The empire is gone, and now another must rise

2008-10-31 00:00

INDIA have the strongest Test team in the world. Forget about the rankings — they reflect performances over the last few years, not the last few months. Australia are sliding down the list owing to their weak bowling, and on this form can hardly hope to retain a top-three position.

No matter how astute, a captain with a weak attack walks naked on to the field, a fact Ricky Ponting has had plenty of time to contemplate as the rampant Indians stroke the ball around various local parks. Inept in the Punjab, the Australian leather-flingers worked much harder in Delhi and still were played comfortably on an admittedly docile pitch. The empire has fallen. It is over.

Now comes the day of reckoning. As a rule, the Australian selectors avoid dramatic moves and wholesale changes. Reluctant to be rattled, aware that to act in haste is to repent in leisure, they try to remain patient and logical. But they must be concerned about their senior batsmen, captain and the balance of their side. In times of stress common sense is inclined to fly out of the window. Australia have confronted a powerful Indian batting order playing on its own surfaces with an attack consisting of three specialists and four part-timers.

Truth to tell, it has been more of a defence than an attack. Although his figures are unimpressive, Brett Lee has been the only leather-flinger to show any sign of menace. He started the series a fortnight behind in his preparations, but bowled well in Delhi.

In contrast, India have a confident and balanced side. Nor is decline inevitable once the great batsmen leave the scene. India also have strength in depth, an adroit captain waiting in the wings, a back-up leg-spinner who has already made his mark, several fine batsmen on standby and a cupboard bursting with talent, some of it revealed in IPL and ICL (an independent league reeling from the recent suspensions of Chris Cairns and Dinesh Kartik — rest assured, more will be heard about that). Competition for places is hot, and even the legends cannot be complacent.

Significantly, India are trouncing Australia not on dustbowls, but on proper pitches. Clearly the locals no longer feel the need to cook the books. Apart from distorting their cricket, they do not need to prepare crumblers. After all, India have a resourceful pace department, a strong opening pair and can win on any surface. India travel a lot better these days and their batsmen long ago lost their reputation for timidity. Of course the local spinners are also superior. Although too polite to say it out loud, the hosts think that none of the touring tweakers could be confident of getting a bowl in club cricket.

India’s batting order is as powerful as any the game has known. Virender Sehwag’s abilities have long been recognised, especially by Australians impressed with his aggressive approach.

Gautam Gambhir has been the surprise. He is another decidedly modern Indian cricketer, happy to play all forms of the game, prepared to look any opponent in the eye, comfortable against fast bowling and in his own skin. Unlike his contemporaries, he did not come from the back streets but in other respects he is typical of the new brigade that are taking over the game.

He proved as much by reaching his hundred with a six struck from down the pitch that went soaring into the stands behind a nonplussed paceman. It was the only drive he lifted all day. That is confidence.

Gambhir was magnificent in Delhi. He scores off both feet and on both sides of the wicket, from glances and late cuts, pulls and drives. Moreover he runs superbly between the wickets. His main weakness is his short fuse and sharp tongue. On the opening day in Delhi, he had more rows than the ANC manages in a week. But he was able to calm down in time for the next ball, and throughout batted with the utmost composure.

Gary Kirsten can take some of the credit for the team’s performance, and for the relaxed mood in the camp. India’s batsmen lost momentum under Greg Chappell, a controller lacking warmth, inclined towards abstraction and convinced that most of the senior batsmen were finished.

Chappell has switched sides in the professional way and is “assisting” the Australians.

So much for the new age Ponting proclaimed before the series began. It has indeed come, but not in the anticipated form. Except superficially, cricket does not change much as the decades pass.

It remains a battle between bat and ball. Woe betide a side lacking balance, penetration, and imagination. Australia have fallen back. Now another nation must set the standard. India are the frontrunners.

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

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