon so I can watch “just one more over”.

Enjoy the rest of the game, and the weekend. See you guys Monday.

Test 3, day 1

Sri Lanka clearly hasn’t learned the art of putting the boot in when it can.

With the toss won and the innings off to a flier courtesy the openers putting on 93 runs inside 20 overs, the visitors had the opportunity to send India on a leather hunt. In the event, it ended the day having lost too many wickets; the innings tripped over its own inability to strike the right balance between momentum and substance.

The wicket at the Brabourne Stadium had turn. Not the kind of slow turn seen at Ahmedabad and Kanpur, either – here the turn was quick, pronounced, and accompanied by bounce whenever the spinners looped the ball up and allowed it to bite the deck.

So pronounced was the possibility of spin that Harbhajan, who typically starts with a flat, quick line, tossed the first ball of his first over up above the eye line, as early as the 16th over, and got it to drift across the batsman, bite, and turn.

The spinner went on to have one of his best days of this tour, clearly revelling in conditions that gave him considerable bang for the buck. Pragyan Ojha got sharp turn as well, but he is the more relentlessly attacking bowler, and that style is guaranteed to bleed runs on first/second day tracks absent top notch support in the field.

Spinners bowling on a first day wicket, no matter how amenable to turn, are wholly reliant on their mates in the field to keep the pressure on – and it is here that the Indian fielders let Harbhajan and Ojha down. Dilshan showed the way, and the rest caught on – throughout the day, the standout feature of the Lankan innings was their willingness to tip-tap and run, a practice that inevitably led to misfields. Worse, it took the edge off the bowling, as neither spinner found it possible to bowl a series of deliveries to any one batsman.

Vital stat: the first 80 overs of the Lankan innings saw 123 singles in a score of 329/6.

With all that they had going for them, the Lankan batsmen underperformed. Dilshan, who returned to form with a fluent century, got one of the most godawful umpiring decisions in recent memory, but his mates by and large gave it away after having the bowling at their mercy.

Paranavitana got a good ball from Harbhajan with loop and sharp turn that defeated the attempted cover drive, but Kumar Sangakkara played without the calm he is noted for, seemed ill at ease against both spinners, and ended up edging a delivery going down leg side; Mahela Jayawardene gave an object lesson on how to counter swing and seam, and then slapped a badly conceived pull to backward square; Samaraweera’s hard hands on a defensive prod was very un-Lankan in its execution; and Prasanna Jayawardene, after taking Ojha for successive fours at the start of the 80th over, gave it away with a badly conceived charge that saw him beaten for flight and holing out to mid on. If the Lankans ended the day not needing to hide their blushes, much of the credit goes to Dilshan’s craft at the top of the order, and Angelo Mathews’ fluidity in the lower  middle order.

Test cricket is largely a game of managing time. By scoring at a cracking pace almost throughout the day, the Lankans sought to buy time for their two spinners [and Sangakkara might yet have reason to rue leaving out Ajanta Mendis, as and when India bats in the fourth innings] to take out India’s in-form line-up twice. But by losing eight wickets in the day, the team ruined its own strategy: to really exploit the toss and the conditions to optimum, the visitors had to be looking at a score in excess of 500-550; the loss of three top middle order batsmen for a combined score of 48 negated that possibility.

For India, the fielding was uniformly patchy; ditto the bowling. Zaheer Khan seems yet to strike mid-season form. He is a rhythm bowler who, just now, is clearly off beat; when that happens he tends to try too hard, and ends up going all over the place. Sreesanth had a curate’s egg of a day, good only in patches when he throttled back his ambition and let motor memory do all the work. A classic example was his second spell, which he began with a near-unplayable series of outswingers and deliveries that jagged back in off the seam, but then ambition got the better of him, he changed his line and took to bowling from well wide of the crease, and ended up losing control and efficacy.

On balance, India will be the happier side going in at close. Lanka looks to end well short of the 500 that is a minimum requirement batting first on this track; an added plus is that the Indian batsmen will have maximum use of the good batting conditions of day two and to an extent day three. The one consolation for the Lankans is that the wicket is turning — and the Lankan fielding is streets ahead of India’s.

Updated: The great Lankan dope trick

Being proved wrong has its pleasures. I came in anticipating a day where I had to choose between over the top recapitulations of 26/11 and a total yawn at the cricket – mercifully, the cricket kicked up a notch.

Make that ‘being proved partially wrong’ – the Sri Lankan implosion had nothing to do with a dramatically deteriorating wicket, and everything to do with Indian bowlers who went back to basic principles of bowling tight groupings, coupled with a Sri Lankan line-up that showed no stomach for a fight it could only force into stalemate, but not win.

When Dhoni and the team management punted big time on Sreesanth, they likely had no idea they would hit the jackpot of a five-for from the returning maverick. It would be lovely to be able to write of a dramatic reformation, of an enfant terrible who matured overnight and allowed his natural talent to flower, unhindered by his distressing penchant for exhibitionism.

To say all that would be only half right, though. The exhibitionism was kept in abeyance, and that is a huge plus for a player who has earned himself too many headlines for all the wrong reasons. The talent remains latent, however: on the day, all he really did was adhere to basic lines and lengths; the Lankan batsman did the rest.

Paranavitana was out to a short of length delivery that he went back to and poked at – body around middle stump, bat waving a foot outside off. Kumar Sangakkara, who really should have known better, lashed at a ball that was length or better and very wide of off, managing only to drag it onto his stumps off his inside edge. Samaraweera went at a wide ball outside off that was keeping a touch low, and dragged it on. Prasanna Jayawardene chased a short, wide ball outside off. Skill came into the equation only against Herath, when Sree altered his line and got one ball to angle across the batsman and move just enough to hit top of off.

It might seem churlish to dismiss a comeback performance that netted a five-for. Equally, it can be argued that good bowling pressurises batsmen into silly shots. To which: it is not my intention to dismiss the performance, nor to negate the fact that Sree largely bowled good groupings.

The point sought to be made is merely that this was not a barnstorming comeback that deserves ballads sung in its honor, but merely a competent one. The extent of his rehabilitation will really be tested only when he bowls under some real pressure [and I seriously hope he comes good; India’s seam attack, especially its bench, is long on numbers, but short on serious firepower, and a rehabilitated Sree would be a huge asset].

Two of his mates contributed to Sree’s dream run. The first, Harbhajan Singh, remembered that he was an off spinner, and went back to bowling lines largely on or around off stump, slowing down his arm on delivery, and letting the ball hit length and do its stuff. As happens when he gets a good groove going, Bajji began asking questions of the batsmen.

Pragyan Ojha, too, had a good debut, as far as it went. He was tight, his lines were good, his bowling style relaxed, and he showed the ability and patience to probe constantly at the vulnerable areas, without letting the lack of success force him into experimentation. As with Sree, his real test will come when he bowls under real pressure – but again, as with Sree, you can’t detract from what he did merely on the grounds that the Lankan batting crumbled like an over-baked biscuit.

The batting was mystifying. The first hour’s play indicated that Lanka had figured out its most logical game plan: bat out time and overs, while inching towards the first target of 443 that would avert the follow on and push the match further into stalemate territory.

And then the captain, no less, played his shot from hell, and everything went to pieces. Barring Mahela [who benefited from a dropped chance by Dravid off Bajji], none of the batsmen on view showed any inclination to dig deep – and the fact that the wicket remains largely demon-free made that inexplicable.

229 runs represent serious under-achievement by what is really a talent-filled batting line up. It’s hard as hell to look up at a run-mountain that must be climbed one nudge at a time – but a team aspiring to moving up the Test ladder needed to have shown a greater stomach for the job.

What the collapse – 163 runs in 60 overs for the loss of 9 wickets – accomplished is to make Lanka’s job considerably more difficult. Trailing by 413 runs on the follow-on is tough – but the real problem is coping with the knowledge that to save this Test, Lanka now needs to bat a total of 208 overs, while India can afford to attack constantly with men around the bat.

Update, if the remaining 28 overs merit one, at close of play. Meanwhile, two reads about an innovative attempt to liven up a charity match, and a nice insight into the minds of champion bowlers. Martin Blake, and Peter Roebuck, write about a charity match where the bowlers were miked up, and Glen McGrath and Shane Warne talked the audience through their special brand of magic. From Blake:

Here’s where the brains kick in. McGrath bowls a couple of inswingers to the left-handed David Warner, cramping him for room. Then he flags that he will bowl a little slider, running the fingers down the seam and angling it across Warner. He tips that Warne, standing at slip, will get himself a catch.

On cue, Warner nicks it. McGrath only gets one aspect wrong. The catch flies to Gilchrist behind the stumps. Gilchrist, who also is miked up and who has heard the plan hatched, is exultant.

Soon enough, Warne is bowling and the boys from Channel Nine ask him for a running commentary on his over. As it happens, he’s bowling to Michael Clarke, one of the best players of spin in the world, a man with dancing feet. Moreover, Warne and Clarke are friends; Warne is calling Clarke his personal Daryll Cullinan but, at 40, there is a question mark as to whether he can back it up.

Immediately, Clarke is advancing down the track to cover the spin. Speaking through his microphone, Warne reveals his plan to draw Clarke out of his crease, then fire one down a little wider of off stump. Quicker and straighter, it could produce a stumping, or a nick.

It’s great theatre now. Down comes Clarke, unaware of the trap. Warne pulls it wide and Australia’s captain-in-waiting is stranded, on the verge of a major embarrassment. A lunging bat and a thick outside edge saves him as the ball squirts to point. Warne groans, and we’ve surely heard that before – a few thousand times.

Roebuck, on the same, with some prep thrown in:

Already Warne and McGrath had taken a close look at the belligerent left-hander. Warne had suggested to his lanky flinger that cover might move a yard or two to cut off his prey’s favourite shot. McGrath had concurred.

Next the commentators asked the surgical seamer to talk them through his next over, his second. In between fending off comments about his fielding, protesting that he was stiff and would presently be exhausted, the beanpole consented.

First came the set-up, a couple of deliveries pushed across the left-hander, cramping him and imprinting in his mind the notion that the bowling was accurate but straight up and down. Next came an inswinger intended to trap the unwary.

As it happened, McGrath started the ball a fraction wide. Even so, Warner was taken aback. What was the old codger up to? Past players ribbed the Narrominite about his swing and pace, suggesting he was as slow as ever but curled the ball more. McGrath took the slapstick in good heart. He had never relied on extreme pace or confronting moment, he had worked hard for every wicket.

McGrath was ready for the sting. He let the audience in on the plan. Two balls angled across Warner followed by an inswinger and now a ball pitching on the sticks, cutting away, drawing the batsmen into the stroke, taking an edge and being caught at slip. McGrath executed it to perfection, and celebrated as the snick was held.

His wicket brought to mind his finest piece of bowling, his hat-trick against the West Indies in Perth in 2000. Then McGrath began by beating Sherwin Campbell with a fullish outswinger, followed by a cutter angling across Brian Lara, and completed the trick with a lifter directed at Jimmy Adams’s shoulder. All three wickets were beautifully conceived. All three were precisely pitched. They were not dismissals, they were executions. McGrath’s greatness ought not to be forgotten.

An amusing sidelight: Earlier this year, a group of top Australian spinners, and even the chairman of selectors, got together to decide that the academy would not encourage spinners to learn the art of bowling the doosra. Then, this happened [from Roebuck’s report]:

Krejza’s doosra was startling. No one could quite believe their eyes as the ball spun back to amaze a left-hander happily shouldering arms. Later it emerged that the fiery offie had been practising the ball all winter and was slowly building the confidence needed to risk it in public. It takes a long time and a lot of effort to perfect a new delivery.

The doosra is a superb part of the game because it adds bafflement. Suggestions that it ought to be banned are dull-witted. Those framing the laws of legitimacy did not contemplate back chucks. Ask any child to throw the ball. The idea was to stop fast bowlers turning the pitch into a coconut shy and spinners imparting extra twist by straightening the elbow. But it is not possible to throw with the arm pointed towards the target.

In any case, if the doosra is so different, why cannot the batsmen detect it? In its own way Krejza’s intervention was as satisfying as those produced by the old masters.

Update: All of that said about Sree, his take down of Dilshan at the start of the Lankan second innings is worth noting as the first real display of his latent bowling talent. The ball had everything: a line close enough to off to get the batsman drawn into it; a length just back of good to keep Dilshan on the back foot; good pace, and good climb off what is not really a very responsive deck. And by way of icing, the merest hint of late movement away. Perfect. If his five-for has helped him shake off comeback nerves and let his natural skills show, that could be the biggest gain of this match.

Update 2: At the end of the day’s play, Dhoni could do worse than buy a Bhutan bumper lottery ticket. There was no logical reason for him to bring Viru Sehwag on as early as the 12th over [unless the move was prompted by some disgust at watching Bajji bowl the 11th over flat, quick, and mostly on middle and leg]. But he did just that — and Sehwag responded with a straight top spinning delivery on off that Paranavitana inexplicably went back to, failed to bring his bat down in time, and got nailed in front of off. Next stop, Las Vegas.  Meanwhile, fairly odd to see Lankan batsman, who really should know better, not imitate what the Indians did: play right forward to length, and well back to anything short.

Update 3: Interesting, in a train wreck sort of way, to see batsmen reared on spin playing like rank novices — led, unfortunately, by their captain who by way of variety this time drags a spinner, Bajji, back onto his stumps, standing with feet nailed to the ground, and swishing at something that was going along harmlessly outside his off stump. This, shortly after he had gotten Mahela Jayawardene run out calling for the sort of sharp single you try off the last ball of an ODI when you need one run to win. Pressure plays strange tricks on the mind, clearly — and as clearly, the Lankans not relishing the task of batting time.

Update 4: I wonder if Ojha has a sense of his own luck. Not every debutant gets to bowl with six around the bat. Hopefully, he makes the most of it — not every day this kind of thing will happen to him.

The ‘watch paint dry’ party

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.