Virender Sehwag was asked during the first Test in Melbourne if Gautam Gambhir's lack of runs was worrying. Fixing the questioner in an unblinking gaze, Sehwag said: “One innings, man. Long tour.”
This, of course, was before India's second innings. It was another of those moments between reporter and cricketer, a question inadequately articulated and thus intriguingly answered. The question was about long-term form, Sehwag's answer, about the challenges of playing Test cricket in Australia and the patience needed when assessing it.
Four Indians — Gautam Gambhir, Virat Kohli, Umesh Yadav, and R. Ashwin — played their first Test in Australia at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Their performances, as opener, middle-order bat, fast-bowler, and spinner, were indicative of India's; they raised issues, which, if contemplated, might clear the gloom of defeat.
Gambhir's is the most interesting case, for there is not the slightest doubt that he is a first-rate batsman who seems to have an extra dimension in a crisis. But the runs have come less prolifically over the last two years: he made 994 runs from 33 innings at 32.06 in 2010 and 2011 as compared to 1861 runs from 25 innings at 77.54 in 2008 and 2009.
Even during this dip in form, the significant innings under pressure hasn't been beyond him. His 97 in the World Cup final in 2011 was made in a different format, but the magnitude of the occasion warrants a mention. In South Africa, against Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel on largely bowler-friendly pitches, he recovered after falling for 5 in his first innings in the country to score 80, 93, and 64.
The tour of Australia is a vital time for Gambhir. His time in England was blighted by injury, a bruised elbow followed by a concussion. This severely compromised his ability — he suffered dizziness and nausea, which made tracking the ball difficult. For a man who is admittedly insecure (but, paradoxically, convinced about his abilities), the series against Australia was a chance to prove himself in trying circumstances.
Gambhir seemed to feel this burden at the MCG, his anxiety conveyed in his bottom-hand grip. When he's at his best, the hands work in unison, top leading, bottom modulating. In both innings of the first Test, his left hand was taking undue control of most strokes. His footwork, which had so noticeably improved during his return to Test cricket in 2008, was less certain as well.
There were better signs in the second innings, but the manner of dismissal, identical to the first innings, suggested that he hasn't yet a measure of the bounce in Australia. So far in his career, Gambhir has found a way even when others have written him off. It's this mental strength and fixity of purpose he'll need in the remaining Tests in Australia.
Out of depth
Kohli seemed out of his depth in Melbourne. He pushed at the ball, hands thrusting, over-anxious, in the first innings. In the second, he couldn't bring his bat around in time because his front foot had got in the way of an in-nipper. India hasn't found a man for No. 6 since Sourav Ganguly vacated the position. Neither Yuvraj Singh nor Suresh Raina could make it his own. Like these two, Kohli has exceptional ball-striking talent.
It will be fascinating to see if he can adapt to the five-day format. He had trouble with the short ball in the West Indies; the bouncing, moving ball bothered him here. Kohli is an ambitious and determined young man. But he will have to find a solution soon, for Rohit Sharma, who's waiting in the wings, does seem more assured against bounce.
Umesh's performance was by far the most heartening. From a simple, strong, repeatable action, he bowled at rapid speeds and often swung the ball. He defeated batsmen in defence and came back with the same pace late in the day, both signs of a quality fast-bowler. He also seemed to know what he was doing. But for the misguided adventure with the short ball on the first afternoon, he tested the batsman with line and length.
With Umesh and Ishant Sharma breaking the 150 kmph mark and Zaheer Khan looking like he has regained his best, India's seam attack appears capable of taking 20 Australian wickets. Besides there's Ashwin. The young off-spinner did enough to suggest he belongs. His three overs on the fourth day was the only time he seemed unsure of himself. He had trouble with his consistency, but his variations in pace and trajectory and the work he put on the ball kept the batsmen honest.
Sehwag, in the afore-mentioned press conference, called the bowling attack the best he has played with; if only it could stir its batsmen into the greatness they are capable of.
Keywords: India's tour of Australia