December 22, 2006

Sreesanta Claus comes ‘sledging’ to herald India’s X’mas party in SA

By H Natarajan

Just when everybody had written off India's tour of South Africa as one of the biggest disasters in the nation’s cricket history, comes a turnaround that is nothing short of sensational – even surreal. The Indian team had struck an abysmal low; the men in blue were outbatted, outbowled, outfielded and outclassed in the ODI series and Rahul Dravid’s team was lampooned by their countrymen back home. The team’s collective loss of form was staggering. There was not a soul the side could look up to as the team headed into the Test series, which was widely accepted a gross mismatch. Indeed, a writer would have been lynched for mindless exaggeration had he dared to script the way the first Test at Jo’burg panned out.

South Africa had packed their side with five quality fast bowler – the raw but genuinely quick Dale Steyn, the nippy Makhya Ntini, the fiery Andre Nel, the never-to-be-underestimated Jacques Kallis and, of course, the master of control, consistency and variety, Shaun Pollock. The pre-match prognosis of the pundits was near unanimous: annihilation of India with unrelenting pace. And when Dravid bravely opted to bat on a track of variable bounce, the buzz was already around that the decision by the India captain was suicidal.

India’s first innings score of 249 was quite handsome, considering the track was dicey. But that total quickly assumed match-winning proportions as in a matter of just 25.1 over the Indian seam attack decimated South Africa for just 84. The swiftness and savagery - reminiscent of Mike Tyson 91-second kayo of Michael Spinks at Atlantic City, N.J., 18 years back – traumatized the home team so badly that the Test was shockingly over inside three days and a session.

South Africa depth in the batting is matched by very few teams in the world. It’s never a comforting thought when all-rounders of the calibre of Shaun Pollock and Mark Boucher come very late in the order. No total is imposing for such a line-up as Australia found out when they lost a match in March earlier this year after posting a world record ODI score of 434 for four in 50 overs.

It’s quite an achievement to beat any team at home, but moreso South Africa because it has an awesome home record since their readmission into the ICC fold in 1991-92: 37 wins, 18 drawn from 61 Tests. The fact that India achieved it against a country as powerful as South Africa, in conditions tailor-made for the home team’s formidable fast bowlers and while in the grip of a severe crisis, makes the victory not far behind what it achieved against Australia in 2001 at Kolkata.

Clearly, the man of the hour and the match was Shantakumaran Sreesanth. Unless memory is playing tricks, not since 1996 has an Indian fast bowler looked so menacing with pace and guile as Sreesanth did in the first Test. The team that was at the receiving end of an Indian paceman in 1996 (at Ahmedabad) was yet again South Africa and the destroyer-in-chief was another Sri – (Javagal) Srinath, who bowled with sustained fire and brilliance to come up with figures of 11.5-4-21-6. Thrice he took two wickets with consecutive balls in South Africa’s second innings of 105 (in 38.5 overs) where six batsmen recorded ducks. There are no survivors from that vanquished South African team, but four of the victorious Indian team were in the playing eleven at Jo’burg – Sachin Tendulkar, Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid and debutant VVS Laxman.

Srinath was already a seasoned bowler when he came up with that magical spell at Ahmedabad, but Sreesanth is still a tyro. Just six Tests old, his aggression, attitude, ability and approach is something that one has not seen among the best and experienced Indian fast bowlers, past or present. Celebrated cricketers in the TV commentary box were understandably ecstatic at Sreesanth’s ability to consistently keep the seam upright. Coach Greg Chappell was in agreement: "I've never seen anyone do that as consistently. It was remarkable how well the seam came out every time. The good bowlers do that consistently over periods and probably three or four times in an over. He was doing it six times an over, time after time after time." That’s high praise for a fast bowler playing just his sixth Test and from a man who has played with and against some of the finest pace and swing bowler in the history of the game.

Sreesanth gets inside the skin of the opposition with his agro. He is willing to cop it and give it in equal measure. And when an irresistible force like him comes against an irreverent object like Andre Nel, it’s pure theatre of Oscar-winning proportions!

But while Sreesanth’s match figures of eight for 99 deserves special mention, the heartening fact of the Indian victory was it was a truly team effort: Dravid and Tendulkar rescued in the first innings with a stand of 69 after India were two down for 14, Laxman came up with two important knocks of 28 and 73, Sourav Ganguly battled his way into the national side and contributed an unbeaten half century in the first and an innings of 25 in the second that was far more valuable than cold numbers may suggest, Kumble came up with some important wickets in his match haul of five, Zaheer, too, got a haul of five while giving fine support to Sreesanth, VRV Singh bowed well and frustrated South Africa with his batting while batting at No 11 in the first innings while Virender Sehwag came up with some stunning catches.

The recall of Zaheer, Laxman and especially Ganguly was interpreted by a section of people as a retrograde step. But the happenings at Jo’burg proved that the return of the men from exile actually fired them up and prove their detractors wrong. In conditions heavily loaded in favour of the batsmen, it was heartening to see the Indian tail put a value on their wickets. VRV was the dominant partner in his 44-run stand with Ganguly for the last wicket while in the second innings Zaheer contributed significantly with the bat while partnering Laxman in a stand of 70. Though Kumble did not score much in this Test, he, too, has been batting far more consistently of late than he has at any time in his career. The attitude of the Indian tailenders augurs well for the team.

Wonder what our politicians and other detractors, who were lambasting the Indian team with their two bit knowledge of the game, have to say now? Where are they hiding now? And if they national interest was so strong, how come they have not said a word about the happenings at Doha? Why have they not clamouring for the KPS Gill’s head after Indian hockey plumbed another low by failing to even win a bronze at the Asian Games? Why are they not raising the voice for embarrassing our Asiad hero Jaspal Rana (winner of 3 gold and 1 silver) by summoning him back from home to receive Most Valuable Player Award at the Games which was actually won by South Korean swimmer Tae Hwan Park? Why didn’t they ask for an all too familiar inquiry when Mahesh Bhupathi, one of our all-time greatest sporting heroes, left in hurt and disgust after winning the gold with Leander Paes? Is it not an embarrassment for a nation to find a female, medal-winning athlete failing a gender test? Obviously, none of these would get them the kind of attention on prime time television as heaping unjustified garbage on cricket and cricketers would.

The Indian team has given an answer to these detractors in the best possible manner: by performing emphatically on the field. It’s all the more creditable that the victory was achieved without three key young players with a great future – Munaf Patel, Irfan Pathan and Yuvraj Singh - who are sidelined by injury or loss of form.

Like index scrips SBI, Tisco, Grasim and L&T, the old firm of Kumble, Ganguly, Laxman and Zaheer, have proved that they are still forces to reckon with. But whether Jo’burg is a bear market rally or the start of a bull phase, led by the emerging blue-chips like Sreesanth, remains to be seem. History has copious evidence that consistency is not India’s forte, but history also tells us that it can be rewritten. For Indian cricket’s sake, let’s hope Jo’burg is a positive watershed moment.