India’s new-found confidence against pace bowling has helped them become the world’s best

2011-07-23 00:00

NOT so long ago John Woodcock, the doyen of English cricket scribes, began his column with “As recently as 1936..” Ordinarily that sort of thing is discouraged, especially in the Murdoch papers, but his grandfather had fought against Napoleon — the Woodcocks marry at a ripe old age — so his eccentricities were forgiven. For that matter he started a match report by informing readers that “Nothing much happened in Northampton yesterday...” an opening lacking the pizzazz generally regarded as essential in the profession.

Not so long ago, somewhere in the mists of time, and with precious few exceptions, Indian batsmen could not deal with extreme pace or seam movement and were easily brushed aside by assorted English miners and antipodean roughnecks (that may be a tautology).

Then Fred Trueman and Ray Lindwall could cut down the cream of subcontinental batting in minutes. England once claimed four Indians in the first 14 balls of a Test match. Custer could only dream of that. Forgetting about the Ghurkhas, amongst the most valiant of troops, and applying a caricature, observers concluded that Indian batsmen lacked fortitude.

In fact they lacked exposure and sometimes leadership. As George Headley was obliged to play under incompetent West Indian pale skins so Indian teams were for an unconscionable period led by Maharajahs unburdened with cricketing knowledge or skill. One of them sent Lala Armanath, the team’s best player, home from England because he was insufficiently respectful.

In those days, too, Indian batsmen were raised on docile pitches. Expert against spin, they were found wanting against cutters and rib ticklers.

In the interim cricket has changed, become a lot more cosmopolitan. The introduction of helmets helped batsmen of all shapes and sizes. Suddenly dainty lower order men likely to faint at the sight of a speedster loosening up were prepared to stand their ground. Nowadays it is rare for batsmen to be battered and bruised. In 1974 Viv Richards used to tease Somerset colleagues by saying “another ambulance has been sent to Southampton”.

His fiery pal Andy Roberts was opening the bowling for Hampshire.

The Indians then got used to pace and bounce with the introduction of faster tracks in domestic cricket with more frequent tours. And it went deeper. As India became outward looking so the cricketers also felt comfortable in their own skins. Sunil Gavaskar’s proud defiance gave way to the ease and maturity of Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble and Javagal Srinath. Sourav Ganguly led with a twinkle in his eye.

Now India sits on top of the rankings and does not depend on dustbowls or spin or jiggery pokery to protect its position. Not so long ago they used to roll the new ball on the turf before tossing it to the tweakers.

Doubtless it helps that more Indians eat meat. Previously the pace bowlers came from the warlike north. Everything affects everything else.

Accordingly the Vindaloos arrive in England with hopes and heads held high. Naturally Sachin Tendulkar’s contribution is eagerly awaited. Everyone agrees it’d be fitting for him to score his 100th hundred for his country in the 2 000th Test match played on the game’s most famous ground. How quickly that phrase “100th hundred” trips off the tongues, its haste concealing a mind boggling feat requiring exceptional skill, durability and stamina. But India is no one man band.

Indeed a recent study indicated that Dravid was the most valuable player not only in this team but in Indian cricketing history. Certainly he scores a lot of the tough runs. Alas Virender Sehwag is injured, a grievous loss to any team for he can dominate from the outset. He is a master cast as a maverick. Still VVS Laxman is around, endlessly fretting until the crisis comes and then suddenly taking charge.

But India has its weak points also and might even regress. Arriving a few days before a series begins is risky. Even in these cosmopolitan days it can take time to acclimatise to pitch light, weather and tempo.

Even the balls used vary. England did not make that mistake in the last Ashes campaign, landing in Australian before their hosts. Secondly the influence of IPL might affect the back foot play of the new generation of batsmen. Whereas the old guard necessarily learnt to play back, their successors can make millions by bashing away off the front peg.

England’s pacemen are likely to pepper Suresh Raina and company. Within a few weeks India will know whether IPL is a breeding ground of excellence or a promoter of charlatans. Weather permitting, it will be a compelling confrontation.

England has put its house in order. India fields several players of the highest class. Something will happen. Wooders’ quill will be smoking.

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