June 27, 2011

A Fortress to Storm!

Fifteen years have gone but as with nightmares in general this one seems like it happened yesterday: Curtly - yes, Ambrose - and company blew India away on the final day as a  batting line up, with Azhar and Tendulkar in their prime and Ganguly, Laxman and Dravid on their way up, collapsed for 81 pursuing 120 at the Kensington Oval, Barbados. Sunil Gavaskar had reportedly looked at the pitch the night before the final day and wondered if the target was even attainable on it, let alone easily, against the Caribean pace attack which was still formidable if not invincible. The former Indian opener, who had been prolific against the likes of Holding, Garner, and Marshall, did not express his misgivings but they came true all right. It was the only test in the 1997 five-test series that did not have rains or a pointless surfeit of runs. West Indies took the series one-love and there was no love lost between the sides. It was Brian Charles Lara's first test as captain, as Walsh sat out due to injury. The Prince of Trinidad's initial taste of captaincy was as sweet as his initial taste of batting in international cricket had been. 

Five years on, the teams arrived again at Barbados in 2002. The Indians were, for once, one-nil up in an away series after some tight bowling had given them victory as light faded on the last day of the second test at Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. If the Indians had been buoyed by the scoreline, it did not show. In an irony of sorts, bitter for Indians it need not be said, the Indians were bowled out for 102 in the first innings - the zero and two transposing places compared to the score they had been set to win five years ago, also in the third test of that series. Half-centuries from Laxman and Ganguly in the second innings did only enough to make the WIndies bat for a second time but Mervyn Dillon, who picked up eight wickets in the match, had sealed its fate a minute into it when he bowled Shiva Sundar Das for a first-ball duck. After a drawn fourth test, which went on forever as tests do in Antigua, during which Laxman and Dravid opened their wickets' account and Ridley Jacobs, Chanderpaul and Hooper scored hundreds for the West Indies in the only innings they batted, the Indians flopped again in the fifth test at Kingston, Jamaica. The test is remembered for an open-ended sentence that had sadly become a refrain about Indian batting line-ups which always looked majestic on paper and were often crumpled like paper on the field by half-decent bowling attacks: if only India had batted for fifteen minutes... (for then the skies opened up and it seems it rained for a couple of days after that in Jamaica).

The 2006 series, which was decided 1-0 in favour of India in the final test at Kingston by Dravid's fine twin half-centuries and Kumble's grit with bat and ball, did not feature a test in Barbados.

Tomorrow, the Indians would once again set foot on Barbados to bury the ghosts of the past and try to beat West Indies on a ground that had been their fortress for many years. Even in home conditions, every team has something that is its backyard, a ground that visiting teams are in awe of having been called there as if to be summarily thumped: Barbados is West Indies' version of Perth (Australia), Durban (South Africa), Headingley (England) or Wellington (New Zealand). The home team would know that and even though they are weak they would want to exploit any remnant of a historical advantage there is.

 However, the Indians will be inspired both by their number one status, as opposed to the West Indies team's lowly number 8 ranking, as well as the home team's recent record at the ground. Since drubbing India, the West Indians have won only two of their eight games at the ground, drawn one and, more importantly, have lost to the better sides - England, Australia and South Africa. Besides, their bowling attack can be sharp on its day but is not one that will make a batsman lose sleep: considering that Fidel Edwards, their only genuine quick bowler, is coming of an injury, the task for the Indian batsmen would be a lot easier. Gayle's absence will also continue to emasculate the hosts and keep the visitors interested.

However, the Indians cannot afford to be complacent. A senior statesman like Rahul Dravid who has been there and done that would know that Indian cricket has seen many false dawns and do well to impress that upon his younger colleagues. Admittedly, the Indian teams of the last three or four years have been enormously consistent, so the alarm is, if anything, a cautionary note at best. And with a cool but no-nonsense man like M. S. Dhoni leading the team, the tyros would know that they cannot take anything for granted. That is just as well because the next five days represents India's best chance to win their first test at Barbados.

Three years ago, a resurgent Indian team stormed Perth after Sydneygate had laid them low, yet again snapping a winning streak the Australians sought to extend.  Back then, they had a gladiatorial man like Anil Kumble who led by example. Going into tomorrow, the Indians would look to a gentleman who loves the struggle, an artiste who would love to showcase some of his silk to fans in the Caribean before he signs off for one last time from the islands Columbus touched and a stoical captain who will tell them "to of course just go and enjoy the game." But winning it is not beyond Team India either.

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