Cricket Riveting Cricket!! Valentine and Ramadhin Rise Again at Pune

Gideon Haigh, in The Australian, 27 February 2017, where his chosen title is Pune shock a victory for the true believers”

This was one for the true believers, and it’s fair to say that these were heavily outnumbered in the vicinity of MCA Stadium last week, especially once the pitch, as dry and scarred as the lunar surface, was rolled out. When Steve Smith spoke warmly ahead of the first Test of “the great challenge” of playing in India, and of the future possibility of team members looking back on a series win as “the best time of our lives”, he was indulged, but sceptically. Young captains must say such things, mustn’t they? The forebodings of a chorus of greats resonated more loudly.

Australia's captain Steve Smith bats during Third day of the first cricket test match against India in Pune, India, Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade)

Australia’s captain Steve Smith bats during Third day of the first cricket test match against India in Pune, India, Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade)

But when Smith opined of his tough summer’s cricket that “you probably learn more from losing games than you do from winning”, it turns out he was not kidding. In Pune, he and his team evinced a quality in which Australian cricket has not always abounded: humility.

They confronted previous Asian failings and strove not to repeat them. In the jargon du jour, ‘plans’ has replaced ‘good areas’ and ‘executing our skills’. It will soon pall, but for the moment has a novel ring. The captain took the initiative, for example, by promoting himself to No 3 at Usman Khawaja’s expense, to break up the left-handed cluster atop the order.

Smith will never in his career have played and missed at more deliveries outside off-stump. But he and his teammates dealt so insouciantly with such setbacks that they became hardly setbacks at all: on the contrary, there grew a sense of rope-a-dope about them.

There was a classic exchange on day two, when Smith was facing Ravi Jadeja. In 2013’s Delhi Test, Smith let a ball go from the same bowler that went on with the arm, stayed low and hit off stump. Now, four years older and wiser, he feinted at a turning delivery, only to drop his wrists as it spun.

Jadeja roared an appeal for caught at the wicket, then when it was turned down gazed imploringly at his captain. Smith stood his ground, almost striking a pose: “Go on, I dare you to review.” When Jadeja backed down, what should have been a moral victory for the bowler accrued instead to the batter.

Requiring less than four overs to take each of their wickets during the match, the Australians hardly needed to be patient when they bowled. But Steve O’Keefe and Nathan Lyon probed away in search of the ideal lengths and speeds, determined to learn, resolved to adjust, to the extent of O’Keefe spending the luncheon interval of the second day wheeling away on an adjacent pitch on the square until he had the feel of a fuller trajectory through his fingertips.

Australia’s performance is still better understood relative to India’s, where humility was counterpointed by its opposite. G’day hubris — meet my mate nemesis. Not sure you’ll get on.

The Indians could feel amply justified in their confidence leading into this Test. Virat Kohli’s men had thrashed all comers this summer, piled up monstrous scores, harvested sheafs of wickets. Yet it seemed as though they had forgotten Test cricket could be played any other way.

There is something awe inspiring about watching Indian cricketers in their natural environs, around hotels where they are nearly hemmed in by well-wishers, walking round boundaries where they are accompanied by a soundtrack of hosannas, at press conferences where they are treated with cringing deference, to the extent of giving autographs to journalists and acquiescing in their selfies. They are so very big; and it must on occasion be difficult to see cricket as bigger.

It’s not like the hosts thought they had merely to turn up here to win: Kohli is not that kind of captain, and Anil Kumble certainly not that kind of coach. But there were hints of a resolve just to play as they pleased, regardless of the opposition, and with a bit of dash and flair.

The Indians seemed hardly to observe their opponents at all: the lengths and lines they were favouring, the determination with which they were defending their stumps, even their frugality with reviews. India reviewed correctly once, a tailend irrelevance, and incorrectly six times.

Even at the press conferences on Saturday, where Smith referred regularly to India as an “amazing team” and prophesied they would “come back hard”, Kohli could barely bring himself to mention the Australians, while rejecting one question on bizarre epistemological grounds: “I’m sure you wouldn’t have asked this question had we won the game. The question changes drastically when you win or lose.” Well, yes: and if your aunt had a …… etc.

“It’s fine,” Kohli said of the mood in his dressing room. “It’s just another international game. It’s no big deal.” You grasped what he was getting at — no need to panic — but it rang a little false.

In Pune, the Australians have not just turned the tables on their hosts: they have changed the furniture and the decor. And it is not obvious how the Indians will respond. Confronted by pressure before, their stereotypical response has been to tailor a pitch to their spinning fingers and batting wrists. But it’s on such a surface they have just been totally eclipsed. The question ‘where do we go from here?’ requires more than the answer ‘Bangalore’.

One other observation. If every sparse crowd and funereal occasion is to be construed as a referendum on Test cricket’s future, then the opposite should also be saluted. The MCA Stadium is not an easy place to watch cricket at this time of year. It has one poorly shaded stand, and exposed terraces on whose seats you could fry eggs; it was built, in fact, more with Indian Premier League nights in mind than high summer days.

Yet the crowds were good on the first two days, excellent on the third, enthusiastic throughout, adulatory of the locals, but generous to the visitors too — come next month, Smith becomes an adopted local, as new captain of the Rising Pune Supergiant. For Test cricket, where home advantage has in recent years loomed so insuperably, Australia’s 333-run victory is a fabulous result.

So the caravan moves on. And, to paraphrase a more recent political formulation, there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian cricketer in India.


ALSO SEE Jarrod Kimber:  “A mixed-up tale of two captains,”

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