Friday, 15 October 2010

Australia in Decline

On 5th December 2006, England walked out to bat at Adelaide one wicket down, 97 ahead of their hosts in the third innings of the test. With just 90 overs left to be bowled, the second test was headed for a predictable tame draw.

But something extraordinary happened over the next few hours. In the face of a magic spell by Shane Warne, England froze in panic and spectacularly imploded. By the end of the day, Australia had pulled of a sensational heist and gone up 2-0 en route a historic Ashes whitewash. The champions had shown just why they had dominated the game so completely for so long.

The end of the series saw the departures of Shane Warne and Glen McGrath- two legendary bowlers, more responsible than anyone else for Australia's climb to such dizzying heights. With them went Justin Langer. Within the next two years Adam Gilchrist, Damien Martyn, Matthew Hayden, Stuart MacGill and Brad Hogg were gone, soon followed by Brett Lee. As if in a flash, a golden generation had vanished.

There was nothing unexpected in it. Any discerning person could see that the Australian team of early/mid 2000s vintage was made up by men who were either already around a generation ago or were in contention back then- in other words, the young men who had turned up since the late 90s were simply not as good as their seniors. I had myself written a piece on this topic a couple of years ago (you can find it in the blog titled 'Inbox' on Cricinfo, the article appeared in August 2008), when Australia were still comfortable seated on top with no apparent signs of decline.

But the cracks, even then, were already apparent. Even the most cock eyed supporter would agree that the Australians were incredibly lucky with the umpiring in the second test at Sydney in January 2008, where they only just managed to get the better of the Indians (ten more minutes, and it would have been a draw). In the game that followed, the Indians, armed with a very inexperienced attack smashed the Kangaroos in Perth- the Australian equivalent of 80s Barbados. Australia losing at Perth to a sub-continental side was unthinkable up until then. The hosts eventually took the series 2-1, but it was far from being the walkover that nearly every series had been over the last decade or so.

If the cracks were concealed then, they were torn wide open over the next couple of years. Since that 2007-08 series against India, the only series Australia won against a quality opponent was against South Africa in early 2009. There have been disappointments on either side of that win: a 0-2 reverse against India in 2008-09 in a series where Australia seldom threatened to win and an even more galling 1-2 defeat at home to South Africa- the first series defeat at home since the all conquering West Indians beat them back in the early 90s. An Ashes defeat to a strictly average England side in 2009 and a 0-2 loss earlier this week in a series where Australia won both tosses, got the best of the conditions and faced an attack that is at best a touch above average, are indicators of a side in deep decline.

What has been commendable is the manner in which Australia continue to approach their game. Despite the setbacks and the loss of several legends, the Australians still look to give their best. The ruthlessness with which they have demolished weaker opponents speak of a side that may no longer be the undisputed champion, but one that is not relinquishing that crown so easily all the same. Having seen the once great West Indies side go into freefall, its a relief to see the tenacity with which the Australians continue playing their cricket.

Nevertheless, the bigger concern they face now is not the decline- that has long since been accepted and realised- but the very real danger that they might slip further. The current Australian side has memories of two series defeats to India, two Ashes losses in four years, a home series defeat against the Proteas and a test loss to a brittle Pakistani side. While Australia have ruthlessly bludgeoned weaker sides into submission, a less than convincing record against stronger sides could well cause the shadow of self-doubt to creep in everytime there is a 50-50 situation. In Ponting they have a man who played right through the golden era and as such, would find it easier to overcome self-doubt when confronted by a crisis, but would a successor who will have not such golden memories be able to do so?

That is going to be the greatest challenge that Australian cricket might have to confront over the coming years.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

A game of glorious uncertainties

Today is a day that ought to be remembered for a long long time to come. After a heartstopping finish, the game emerged the unexpected but surprise winner. Today, test cricket demonstrated just why it is regarded as a game of 'glorious' uncertainties. Not for the first time, it silenced those who talk of test cricket being boring and upholding the virtues of T20.

Fittingly perhaps, the hero of the day was a man who's regarded a misfit in the 'fast-food' versions of the game. The man with the unlikely initials of V.V.S, Laxman showed just why he is referred to as 'Very Very Special'. Today's innings was not very very special, it transcended the special- its one of those innings that deserve to be at the highest pinnacle all by themselves.

Sounds like journalistic hyperbole, doesn't it? But look at the situation: at 124-8, India need 92 runs on a deteriorating wicket on which the bounce is uneven. An injured No.10 walks out to join a man whose back is paining so badly that he has missed most of the action in the game and is unable to run. Two injured men with No.11 in tow needing to squeeze out 92 runs on a tough wicket against a pretty decent attack: not the kind of situation where one would expect miracles. The game was Australia's for the taking. India were dead and buried.

But then, this was India v Australia. Anyone who has followed these two teams facing each other over the last decade or so would tell you that when they're at it, its never over till its over.

And so it was the case today. Laxman and Sharma- two tall men- stood tall as others around them fell. Bit by bit, blow by blow, they prised out the Australian stranglehold, until Sharma fell towards the fag end. In came Ojha- a young man of 24 with all the pressure in the world on his shoulders. The pressure nearly finished him off with India a blow away from victory, as the umpire turned down a plumb leg before appeal. Ojha strode out of his crease and another young man, all of 19, saw his chance of becoming a hero. The throw missed by inches and ran into the gap for a heart-breaking four. Two balls later, a wayward delivery clipped Ojha's pad and ran down the leg side, beating the keeper. Amidst a defeaning roar from a crowd that made up in noise what it lacked in numbers, the last wicket pair scrambled the last runs needed for victory.

India had won! Australia, the underdogs coming into the series, but who had pushed the home side as hard as humanly possible had been denied by fate and a great man whose indomitable will overcame an unresponsive body.

That is the stuff of legend. This game itself was the stuff of legend. Written off as a dull draw after day three, it roared back to life after a sensational performance by the Indian bowlers on day four and an even more inspired one by their Australian counterparts. Ultimately, no quarter was given, none was asked... save one heroically sporting gesture by the Australian captain: allowing Laxman a runner when he was well within his rights to deny him one.

And so the spirit of the game shone bright in ways more than one. Cricket showed just why it is the most unique game in the planet. What other game would possibly have produced such heroism, such drama? What other game would have allowed five days of hard fighting to come down to a head and yet have the opponents shake hands and walk off as friends? What game indeed!

Cricket was the winner.

Friday, 1 October 2010

The day after

Its the morning of 1st October 2010. About sixteen hours have passed since the Allahabad High Court passed its judgement on the Babri Masjid issue. Nothing extraordinary has happened in the sixteen hours or so between then and now.

First the judgement: in the opinion of this writer, its one of the most intelligent judgements in perhaps the entire history of the Indian judiciary. Dividing the disputed land into three equal halves between the three parties to the litigation and recognising the land on which the masjid once stood as the birthplace of Shri Ram was a stroke of genius, given the prevailing sentiment here. Most Hindus were convinced that the decision would go in favour of the Waqf Board. In one swoop, Hindu sentiment has been appeased while permitting the Sunni Waqf Board to stake claim to a third of the land in question. Its hard to think of too many historic parellels to such a successful effort at locating the mid-path.

Secondly, its the public reaction that deserves praise. Nothing untoward has happened in the hours since then. Not a shot has been fired, not a single glass shattered, not a single vehicle set afire and far more importantly, not a single person has been physically hurt. That a historic judgement like this which everyone knew had the potential to set the country ablaze, has just passed with no incident whatsoever is perhaps a sign of how far India has moved since those insane days of '92, when hundreds were killed and several hundred terribly injured and thousands left with psychological scars from the mind numbing violence inflicted by mad, unthinking men on people who were totally unconnected with the events at Ayodhya save the fact that they belonged to one of the two communities involved.

Back then in 1992, India has only just opened its economy. Growth was slow, jobs were hard to come by and India was only just emerging out of the shadows of decades of stagnation and backwardness. Is it unreasonable to argue that the India of 2010 provides far better employment opportunities to its youth? Very possibly today's youth have far better avenues for releasing their energies as compared to their predecessors of '92. It could also be possible that after the mindless bloodbath of '92, Indians have become wiser. Perhaps that violence has created an abhorrence for further bloodshed, perhaps the people of India have not the stomach for a second reckoning.

Whatever the reason, the country has (so far) greeted the decision with equinanimity. Everywhere, the general call is for peace. Hopefully India has finally come to the point where food, jobs and infrastructure have come to assume for greater importance for its citizens that the construction of a temple or a mosque. We will soon know whether this writer is rejoicing prematurely or whether India has truly matured as a country.

If all goes well, we the people of India can pat ourselves on our backs for the splendid progress we have made in the last 18 years. We have taken a decisive step towards building the India of tomorrow, towards building a nation much better than the one in which we grew up, a country that provides a far greater life to our children than the one it provided us. God willing, we can finally say that we have exorcised the ghosts of '92.