Cricket: Taking stock after series win

Cricket: Taking stock after series win
PHOTO: AFP

An away win has been a long time coming. Like controlling inflation and preventing food wastage, it was considered unattainable in recent times. But as with the other two problems, intent and belief is often the key in sport and we saw a lot of that in Sri Lanka; even though letting the first Test slip was something only an inept policeman in a movie would have allowed. A little bad period had produced a large defeat and it was in overcoming that and dominating the rest of the series that the real achievement lies.

India seemed to have a player just when he was needed and it was rather dramatically apparent in the last Test where the soft spoken and oft-forgotten Cheteshwar Pujara played an innings of great skill and application. Both count, though sometimes we value the former more. Pujara seems to approach life with the seriousness of an economist and in the first innings on a wonderfully seamer-friendly track at the Sinhalese Sports Club, it was a quality to savour. There were many fine hundreds in the series, the customary one from Ajinkya Rahane and two mighty ones from the impressive Angelo Mathews but Pujara's had the greatest influence on the winning of a series.

Pujara's life has been about overcoming obstacles and as he sips a king coconut in Colombo and looks into the distance with those piercing eyes, he will wonder if he has done enough to be in the Indian team without someone being injured. But cricket teams are all about balance and much will depend on whether India play six batsmen against the more formidable South Africa. If they do, Pujara should have the pads on while the openers go out.

Much has been said about anybody batting anywhere in this side and while that resonates well, your top three in Test cricket are often cast in stone. If Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay are to be the first two, and in spite of KL Rahul's two centuries that seems right in home conditions, the third must acquire an air of permanence. Four contenders have emerged: Rahul, Rohit Sharma, Rahane and Pujara himself and I suspect the final occupant will depend not on who is best placed to play at that number but on who the five best batsmen in the side are. And it could well come down to Pujara or Rohit again.

There is something to be said though in favour of playing six batsmen, but if five is going to be deemed enough, then it is critical that the fifth bowler, a spinner in Indian conditions, must bat. With Ravi Ashwin and Amit Mishra, two others who will look back at the last month with a lot of satisfaction, guaranteed, you would ideally want the fifth to be a left-arm spinner. Axar Patel has bowled a lot of overs for India "A" and he needed those, but he should be able to bat at No. 7 and that might be a stretch at the moment.

But having three bowlers in great form is a gift few teams have. That one of them is a fast bowler is, if anything, a luxury even if he is someone who has caused people to tear their hair in frustration. I saw, and broadcast on, that great spell young Ishant Sharma produced against Ponting in 2008. Over the next seven years, it remained a solitary jewel in his crown. He promised more occasionally but it had the longevity of a pronouncement on an election rally. After Sri Lanka, Ishant has a second jewel for he bowled better than he ever has. Including Perth. This was a sustained effort. He was the lead bowler. Every time a wicket was needed in the third Test, the captain was looking towards him. And, almost inevitably, he delivered one.

A temper has arrived too. Or more accurately, a tantrum. Ishant needs to be careful in harnessing aggression lest it put him on the bench and force him to watch someone else bowl for India. His captain in Perth, Anil Kumble, might be a good sounding board for he too was possessed of great aggression but a very calm head. Having said that, it is a long time since I have enjoyed watching an Indian fast bowler as much as I have Ishant in this series. His 200 wickets have taken a long time coming. The next 100 must be quicker.

Ashwin took many giant strides forward as a bowler and a disappointing step back as a batsman. Like his tall, long-haired friend, he surpassed himself. He has a settled look to him now. The stock ball, one he occasionally seemed to lose patience with, is working smoothly for him and exotic variations of actions and delivery, some very clever one must admit, have been put aside for now. Ashwin is one of my players to watch out for in the home series. Hopefully, he will tighten his defence and bat like a batsman for he is one.

He seems to work well with Amit Mishra whose comeback was one of the highlights easily overlooked. He got wickets with the leg break, the googly, with the lbw on the straight ball but most thrillingly from a leg spinner's perspective, with one that curved outside leg and came back to hit the stump. If you can bowl that, you are bowling well.

Worrisome for India was the inconsistency of the batsmen, the inability to get an opening partnership going irrespective of who was manning that position, the churn in batting positions and the inability to identify the front-runner for No. 3. Happily, except for the second innings in Galle, someone stepped up but sanctity to batting numbers is not necessarily old-fashioned.

And the second seamer continued to frustrate. Umesh Yadav holds on to his good balls like an old merchant with gold coins; possessed of them but only releasing them occasionally. So too with Varun Aaron and you can see why Virat Kohli would want Mohd Shami, his best reverse swing bowler, to become available soon.

South Africa will be good opposition, they are the only team that travels well, and this result in Sri Lanka whets the appetite for that contest. The Sri Lankans produced excellent pitches and the players delivered memorable cricket. If India's curators can do that we have a thrilling season of Test cricket ahead.

tabla@sph.com.sg


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