Arch-rivals offer another corking series

2008-10-10 00:00

After an eternity of speculation about pitches and selection and injuries and retirements, the Indian and Australian sides have finally got to work.

Everyone remembers the recent exchanges, the hot and the heroic, and hopes for another contest on the same scale. In the last decade, competition between these sides has brought out the best in both parties. Admittedly, tempers have occasionally frayed, but that is little to put besides the enthralling contests and stirring performances that have uplifted the game. Between teams of this calibre, with so little to set them apart, the smallest thing can make the difference, and so they scrap over every issue like hungry crows upon a hunk of bread. More often spectators have been transfixed by the skill of the players and the tension of the proceedings.

Happily, both camps have enjoyed their victories, thereby sustaining the rivalry. India have not been scared to win and nor have they repeated England’s mistake of regarding a single triumph as the completion of the task.

India’s players have big ambitions and greater expectations. Indeed, they have come to regard themselves as the equals of the Australians. It is the essential first step towards conquest.

Certainly, they have been fearless and enterprising, daring to play their own game as opposed to seeking to emulate their muscular opponents. It is a lesson Graeme Smith and company need to absorb. In the past, Smith has tried to stand toe to toe with the Aussies and his game and reputation have suffered.

It helps that the Indians come from a large and thriving country and the players arrive armed with the grit of the back streets or a mind purified by exposure to high learning. In short, they are as tough as the Australians.

On paper, the Indians are favourites, an unusual position for them to occupy considering the reputation of their opponents. In theory, it will be a struggle between the waned and the waning as Australia’s newcomers try to find their feet and the mighty Indians seek to prolong their careers. Of course, both sides have in recent years had much in common, not least exceptional senior players capable of instilling and sustaining a strong culture in the team. By the look of things, the Indians will not realise what they have got until it has gone. Zimbabwe and Bangladesh seem likewise unaware of the value of experience. Zimbabwe’s recent hounding of Tatenda Taibu, and the trumped-up charges brought against, him are merely the latest unsavoury episode in a shocking history of misrule.

And the teams taking part in the match under way in Bangalore have another common attribute.

Both depend upon a mighty figure at the start of the innings, a batsman capable of imposing himself from the outset, in manner as much as deed. The last time these teams met, neither finished on the losing side. Matthew Hayden did not play in Perth, where a reduced Australian side was hounded into defeat. Virender Sehwag was omitted from the first two contests of the series, a mistake India had cause to regret.

Nowadays, Hayden’s abilities are widely acknowledged. Although imperious in manner and imposing in technique, he is in essence a hard-working professional. From a distance, and especially from the bowler’s end, it must seem that he simply steps arrogantly down the pitch and starts belting the ball around. As with Sehwag, his batting is more planned than it seems. It is a matter of developing a method that reflects individual ability and temperament.

Sehwag was for ages taken at face value. And he looked as daft as a brush. Yet his batting is not nearly as off the cuff as it seems. Admittedly, he has more rushes of blood than an enraged bull, but his game is soundly constructed. He does not hook and he moves behind the line on the back foot. Once he is in control, he is content to push the ball around, taking the easy runs on offer.

Truly, there is method in his madness. Patience is a weak point, but his shot selection is superb.

Cricket needs these rivals to produce another corking series. Bombs have gone off in Delhi, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, Mugabe’s wickedness continues in Zimbabwe, banks are going belly-up, things are falling apart. It’s up to these fine teams and these fine openers to cheer us all up. At its best, sport reveals people at their best.

•Peter Roebuck is an international cricket correspondent who lives in the KZN midlands.

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