Cricket / Test Cricket

A Four Gone Conclusion

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The story of Australia’s ignominous defeat played out in repeat mode. A top-order batting collapse and India pulverising their bowling attack

Déjà vu is an oft-used French expression to describe the acute sense of having seen something before. As Australia won the toss and imploded yet again on day one of the fourth Test, on a parched end-of-season strip at the Feroz Shah Kotla, that familiar feeling returned.

Except this was no déjà vu. This really was the same script playing out over and over and over. Like the Australian team’s twisted tribute to Groundhog Day—the 1993 cult film starring Bill Murray—where the same sequence of events plays out with mind-numbing monotony. Day after day after day. Test after test after test.

OZ NOT WELL

So, some things were common to all four Tests: Australia win toss, Australia bat, Indian spinners wreak havoc, Australian top order collapses, Australian tail wags, Indian batsmen pulverise, Australian bowlers hapless, India take first innings lead, Indian tweakers at it again, Australia collapse again, India win. Again.

As much as the Australians may have hoped it were the mind playing tricks on them, through the five-week tour that provided little respite from the siege, there was no wishing away one ignominious beating after another—the final nail in this coffin of embarrassing defeats hammered in at the Kotla, in under three days.

In 81 years and 468 Test matches before the 10th edition of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, India had never managed a 4–0 whitewash. Against any team. Never in cricketing history, had a captain lost all four tosses in a series and managed four consecutive wins.

As for Australia, the last time they accepted a 0–4 evaluation in their report card was to South Africa over 40 years ago. Never before has a visiting team to India won every toss, had best use of the wicket—a crucial advantage on sub-continental pitches that crumble like khari biscuit—and managed to squander away the advantage so spectacularly, en route to self-destruction.

“Suffering is one very long moment,” Oscar Wilde begins, in his epistolary memoirs from prison, to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas. “With us time itself does not progress. It revolves. It seems to circle round one centre of pain.”

Michael Clarke would know. The only centurion in a line up that struggled so pitifully for runs, he knew the challenges that lay ahead the moment he set off from Sydney as leader of the weakest Australian side to tour India since 1956. But there was no way he could have predicted how prolonged and persistent this suffering would be.

A team in transition, lack of time to acclimatise in hostile sub-continental conditions, and the absence of experience in batting and bowling are all reasonable explanations but little consolation when you are shamed into playing schoolboy cricket by traditional bullies at home who, not too long ago, were at the receiving end of a rather unkind cut by England.

IN-HOUSE TROUBLE

But it wasn’t just the Indian team that made the Australian players feel like schoolboys. Their coach and captain did too. In an attempt to establish discipline and teach the players a very hard lesson, coach Mickey Arthur and Clarke suspended vice-captain Shane Watson (the only top order bat apart from Clarke with Test experience in India), James Pattinson (the best bowler on tour until then), Usman Khawaja and Mitchell Johnson for not completing, on time, a presentation on improvements needed in the team after defeat in Hyderabad in the second Test.

Among the list of notorious records the Australian team notched up on this tour, this was the quirkiest of all—never before has a cricketer suspended on disciplinary grounds for a Test returned as captain for the next one.

One day, he was expressing grave displeasure at his sacking, flying back to Sydney to be by the side of his pregnant wife and—seriously contemplating—his Test future. The next, he was back on a plane to India, expressing optimism at being able to turn things around and proudly displaying the baggy green as Australia’s 44th Test captain.

But Watson hardly had reason to be proud. Ninety-nine runs from three Tests at an average of 16.50 was a rather poor performance from the second-most experienced bat in the squad—bowlers Peter Siddle and Mitchell Starc showed more application and scored more runs.

This turnaround in captaincy was necessitated because Clarke’s degenerative back condition meant he was on a plane back home after the third Test in Mohali, ruled out of the fourth Test and the IPL and rested to ensure his fitness issues are well and truly sorted before the Ashes in England this July.

By the end of the series, former Australia captain Ian Chappell was already listing out five captaincy options for the future, just in case Clarke’s back cuts his career short. For Australia’s “best captain since Mark Taylor”—as declared by Michael Slater—the burden rests heavy on a fragile body. Expected to lead Australian cricket into the light, score a bulk of the team’s runs, forge a world-beating unit and reclaim Australia’s lost glory, being Australian Prime Minister might just be easier.

The heat was on Arthur too who felt compelled to scrap his Twitter account when he could not cope with the mountain of flak he received for Homework Gate and the brownwash. “Thanks twitter, has been fun but deleting my account now! Thanks to all the genuine supporters out there,” he said in his farewell tweet, a day after the series was lost. Arthur—previously coach of South Africa and Australia’s first foreign coach—was left wondering what will qualify as his “line-in-the-sand moment” when it comes to the bosses at Cricket Australia. One can hardly blame him if he harbours secret ambitions to be in South Africa coach Gary Kirsten’s shoes.

Even Duncan Fletcher’s would do. In a dramatic reversal of fortune, India’s coach managed to hold on to his job for one more year—an extension of his two-year contract with the Indian cricket board after he took over in April 2011—an entirely unexpected move by the BCCI bosses after India’s 0–12 record from July 2011 to December 2012 against top-ranked Test teams.

India v Australia 1T D2

After starting off in the Chennai test with an 81, Tendulkar, who played a generally scratchy game, ended the series with 192 runs, ad an average of 32

But the po-faced coach can hardly celebrate. Fletcher must ripen his young wards into seasoned travellers for their Test tours to South Africa, New Zealand and England starting November 2013.

AND, DHONI’S BACK!

But more than respite for Fletcher, it was Mahendra Singh Dhoni who resumed normal service as “captain cool”, the “man with the Midas touch” and other such hyperbolic epithets he’s been lumped with. After his lowest phase as captain—that lasted the better part of 18 months and brought into serious question his commitment to Test cricket, his negative captaincy, his ability to lead a team in transition, and his lack of communication and emotion as a leader—Dhoni was back to what he knows best: winning.

If the tour was the breaking of Clarke in body and mind it was the remaking of Dhoni. After his counterpart scored a century in the Chennai Test, Dhoni undid Clarke’s labour on a decisive afternoon when the game looked like it might be drifting ever so slightly in Australia’s direction. Dhoni’s double hundred—the highest-ever by an Indian captain—on the rampage was so devastating and violent that it was almost scary to watch. It was enough to send Australia’s only decent spinner on the tour, Nathan Lyon, into a confidence crisis and temporary hibernation.

If the 99 in Nagpur against England in the fourth Test was laborious but just about enough to muffle the voices calling for his removal, for a while, the 224 in Chennai made sure those voices were strangled into silence. As a result, Dhoni’s captaincy transformed too—he calmly went about the business of rotating his attack efficiently, using his spinners effectively, and, most of all, utilising his voice at full volume to pep his young men up.

Dhoni was central to the script in the first Test, but it was also Ashwin’s return from the brink of obscurity. He went from a listless performance against England to examining what he needed to work on. Fortunately for India, he did his homework before the series. The rewards were well worth it—he walked away with the Man of the Series trophy with 29 wickets at an average just a shade over 20.

YOUNG GUNS BLAZE

The discoveries of the series, though, were Ravindra Jadeja and Shikhar Dhawan. The social media jokes on Sir Jadeja may continue to do the rounds but the Man of the Match in Delhi won’t care as long as the opposition takes him seriously (—-, page —-). Clarke, who unwittingly offered his wicket five times to the left-arm spinner, certainly does. Jadeja finished the series with 24 wickets, including his maiden five-wicket haul.

Dhawan, perpetually in the shadow of his more illustrious colleagues in the Delhi Ranji squad, took a profound journey inside over the last few years. He worked out what was holding him back, noting down his experiences and feelings in a personal journal, to emerge with telling answers on the way ahead. Personal happiness somewhat allayed the insecurities we must all deal with, and Dhawan’s debut was a celebration of his freedom from self-imposed shackles (Shikhar The One, page XXX).

So dominant was his rapacious blade as he went about scoring the fastest century by a Test debutante, that the Indian team had no reason to miss Virender Sehwag.

Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara completed the story of India’s batting success. With Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir struggling to give India starts over the last couple of years, the team management finally moved on from the past. Vijay emerged top of his class scoring 430 runs in the series with two centuries. Pujara—ever the calm, meditative presence at the crease—was runner-up with 419.

This series also brought about the breaking down of India’s old guard. From the last edition of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy in 2011-12 this was a new-look team picked by a brave selection committee that very firmly has its eye on the future. Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Gambhir, Sehwag, Zaheer Khan—architects of some of India’s greatest Tests wins home and away—all gone. Replaced by Dhawan, Vijay, Pujara, Jadeja and Bhuvneshwar Kumar.

THE SACHIN QUESTION

That brings us to Sachin Tendulkar. While the series started off well enough with 81 in Chennai, albeit after a reprieve from the umpire for a close leg before shout off Lyon, it was downhill thereafter. Tendulkar’s 192 runs at an average of 32 do not indicate his struggles with playing Lyon and his generally scratchy presence. He may yet rediscover form, and find yet another wind in the 24th year of his career, but nobody was willing to take any chances.

Anticipating that the fourth Test at the Kotla could be his last international appearance in India—according to the future tours programme, India do not play a Test at home till October 2014—the crowd at the Kotla bid him goodbye. Just in case.

Tendulkar did not let his poor form come in the way of boisterous celebrations as the Indian team ran a victory lap after the 4-0 annihilation was complete. But amidst all the high-fives and back-patting, India know not to get carried away. The 4-0 scoreline and outcome of this series is hardly a reflection of what is likely to happen in the future—the result was as much about how bad the Australians were as it was about how dominant India were.

Australia’s next big test is the Ashes, where conditions will be slightly more familiar and a 5-0 score line seems a distant possibility, even though the English tabloids have taken much glee in Aussie thrashing and bashing. India’s next Test series is only towards the end of the year in South Africa and they will have to play out of their skins to avoid a 3-0 result.

In Groundhog Day, the weatherman must relive the same day over and over till he’s able to learn from his mistakes, break the spell and find redemption—an examination of life’s recurring patterns that persist till you learn the cosmic lessons you are meant to. The Australians, it seems, were too busy doing their homework to really learn from their mistakes. Maybe, just maybe, India have learned from theirs.

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