As India flayed away, SA went back to the basics

2008-04-05 00:00

FRANKLY, it has been hard to concentrate on sport this week. A household packed with victims of the ogre across the Limpopo has experienced extreme emotions. In the space of a few days, the mood has swung from hope to excitement, to despair, to disgust, to desperation, to resignation and back to hope that the fascist might finally be toppled, along with his loathsome assistants.

Not even Arsenal, Kaizer Chiefs or Generations could force a changing of channel from the news outlets, among which the SABC has been better informed and balanced than previously.

Not until the Test series resumed did attention switch from Zimbabwe to the game of bat and ball. Fortunately, the first day was astonishing and provided many insights.

Greatness is never to be underestimated. Study the Indian batting order with all its high achievers. Does it not look naked without Sachin Tendulkar? Great performers have an influence that reaches beyond their own contributions. Their presence instils confidence in colleagues and their absence inspires opponents.

But Tendulkar’s injury alone could not explain India’s lamentable showing, or the superb display put up by the visitors. Everything happened so quickly on that first morning.

It was a battle between contemporary batting and old-fashioned bowling. People routinely discount the usefulness of tried and trusted methods, but whenever rain starts to fall, 1 000 umbrellas go up.

Modern batsmen seem to have forgotten that the ball is allowed to move. Whenever the leather starts swinging or cutting they look about as comfortable as racing cars on a dirt road.

Doubtless it is all a matter of raising. In olden times opening batsmen (a group inclined to dismiss middle-order men as la-di-das) played with trained suspicion.

As a matter of pride, they sniffed leather and took the shine off the ball. In local derbies, any opening batsman striking a boundary in the first hour was immediately whisked off to an asylum. But they were familiar with dodgy pitches and war and the sort of depression that not even a milk tart can fix.

Batsmen raised in an era of dubious pitches learnt the hard way. Most particularly they learnt to leave the ball alone, to play late and with short backlifts the better to counter movement.

None of them played loose shots early on. Geoff Boycott and John Edrich, Bill Lawry and Bob Simpson, John Wight and Bruce Edgar would have been better placed than their successors to survive that first morning on a green top in Ahmedabad.

On the other hand, these fellows were not entertainers. They were cut from stone not lace, were about as frilly as a starched collar.

Nor were they expected to score at four an over from the outset, did not play 20-over cricket, did not use heavy bats, and had not stroked 150 in the previous outing. To them every run was valuable, every rugged hour negotiated a triumph. They were ready to go through the fires and afterwards seldom squandered their opportunity. Some of their relations had known soup kitchens.

Modern batsmen are more willing to trust their luck. To them footwork is a secondary matter. They are hunters not collectors. Every ball is a scoring opportunity, defence is a last resort.

Virender Sehwag is the best example of the prevailing outlook, a colossal batsman who does not bother much with well honed 30s, preferring to take risks in order to grab the initiative. Nor is Wasim Jaffer, his partner, versed in the arts of surviving the swinging ball. He plays an awful lot of shots with half a bat.

Likewise, Sourav Ganguly’s footwork is sketchy. Among the home elite, only the troupers, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, were undone by corkers.

Contrastingly, the South African pacemen bowled in an old-fashioned way, keeping a full length and a tight line and letting ball and pitch do some of the work for them.

Evidently, they had benefited from the flat surface encountered in the previous match, a track that forced them to work hard on the basics. For their part, the Indian batsmen had become complacent and careless.

Youth may relish the life of adventure, but ancients can be forgiven for enjoying the struggle between bat and ball, and the truths it reveals. Tendulkar, Dravid and Jacques Kallis are genuine masters with enduring techniques.

Steve Waugh’s finest innings were played against the odds, in the face of Ambrose’s onslaught in the Caribbean and on a notably unreliable deck in Manchester. Of course, cricket is an entertainment.

But it is also a skill and immense satisfaction can be found in, and taken from, overcoming the sort of adversity encountered in Ahmedabad. India needed an umbrella, but could not find shelter of any sort.

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

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