Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Indian cricket and the unforgiving Chennai clouds

"Rain robs Chennai of another match...." goes the headline about the washed out 3rd ODI between India and South Africa. Another? Eyebrows go up while accessing the memory chip above it. It always is a fun exercise to try and recall such references before clicking the detailed report. When was the last match rained out in Chennai? The data came pretty soon. It was that match. No more did I have the heart to click on and read the report.

Of course this ODI was ANOTHER match, after that washed out 5th day of our 2nd Test vs. Australia last year. Once again I am getting that sinking feeling….and I must pour it out today.

When Harsha Bhogle asked Martin Crowe about his 299 in Test matches, Crowe narrated the long story in short and finally added that he routinely spends a few minutes of each day thinking of that missing run. Just as I do about that missing day from the chapter of Indian cricket. THAT washed out 5th day of our 2nd Test vs. Australia in 2004. A match extended to 5th day by the great efforts of Damien Martyn and Gillespie who made India pay for their 4th day morning session lapses, the match which saw Anil Kumble maintain his dominance over Australian batsmen, the one where Veeru scored an epic 1st innings 150 and ended the 4th day (when India had just started their 4th inings chase of 229) by despatching Mcgrath for 3 boundaries in the last over of the day....
1st innings Aus 235, 71.3 ov.
2nd innings Ind 376, 134.3 ov.
3rd innings Aus 369, 133.5 ov.
4th innings Ind 19/0, 3 ov.
(game drawn)

The match had to be abandoned without any play on 5th day owing to non-stop downpour. That fateful day is more than a year behind us and yet the entire impact of that damp, damp downpour may well be learnt only in the future. So many little and big possibilities, small and tall dreams went down the gutter with those drops. Every one of them glistens more than the other in the glow of ‘what could have been’ on hindsight.

The washout was the only way that a draw could have resulted in that match. India could have lost, but more importantly India could have won. For the Indian cricket follower, that 5th day probably was the point when the series result was sealed by fate in favour of the visitors long before the writing actually became clear. It is not in every Test that Australia gets into a tight corner. It eventually meant India had lost their best chance of squaring their biggest Test series in a long time to come, and were never given another chance by the champs to put their ‘final frontier’ dream under siege.

For Virender Sehwag it has been business like usual in the intervening one year. His Test match average has continued looking healthy as the person himself, as has the yawning gap between Viru’s 1st and 2nd innings averages. It doesn’t pay to weigh yourself down with (more) hindsight, but I am yet to find anyone who assures me that a 4th innings Indian win in that Test crafted by the ominous-looking Viru would have done nothing to change his 2nd innings woes.

Mohammad Kaif, who stood up to be counted as a man among the boys in that series, might have got just reward for the bloody-minded determination he showed while batting with severe cramps to stretch the 1st innings lead.

And for Sourav Ganguly the skipper, it meant all this and possibly a lot more. Something within me tells me that since that Sydney test in Jan 2004 where we failed to enforce an unprecedented series win Down Under, Sourav had made a personal pledge not to concede the Border-Gavaskar trophy to the Australians. (Ganguly, in a recent TV interview, mentioned that particular failure to enforce a win as one of his principal career disappointments, and that lend further weight to the view.) He could not win in their backyard in his only away series as a skipper, and he would not concede them a series at home either.

It was a noble goal, one that was as important to him as it was for any person who wanted to take Indian cricket forward. He realistically had just this one home series to defend to see his secret dream come true. Fulfilment of his dream would have left few parallels of him and his team anywhere in world cricket. It was not to be achieved there at Chennai.

However as the Indian skipper, Ganguly needed to forget this rain-affected match and charge onto the field with his boys in the next game determined to pull one back. He also had Sachin returning in the team in the 3rd Test, which was inspiring for the team (because it always is). The Australians simply had to be given a befitting fight before they achieved the final frontier. Instead he got involved in the ‘fast-pitch’ controversy engendered by dirty zonal backbiting during the next match at Nagpur and even refused to play the match citing injury. If ever there was an ‘imaginary’ injury and a poor protest this was it. It broke the camel’s back, that same camel that was nurtured by Sourav over 4 painstaking years.

In retrospect, he uncharacteristically allowed this damp Chennai day to wash out a lot of resolve from his psyche. When the skipper is waiting for disaster to happen, it leaves his side no hope of squaring a series against a top team.

India were struggling from the start of that season, but those looked more like jitters than tremors. After the loss to Australia, the team lost motivation and simply went through the motions. Even the subsequent reasonable results achieved by the team in the longer version spoke more of the intrinsic strength of the team than any inspired cricket played. There was no alarming downward spiral, neither was an upswing round the corner. Little flair was on display barring Viru, and the team had no joy to offer. Indian cricket appeared to have gone back by 5 years during this period.

It’s a thought that saddens my heart every time I think of that day. It is absolutely silly to blame a few hours of rain in a single city for the present state of Indian cricket and the failing surely lies with the individuals concerned (and the melancholic fatalists like me) that the day may be thought to have counted for so much. But..

..One missing rainy day would not have cost Chennai too much, I believe.