S. Ram Mahesh

Both India and Australia have tended to be defensive

New Delhi: This has been a curious series so far. Both India and Australia have appeared more intent on suggesting the other is courting an overtly defensive style than sparking the electric cricket that has made their rivalry the most compelling in the contemporary game.

Barring the second Test in Mohali, which India won with a wholesome, overmastering display for a 1-0 lead that stands as the final Test in Nagpur approaches, the cricket has been decidedly underwhelming — far removed from the verve and imagination of their other series this decade.

There have been moments of glory, of brio, of drama. How can there not be? This after all is Test cricket, its intricate, engaging structure perfect for grand theatre; and both sides contain some of the finest cricketers the world has seen.

But the quality of the cricket itself has been largely under-par. The conditions have had much to do with it. Test cricket — indeed any form of cricket — is meant to be a balanced battle between bat and ball.

More interesting

Nothing saps the vivacity of a contest as surely as the weighting of one facet to the detriment of the other.

If someone has to be privileged, it may as well be the bowler, for low- and middle-scoring jousts on bowler-friendly surfaces are infinitely more interesting than batting marathons.

The bowlers have had it tough this series, and the difference between the sides has been Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma’s success with reverse swing and Amit Mishra’s flight, side-spin, and deception during the second Test — qualities that to a large extent remove the surface from the equation.

The fact that both sides are dealing with transition has affected the cricket. There aren’t many changes to either team from the fascinating series in Australia in 2007-08, but the ones that are missing — Adam Gilchrist and Andrew Symonds — are multi-faceted game-breakers; moreover, all the personnel have shifted along the wheel of evolution.

The stories of the leaders of both bowling attacks, Brett Lee and Anil Kumble, illustrate why the cricket hasn’t measured up.

Lee was close to the complete fast bowler in Australia, harnessing swing, cut, and control of length to enhance the thrust of his natural pace. He had appeared then to have assumed Glenn McGrath’s mantle felicitously.

But a heart-rending break-up drained Lee. Not the easiest place for a fully fit fast bowler to tour, India has tested Lee’s resilience and versatility to breaking point.

It’s a measure of the man that he revived himself here at the Ferozeshah Kotla, hitting the crease harder with improved rhythm and strength, and often cranking his pace up to the old levels.

In Kumble’s case, the wear and tear an 18-year international career inflicts on a bowler, particularly one so welcoming of punishment, had retarded the physical skill.

While his leg-spin retained the well-known vehemence in Australia, evident in his five-wicket haul on a first-day strip in Melbourne, the 38-year-old body had begun to give up the ghost.

Lasting image

Again, it’s a tribute to the man that despite enduring eleven stitches he left us a lasting image of his defiance: having seen Mishra, his successor in the spin department, not do enough to stop a ball, he ran back several yards and, torn finger and all, caught Mitchell Johnson for his third wicket of the innings.

Both sides have tended to the defensive, noticeable in the fields the captains have set. While these fields may be rationalised as the most prudent with the resources and the conditions on offer, they have betrayed a reluctance to seize initiative.

Some positions in particular — long on and deep backward point to a new batsman, to name two — have flown in the face of cricket logic.

Even M.S. Dhoni, portrayed as the poster boy of attacking leadership, has shown he isn’t entirely exempt from the forces that shape the modern-day captain into a more conservative creature than his predecessors.

Vital responsibility

A vital responsibility awaits Dhoni in the crucial fourth Test, which begins on Thursday.

Australia, desperate to retain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy by levelling the series, has been nudged into playing its natural style at Nagpur.

Dhoni mustn’t allow India to sit on the lead; the side has done best when provoking Australia into error.

This context may well germinate the stirring, attacking cricket not always evident this series.

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