India: shredded in England, now pulped in Australia

Gideon Haigh, in The Weekend Australian, 28-29 January 2012, with different title:Tourists have gone in circles rather than thinking in cycles”

RAHUL Dravid was widely and justly praised for his Bradman Oration last month. He has also proven prophetic. “Creaking terminators”: his droll, self-mocking description of India’s top order has turned out to be almost unimproveable. Yesterday at Adelaide Oval, they ground finally to a halt, and a remorseless Australian attack rolled right over the top of them.

 Pic from AFP

The visitors’ four mighty batsmen, weighty with honours and worth 45,000 Test runs, slouched towards the exits of their careers, the victims of good bowling, if not perhaps in each case of particularly good balls. They moved off pensively – in Virender Sehwag’s case at a meditative limp, holding the bat at its toe, analogous to a flag at half-mast.

Often times we talk of a player who has gone on a game too far. There is a case to be made that this Indian team has since its World Cup victory gone on a year too far, or at least gone in circles when it should have been thinking in cycles. Its reputation, shredded in England, has here been pulped.

There are effectively two kinds of declarations: one where the idea is to beguile opponents with a sense that victory is a possibility, the other designed to convince opponents of their task’s futility. Clarke chose the latter and it was hard to fault him. India’s four key wickets fell in a fashion that smacked of confusion, on the negative side of defensive and at the reckless extreme of aggression.

Often likened to the Buddha, Sehwag nonetheless scorns the middle path, rolling along at a pace and in a vein only his own. If a more relaxed batsman has played the game, he does not come readily to mind. He selects shots with no more intensity than a television viewer channel surfing late at night, and toddles between wickets as if conceding to the conventions of the game rather than as actually intending to score.

This summer, however, he has looked a listless mess, living in more or less constant jeopardy, and his insouciance has savoured of irresponsibility. The first ball he faced in the second innings from Ben Hilfenhaus was actually a carry-over hat-trick delivery of which even the bowler seemed unaware, not that it would have made a jot of difference to Sehwag’s stroke – very nearly a repeat of the batsman’s dismissals in Melbourne and Sydney.

Hilfenhaus’s third over then afforded him two boundaries, one aimed at cover that soared over the cordon, the other directed at mid-wicket that cleared point: you can’t believe everything you read on wagon wheels.

The summer’s wagon wheels do reveal something about Sehwag, though: he has scored only a quarter of his runs on the on side in this series. His trademark remains the punch between backward point and mid-off, and when he played it yesterday the ball stayed hit. But half a quiver of arrows is insufficient in Australia, where outfields are bigger and slower, and boundaries do not come so easily as on the sub-continent.

Sehwag’s capacity for making good bowling look ordinary has also been balanced by an ability to make the mediocre lethal. When Lyon was introduced to the attack, it was the first slow bowling Sehwag has faced for the entire series, and he larruped perfectly respectable deliveries over mid-off and through point as if to make up for lost opportunity. When Lyon proffered a full toss, however, the imp of the perverse intervened, and the mishit hovered long enough over cover for Sehwag to share sensations well-known to Indian fans this summer – sensations of carelessness and waste.

No sooner had Dravid arrived at the crease than the big screen at the Cathedral End was replaying all his bowled dismissals this summer, a gratuitous bit of psychological warfare on which he turned a serene back. Equally germane would have been the statistics that the average Indian opening partnership of the series has been worth 15.6 runs and 30.8 deliveries – a challenge to a number three in his prime let alone a number three in his fortieth year.

No player this last month has so much to blame Craig McDermott for. With their new-found lateral movement, the Australian bowlers have tugged Dravid’s front foot defensive shot one way then the other until the creaks have been nearly audible; this time, weary and worn down but straining to be positive, he chased a ball that a month ago he would have let go.

The party-waiting-to-happen with which Sachin Tendulkar arrived just over 50 days ago, meanwhile, has now turned into an exploding cigar. Seldom in five tours have Australians seen him so tentative at the crease. He has looked his age in the field, too, as though possessed of only one pair of whites which he is loath to incur grass stains.

To Lyon, Tendulkar stretched as far forward as he was able, but not far enough to smother the spin, and as Aleem Dar’s finger rose gave his pads a ruminative tap. Will that elusive century now transpire during one of the host of mass-produced limited-overs internationals coming up to meet Indian television appetites? That would arguably be at least as fitting as in an Australian Test match before a capacity crowd.

The last cyborganic crepitation was heard when VVS Laxman perished in perhaps the most symbolic fashion of all. At Eden Gardens in 2001, Laxman marmalised Shane Warne with his whip away to leg from outside off; it became one of the signature strokes of the ensuing decade. Yesterday Clarke disobligingly put a fielder in its way but Laxman played it anyway, heedlessly and not a little desperately.

These four dismissals were those of cricketers already beaten: dead-rubber shots, predestined by three heavy defeats. They raised questions about the futures of all four players, great as they have been, and Indian cricket itself, rich as it is.

“There’s a storm coming,” ends The Terminator. There should be.

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