Unsentimental cricket gods

2008-12-19 00:00

When the cricketing gods allowed Don Bradman to be bowled for a duck in his last Test innings, they revealed themselves to be short of sentiment.

The great man was deprived of a batting average of 100 by the want of just four runs, but perhaps they knew what they were doing. Of all the Don’s famous innings, that blob will be remembered longer than any of his longest.

That the game’s gods work in mysterious ways was confirmed on Monday when India won a compelling Test match against England in Chennai by chasing down a huge total with deceptive ease. England had achieved a position from which no team had ever previously lost in India and from which only a handful of teams in all of Test cricket have been beaten.

One might have thought that, having made the correct and courageous decision to return to India in the wake of the Mumbai carnage, the capricious gods would have had a kinder fate in store for Kevin Pietersen and his men than to have a rare victory dashed from their grasp when it seemed that all they had to do to seize the prize was to turn up on the last day. It may be the gods reasoned that the greater need belonged to the tragedy-torn Indians.

In the end, they granted an end of career hurrah to Sachin Tendulkar that will live green in the memories of all who saw the Little Master display the full repertoire of his artistry in what may come to be regarded as the best of his many Test hundreds. It is true that he would not have had the platform to play his superb innings without the blazing brilliance of Virender Sehwag, but it was Tendulkar who shepherded his nervous partners through their fraught beginnings and his grateful team to a victory that showcased the considerable talent in a side regarded by some as the best in the world today.

Sadly for England, their ultimate defeat, after controlling the first three-and-a-half days of the match, was due in part to some less than brave cricket during their long second innings when they lacked the courage to press on with the bat and put the game beyond India’s reach. Both Strauss and Collingwood made worthy hundreds, but took so long about it that Pietersen was forced to declare in a position that left the Indians with a sniff of victory.

Pietersen then compounded their problems by setting fields that allowed the Indians to turn over the strike and score singles almost at will. By protecting the boundaries rather than building pressure, the inexperienced captain sent a message to his bowlers that he did not trust them to keep the Indians quiet. As a result, despite batting on a pitch that offered generous help to the spinners, the Indians were never left wondering where their next runs were coming from.

Still, the Chennai Test was a wonderful riposte to both the terrorists and those proponents of the T20 game that believe Test cricket should be confined to cricket’s backwaters. In fact, it showed that a single Test match can produce more drama than a year’s worth of T20’s frivolities.

It also served as a tasty aperitif to the series that has got off to such a riveting start in Australia. Many feel that this will be the real battle for cricket’s heavyweight title. My own belief is that Smith’s team will be disappointed in Australia unless the captain himself has an exceptional series. He is the one player with the temperament and authority to take it to the Aussies in the manner that Eddie Barlow did in leading the charge in the 1960s.

I fear for the length of the South African tail and the fragility of the bowling. This tour may be the making of Morne Morkel — but only if his bowling advances from the erratic performances of the last six months. If he has a poor tour, it is difficult to see from whom 20 wickets per Test match are going to come.

This tour will be the last chance that Kallis has to make the impact in Australia that matches his performances against other countries. He owes it to himself to eliminate this anomaly from his career records. He has not had a good year, but all will be forgotten if he can produce just one match-winning innings against the number one team in the world.

Ominously, the Aussies are not afraid of Kallis. He does not run away with a match in the manner of other great players. He is at his best if the Protea bowlers have been able to dismiss teams cheaply and quickly. Then he is able to grind out big scores that bat the opposition out of the game. He has rarely had that luxury against the Australians. Nothing would be more welcome than his first double century after the bowlers have dismissed Australia cheaply, but I am not holding my breath.

Still, there have been encouraging signs from the first two days of the Perth Test. The bowling was tidy and the catching everything that Smith could have expected. There is not much between the teams but I cannot see these Proteas recovering, as the Aussies did, from 15 for three to make nearly four hundred.

That is the big difference between the teams.

•Ray White is a former president of the United Cricket Board.

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