S. Ram Mahesh
In the company of a fighting Dravid propels India’s morale
Sydney: It was the pair of V.V.S. Laxman and Rahul Dravid that had helped snap Australia’s record winning streak under Steve Waugh, calling forth 376 transcendental runs under great duress at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata.
The scale of their achievement at the Sydney Cricket Ground on Thursday was less magnificent; the sense of liberation wasn’t dissimilar. Laxman’s 109 was an innings of high art, unlike Dravid’s 53, which was scrappy, even ugly in comparison, but the revelations of character were uniformly uplifting.
Test cricket, as E.W. Swanton wrote, allows for a full expression of a man’s natural humours, therein lies its essence: no wonder the 29,000 that came through the turnstiles were engrossed by what they saw on the second day of the second Test, already shaping as a grandee.
Use of largesse
Laxman and Dravid made commendable use of Australia’s largesse (Adam Gilchrist flubbed four shots at reaching 400 dismissals, letting off each batsman twice) to raise 175 runs and keep India in the fight.
But, they left within an over of each other late in the day — rarely are wickets opportune, for the batting side that is, and this was especially bad timing, as it left India vulnerable. Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly played assuredly, however, and guided the team to stumps on 216 for three — 247 behind Australia.
Dravid and Laxman were brought together by a bit of high-class fast bowling after lunch. Brett Lee, running in with a stiff sou’easterly blowing over his right shoulder towards the slips, stapled Wasim Jaffer on the back foot with a series of nasty, lifting deliveries. Mitchell Johnson played his part, following a similar brief the previous over.
The set-up was perfect for all its blatancy. Lee’s yorker, launched at 146.7 kmph and angled in, could have potentially crushed Jaffer’s toe; but, it revealed a further trick late in its path, arcing away, defeating the half-formed stroke, and smashing the base of off-stump.
Laxman began with a glance to long-leg and followed it with a caress through cover, both off Johnson. He then pulled Lee, the wrists doing the bulk of the work. Much is made of the tall, slim Hyderabadi’s wristwork, and rightly so, for to see the wrists course through the ball is to be made aware of how a whisper can be as arresting as a shout.
But, there is little comment on its utility. As Laxman showed in Johnson’s eighth over, the wrists unlock areas of scoring. Captains often put the extra man on the on-side, opening the off. And bowlers, aware of his ability to turn balls to the leg, over-compensate in line. The transpose is always a possibility. Off Johnson, Laxman gilded three drives to draw the ball to flick.
Laxman hit a rut in the 80s, but so scorching a pace had he set that he reached his 12th hundred in 127 balls. As is customary, a large part of his runs came in boundaries — 72 of 109 to be exact — making up for some poor running.
Dravid surprisingly had a high percentage of boundaries as well (36 of his 53). He also had long periods of scorelessness. But, his great strength is his ability, as a man capable of moments of beauty, to endure looking hideous. The mindless flail, which ended in first slip’s hands, was therefore dismaying. Laxman was then beaten in flight by Hogg.
Earlier, Australia had prolonged India’s agony in the morning, highlighting the advantage of an attacking lower order. While there has been an improvement in lower-order batting world-wide, helped by the curb on bouncers, the enhancement in protective equipment, and the shift away from specialisation, the current Australian side is particularly well-endowed.
For one, numbers eight, nine, ten, and eleven contain two left-handers; surprising as it may be, bowlers even at the highest level dislike the forced switching of line, and often struggle with it. For another, Hogg, Lee, Johnson and Clark are all stroke-players by nature.
And there is considerable skill to go with the aggressive disposition. Proof? Lee and Johnson outscored Symonds in their alliances; as did Hogg during a large part of his time with the centurion on Wednesday.
The list of partnerships with Symonds read thus: 173 (Hogg) in 36.2 overs for the seventh wicket, 114 (Lee) in 31.4 overs for the eighth, and 40 (Johnson) in 8.1 overs for the ninth — exceptional, yes, but indicting as well of India’s tactics.
Symonds toyed with Anil Kumble’s spread field, hitting just one four on Thursday, but continuing to collect runs with lissom touch. The ploy of allowing the established batsman the single rarely pays dividends. It concedes you aren’t trying to get him out, and why would you let him know that? Moreover, a batsman of Symonds’s ability will still hurt you, as he did late on Wednesday, when India’s change to defence was premature.
Kumble, the bowler, eventually came to the aid of Kumble, the captain. A flipper ended Lee’s innings of 59, full of drives led by a high elbow. Johnson was agricultural once too often (why does he need to slog when he can punch so well off either foot?) and Clark stayed the shortest of Australia’s lower order. Symonds remained unbeaten on 162, his highest Test score, his fortune extending to Thursday with umpire Bucknor ill-advisedly not calling for the replay on a stumping chance.SCOREBOARD Australia — 1st innings: P. Jaques c Dhoni b R.P. Singh 0, M. Hayden c Tendulkar b R.P. Singh 13, R. Ponting lbw b Harbhajan 55, M. Hussey c Tendulkar b R.P. Singh 41, M. Clarke lbw b Harbhajan 1, A. Symonds (not out) 162, A. Gilchrist c Tendulkar b R.P. Singh 7, B. Hogg c Dravid b Kumble 79, B. Lee lbw b Kumble 59, M. Johnson c Ganguly b Kumble 28, S. Clark lbw b Kumble 0, Extras (b-2, lb-9, nb-3, w-4) 18; Total (in 112.3 overs) 463.
Fall of wickets: 1-0 (Jaques), 2-27 (Hayden), 3-119 (Ponting), 4-119 (Hussey), 5-121 (Clarke), 6-134 (Gilchrist), 7-307 (Hogg), 8-421 (Lee), 9-461 (Johnson).
India bowling: R.P. Singh 26-3-124-4, Ishant 23-3-87-0, Ganguly 6-1-13-0, Harbhajan 27-3-108-2, Kumble 25.3-0-106-4, Tendulkar 5-0-14-0.
India — 1st innings: W. Jaffer b Lee 3, R. Dravid c Hayden b Johnson 53, V.V.S. Laxman c Hussey b Hogg 109, S. Tendulkar (batting) 9, S. Ganguly (batting) 21, Extras (b-4, lb-8, nb-6, w-3) 21; Total (for three wkts. in 62 overs) 216.
Fall of wickets: 1-8 (Jaffer), 2-183 (Dravid), 3-185 (Laxman).
Australia bowling: Lee 15-4-34-1, Johnson 18-2-75-1, Clark 11-3-28-0, Symonds 7-1-19-0, Hogg 11-0-48-1.