November 29, 2012

Ponting's Last Bow!

It is likely that two Pontings have  burned themselves for all time into the minds of Indian cricket fans the world over. And what contrasting Pontings they are: the batsman who wrested a World Cup finals from the opposition by half-time with an innings for the gods (no pun intended!); the man who was part - and some say at the very heart - of the controversies following the Sydney Test. My favourite Ponting, however, batted in another game where India was again the opposition. Australia arrived at the World Cup 2011 Quarter Finals in Ahmedabad having just lost their first Cup game since 1999, not nearly the force they were in the previous decade; nor was Ricky Ponting the free-spirited audacious willow wielder of his formative years. Yet, playing within himself, he scored a century characterised by such grit and self-restraint that I couldn't but help applaud the innings.

It was like seeing an undemonstrative skipper stand firm on a sinking ship, his commitment writ large in his eyes and his purposefulness at the crease. He would inevitably leave, too, but not until he had seen others go, and not after he had given his best. It is difficult to like Ponting, or, for that matter, even admire him. By some reckonings, including that of the late Peter Roebuck, he played the game too hard. However, now that he is set to leave international cricket , I recall with fondness how his strength complemented, and did not emerge in spite of, vulnerability during that match at Ahmedabad.  It was a Ponting we were not used to, self-aware, controlled and deep; it was, dare I say, if only for a few moments, an endearing Ponting.

Ponting's no-nonsense approach to cricket - not for nothing is he called the most uncompromising player of his generation - and his adamant desire to win matches for Australia have been criticised by fans and experts alike. His own personality - his nickname, his mischievous laughter which become it, and his brashness - might have contributed to the scathing judgments. It is also not outlandish to surmise that Ponting was as an Australian captain compared, especially by non-Australians, to his predecessor Steve Waugh, the most unyielding man to have walked the cricket field, but a gentleman revered by many. Unsurprisingly, he lost out more as a man than as a captain in popular opinion.

Ponting was never a master strategist either, a fact that Ian Chappell repeatedly accentuated at many points during his captaincy tenure, though he did not need to be with the teams he commanded. Still,  he led from the front with the bat, like Michael Clarke and Alastair Cook today,  both setting up and winning games for Australia, always talking and playing an aggressive game. The fact that he is the only cricketer to have been part of 100 Test victories is a telling statistic, arguably the most relevant number in a team game. It will probably stay perched alongside 99.94, a hundred international hundreds and 800 International Wickets at least till the end of my lifetime.

The biggest blot in Ricky Ponting's fine CV will undoubtedly be the 'A' word. Such is the importance of the Anglo-Australian rivalry in cricket, even during these times when the sub-continent (read 'India') virtually runs the sport, that he will likely be remembered as the captain who lost three Ashes including, criky, one at home. I wonder if generations hence Australia's 5-0 bossing  of England in 2007 -  the series which was to be Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Justin Langer and Damien Martyn's last- would be mentioned in the same breath as the three defeats that Ponting presided over as an Ashes captain.

Many of us were thrilled at the end of the 2010-2011 Ashes: the magisterial Aussies had been brought to earth in their own den. For the Australian cricket team, a Test-series loss to England at home was, perhaps, a fitting final scene in a climactic decline that had taken years coming. Ponting himself had turned in only one half-century in the series whilst Trott and Cook topped the run charts. For once, the Australian cricket team and the pugnacious Australian skipper had both been subdued by an England team at the height of its powers and a perfectly conceived - and executed - campaign, once they ensured that the loss at Perth was no less than a note of caution against complacency; no more than an aberration.

The tidings of 2011 - the Ashes loss, the handover of captaincy to Michael Clarke, the continued struggled for form in South Africa and the drop from no. 3 to no. 4 -  must surely have hurt Ponting. However, just when it seemed like he might see sense in the calls for retirement, he warmed (to) the 2011-12 home summer against India with a couple of 60's against some ill-conceived short-pitched bowling that fed his famous pull. There was a poignant moment as he, then, brought up a statuesque hundred at the Sydney Cricket Ground: Rahul Dravid, who who had been encouraged by Ponting to keep at it during lean times, applauded the reemergence of a fellow great to form. Ponting then returned to Adelaide Oval, and turning the clocks backwards,  produced a fluent double-hundred, his second there against India as Australia made a clean sweep of the series. Emboldened by the reversal in his and the team's fortunes, he was arguably justified in having an eye on next year's back-to-back Ashes. What better than a last stand with a bat against the arch-rival, the competitive voice inside would have said. Unfortunately that is not to be as the voice has not been able to arrest his waning form against a high-class South African pace attack.

Ponting may yet have a fairytale ending where it all began with a 96 on debut versus Sri Lanka. A hundred at the WACA would be a perfect end to a career that has seen three World Cup triumphs (one more World Cup final) , and has helped the Australian team stay at the top of the ODI and Test rankings for many years. On the other hand, Ponting may be content with a couple of his casual blinders in the slips if that takes Australia to victory and returns it as the top Test team in the world again. One can, however, rest assured that South Africa will come hard at him. I wish, for once, that Ricky hits back harder and walks back to a standing ovation, his bat held aloft, not just in acknowledgement but also to celebrate a final accomplishment.

Well-timed, Mr. Ponting, and very well played!

August 18, 2012

Au Revoir, Laxman!

The Australians are a miserly lot when it comes to giving credit and Australian cricketers are particularly grumpy. So, when they expanded V. V. S to Very Very Special, one couldn't but help but take notice. And when no less a judge than Ian Chappell heaps generous praise on someone you know you are watching something seriously special. 

Hereabouts is a man who opened the batting before the turn of the millennium, and scored 167 out of 260-odd at Sydney when the proverbial Indian touring ship was sinking and burning. Two years later, he stepped out to Shane Warne bowling round the wicket, and drove him between mid-off and extra cover en route to 281 in (unarguably) the greatest innings played by an Indian in Test cricket. (Even the gentlemen at Wisden found it worthy enough to be ranked as the sixth best innings played in the long format). Back at Sydney in 2004, he 'composed' 178 of the most beautiful runs I have ever been witnessed. It is no wonder that even the former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, a great cricket fan, loved to see him bat. And now he leaves, like his partner in many a memorable 'heist' did in March, "disbanding", as Sharda Ugra rightly points out, the finest Indian middle order of all time, leaving the stage for the Pujaras, the Rohit Sharmas and the Virat Kohli's. It will be nothing short of a cliche when I say Laxman will be missed. We will know exactly how much he is missed the next time India tries to chase a total down on a tricky last-day pitch under pressure from a good bowling attack.

A single overwhelming mood predominates when I think of Laxman's innings many of which I have watched over the years - unrestrained joy. One often hears commentators quipping about certain batsmen: "He makes batting look so easy" or "He seems to be batting on a good wicket while others are batting on a minefield." These quips true every other time in Laxman's case. He belongs to and in the ilk of batsmen, which includes among others  Mark Waugh  and Mahela Jayawardene, whose stroke play is supremely rich in expression, reminding us of art for art's sake, of a bygone era when this was a game free from its professional trappings, and of the possibilities of life. It is little surprise then that Laxman often looked imperious and carefree one-day, and impulsive and careless the next. I still remember that there was a time when he used to stroke the prettiest thirties before feathering an edge through to the keeper of a fairly innocuous delivery. The fact that Laxman outwitted his own nonchalance, without sacrificing the spontaneity or the blitheness of his craft, to become one of the mainstays of the Indian batting line-up speaks greatly of his temperament.

The breeze that Laxman's bat exudes has given me many wonderful memories, some more likely to endure than others. His last bow in Australia might not have contributed even a single half century, but when I think of cricket in Australia my mind will probably go back to Laxman's drives, short-arm pulls, leg glances, Azhar-esque flicks and deft dabs which send the ball singing to the boundary, dispersing en route the seagulls enjoying a day out on the lush green outfield. I will also recall with fondness and respect the way he batted in 2009 and 2010, pulling of a physically demanding run chase with a classy hundred at Colombo, ruining Australia's party with an adrenaline-defying undefeated 73 in a humdinger at Mohali, and setting up a famous victory with a statuesque 96 in Durban - the Waterloo of India's 100 and 66 all-out in 1996 - against Dale Steyn & Co. If Laxman's legacy is to be defined, the three aforementioned innings and the 281 at Kolkata  provide a common thread: he didn't battle pressure, he batted it. (And pressure or not, he made runs whenever he went out to bat at the Eden Gardens like Azharuddin did before him! And it was a sight to see Laxman appear bamboozled every time he got out, bowled).

As a slip fielder, Laxman appeared almost somnolent making it is easy to take his contribution for granted (may be they should also have nicknamed him Very Very Simple). But good close-in fieldsmen are like good wicket keepers in that their best work is done with quiet sufficiency; when they grass a couple you never hear the end of it. Laxman was so clinical in his catching like the Marks, Waugh and Taylor, that he made taking tricky catches appear like another day at the office. In fact, I cannot remember the last time Laxman dropped a catch even as Dravid, another brilliant catcher, plucked rippers and dropped sitters regularly during the last two years of his career. The next time I watch an India playing Test cricket  one thing will, perhaps, more take time to sink in than the batting line- up which will be 21000 Test runs poorer - a strange slip cordon.

 Winding up, I admit that the timing of Laxman's retirement surprises me just the way the timing behind his strokes did. Having been picked for the upcoming series versus New Zealand and having a final chance to play at his home ground at Uppal, one would have thought that he would play out the series. But as Harsha Bhogle has tweeted, "[It] requires a very special man to turn his back on a grandstand end and accept the end has come." Many have said this before, and I will for my part say it again: it has been a privilege to have grown up in an era that has seen the likes of Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman, Kumble and Ganguly. Mukul Kesavan said on CNN-IBN after Dravid's retirement that this may be the beginning of the end of Test cricket itself in India. Sports fans are suckers for nostalgia and doomsday theories but Kesavan's warning does seem ominous given the goings-on in Indian cricket. With Laxman now gone, Tendulkar alone remains from an era of Indian cricket which he himself heralded, and which is now in its twenty-third year. Soon, the curtains will come down on it for good.        

May 16, 2012

"Switching" off the leg stump in LBW's

In light of the 'switch hit', it has been proposed to emend the existing LBW rule. Presently, a batsman hit on the leg in front of the stumps cannot be given out when he has switched stance if the ball has pitched outside what is presently his present off-stump: the reasoning is that his off-stump would have been his leg stump under "normal" circumstances. The proposed emendation would ensure that a batsman playing a switch hit can be given out LBW if the ball pitches outside his present off-stump and hits him in line, thus merging switched chance and regular stance for the purpose of LBW decisions: simply, a right-hander playing a switch hit would be treated like a left-hander. As always, Harsha Bhogle makes a perspicuous and eloquent case for why this change in rule is to be welcomed. As for me, the proposed change gives me an opportunity to have a re-look at the LBW rule in general.

In plain prose the rule goes like: a batsman shall be ruled out Leg Before Wicket if (and only) if the ball hits his leg in front of the stops, and it is deemed that the ball in its trajectory will hit the stumps, and that it has not pitched outside the batsman's leg stump (here after "the leg stump clause"). The leg stump clause of the rule has always baffled me. Firstly, if the term Leg Before Wicket (and by wicket is meant the stumps) is to be taken at face value why the region where the ball pitches is relevant as long as it hits the batsman in front of the stumps is unclear to me. Secondly this makes life difficult for leg spin and right-arm quick bowlers bowling round the wicket to right-handed batsmen, and left-arm Chinaman and left-arm quick bowlers bowling round the wicket to left-handed batsmen*: given that the stock delivery of these bowlers has the tendency to pitch outside mentioned batsmen's leg stump from the suggested angle, it is impossible, as Shastri and Wasim Akram do not tire of saying, for them to get an LBW decision . The leg stump clause seems, therefore, to be an unnecessary and unfair complication to an otherwise neat rule.

While I am not aware of the context in which the existing LBW rule came to be accepted it is not difficult to hazard a guess. Cricket is a game where a bowler has, theoretically at least, the chance to get a wicket off all deliveries, but a batsman has only one chance. Besides, the game was for a very long time played only in Australia and England where the uncovered pitches arguably gave the bowlers, particularly the quicker men, an unfair advantage against the batsmen. The "leg stump" clause in the LBW rule might have been one of those incentives given to batsmen  to introduce some sense of balance between what is essentially a contest between bat and ball. In the present times, however, we have a situation where the game is tipped too much in favour of the batsmen what with the increasingly flatter pitches, smaller grounds, chunkier bats, Sehwags-and-Haydens and shorter boundaries around the world. And that is an important reason, though not the only one, to reconsider the LBW rule in its present shape.

I would personally like to see the "leg stump" clause removed, even if only as a fan, because it would make the game a lot more fun. For starters, this would deter "negative tactics" from both batting and bowling teams: while batsmen would think twice before kicking balls pitching outside their leg stump, bowlers will be encouraged to use the leg stump line as an attacking option. That is not a bad thing at all particularly considering the fact that the the third and fourth days of Test matches are often highly boring attrition affairs in places like the Indian sub-continent and the West Indies. Removal of the clause would also make LBW verdicts easier for (and on) the umpires, reducing the percentage of marginal decisions to some extent, and thereby, hopefully, reducing player dissent to such decisions as well. I may be a bit too naive but I would like to think that simpler rules would lead to better understanding and co-operation among the parties involved in cricket matches. In an era where grandstanding and gamesmanship have become the face of the Gentleman's Game, anything that clarifies - and redefines - limits and relationships within it is worth a try.

*The claim also applies to left-arm quick bowlers and orthodox spinners bowling over the wicket to right-handed batsmen, and right-arm quick bowlers and leg spinners bowling over the wicket to left-handed batsmen. 

May 4, 2012

Strokes in Plain Prose: Shivanarine Chanderpaul

Popularity and wisdom in cricket are not necessarily contradiction in terms. And Shivanarine Chanderpaul has seldom received rousing support from either. Among the Guyana left-hander's more watchable strokes, his straight push and leg glance evoke tolerant acceptance rather than awe; his defence is solid, but you would be told "Chanderpaul solid", a slight unkindness implicit in the accent, by the game's geeks. The West Indian has not only defied textbooks, like he has bowlers, throughout his career but he has also irritated them beyond measure. For a game that celebrates its southpaws for style, Chanderpaul seems the very antithesis of the term unless it is redefined; so much so that I know some who will pay not to watch Chanderpaul bat, or watch Graeme Smith instead. Chanderpaul's batting has not the voice of Gower's fabled stroke play on the off-side, or a Brian Charles Lara's sense of occasion. But he has always had steel -  tons of it seems -, and now has ten thousand Test runs. That Steve Waugh, Lara, Ponting, Tendulkar, Dravid, Kallis and Jayawardene have made the landmark a bit of a parade target misses the point. 10000  runs in the game's long format remains a significant milestone for anyone. For someone who has been defined by what he does not have rather than what he does all his life it is just something else. Ask Anil Kumble.

My first memory of Chanderpaul is from the 1996 series between India and West Indies, a rare five-Test rubber - if ever there was one - in which cricket would have died (to borrow an expression from Andy Zaltzman) had it not been for the second innings brilliance from Curtley Ambrose & Company on a farmland of a pitch at Kensington Oval, Barbados. In the first innings of that Test  Chanderpaul ground himself, the bowlers, the elements and everything else, with the stubbornness of a habit and the stickiness of guilt, en route to a debut hundred which would turn out match- and series-winning. Forward a decade and half, he was again the scrapper-in-charge against an Indian team that wanted more than the 1-0 win at home they eventually secured after the drubbing at the hands of England, though Darren Bravo's Lara-invoking stroke play and aggregate runs grabbed the headlines. Over the years the one thing that has remained constant about Chanderpaul besides his clean-shaven boyish visage is the impossible willingness - or willfulness - to survive, scrap, switch off, leave, take a single, scrap, start again and survive until hell, or at least the expression of the opposition bowlers, freezes over. It was ironic, but sadly befitting, that Chanderpaul's 10000th Test run came against a resurgent Australian team in a cause that might have been won but was all too easily lost in moments of mindless batting by the other batsmen in the top order.

For all his mind-numbing staidness at the crease, however, Chanderpaul has been more just than a shield: to call him a resolute stone-waller, therefore, is to do him considerable injustice. As Rob Steen eloquently reminds us, the left-hander once tonked a jolly good 100 off 69 balls against an Australian attack that had Brett Lee, Jason Gillespie and Stuart McGill after Lara's fall which left West Indies 53-5. Nor has Chanderpaul been anything less than good in one-day cricket as evidenced by his 41+ average in the format. Twelve years ago on a January day, he even topped 150 against South Africa in East London in a game that West Indies won despite Shaun Pollock's six-for. Be that as it may, it seems Chanderpaul will eventually be judged as an anchor without whom the West Indian batting might have capsized even more frequently than they have since Lara's retirement. It is probably fair as well because Chanderpaul is cast in the mould of a leader of cussed but considerate footmen rather than a follower of flamboyant cavaliers.

The decade that has gone by has seen changes in the way cricket is played, run and administered. Players who have been part of the game have also redefined it in crucial ways. Adam Gilchrist was at once the prototype and the epitome of a wicketkeeping all-rounder while Virendra Sehwag has ensured that "give the first two hours to the bowlers" is an age-old platitude on opening batting meant for conservative souls. (Geoffrey Boycott might balk at that and M.S. Dhoni could issue a rejoinder that unsurprisingly starts with Yes, of course). By and by, Chanderpaul has taken the road less travelled and forced at least some of us to rethink the significance of terms  such as "technique" and "stance" by paring batting down to its fundamentals: not getting out, and making runs. He has shown how will-wielders can be unique. He has shown that cricket does not care even if fans and pundits might. Above all else, he has shown that one's longevity at the top is determined as much through resilience as through talents.

Along the way I hope Chanderpaul has inspired other sportsmen to stick to what works for them even if succumbing to the fancy stuff due to peer pressure is the easiest thing to do. After all, efficiency is at the heart of all performance. Elegance, by whichever name you call it, is but a make-over, the icing that makes a cake look, not necessarily taste, better. So while oozing cover drives, ingenious switch hits and powerful helicopter - and aeroplane - strokes steal the show, Shivnarine Chanderpaul reminds us that a jabbed 30 that saves or wins a game is valuable in its own terms. (He has also on one occasion hit a six of the last ball to win a One-day game. Against Sri Lanka. Which would delight my friend and fellow author on this space: The Venk. Here's proof).  

February 23, 2012

Letter versus spirit

The Thirimanne episode at Brisbane has thrown the floodgates open again: is it all right to run out a batsman who is backing up too far? Thirimanne's captain says that there was a "bit" of a mistake from his end. Michael Clarke does not feel very happy about the mode of dismissal being allowed in the first place. Amidships passionate fans - Indians frustrated with their team's poor performance, Sri Lankans who think that the Indians are citing the episode as an excuse for the loss and neutrals who play the Devil's Advocate, cry at great lengths about sporting acts and the laws of the game - are abuzz with their comments on twitter, in blogs and in discussion forums. Similar clamouring was heard early last August after Ian Bell, who had been run out wandering out of the crease, was recalled by M.S. Dhoni after tea following a request from the England skipper Andrew Strauss and coach Andy Flower's appeals to the Indian team. 

The broad question that emerges from both cases is one: if something is legal in (a) sport, does it mean it is also within the spirit of sport itself? It is a difficult question to answer predominantly because (i) the letter of the law is itself subject to different interpretations (if it is not absurd, like the front-line no-ball rule or the rule that says the ball should not pitch outside leg stump for a candidate to be LBW); (ii) and even if it is not, as with the "Mankad" rule, the spirit of the game does not lend itself to an all-inclusive interpretation that is acceptable to those who administer it, referee it, play it and write about it. Seen in this light, a captain who sticks to an appeal under a general interpretation of a law is seen as being too hardy and unethical or as being very single-minded. On the other hand, a captain who revokes an appeal and recalls a batsman is labelled by his own media as attempting a PR show that might, at least in small measure, distract attention from the shoddy performance of the team on the field, or praised by a former cricketer as being among the greatest custodians of the game's spirit.

My own view of judgments that straddle the ideas - for at some level they are just that - of the spirit of the game and the legitimacy of an act tend to tilt in the former rather than the latter direction for reasons that are unclear and not important. I have always believed that while a code of conduct is necessitated by various extrinsic factors, it does not always undercut an individual's volition to act in a particular way. The two are not fated to be mutually exclusive but when they are there is conflict. An act of volition, whether a product of happenstance or brought about by the persuasion of foresight and more mature minds, may refuse to exploit a loophole in the laws of the game but embraces the spirit of the game as understood by the actor. Likewise adherence to a certain clause in a law may be a conscious transgression of all that "most people" hold sacred about a game, and yet if victory at the end of the day is all that matters - and not giving quarters is part of that single-mindedness - there is no point bringing up the spirit of the game as understood by people in general.

Unfortunately, however, both the letter of the law and the spirit of the game seem to be fast becoming just  trump cards of convenience in the hands of cricketers and media persons these days. Stuck somewhere in the mess created by fickleness fairness lets out a rather feeble cry: it seems to say, "The law seems fair only in the hands of those who wish to manipulate it. The spirit of the game on the other hand seems to be a relic that people take out of a loft when they have run out of arguments to show who is holier than who!" Whether it is sledging, excessive appealing, withdrawing an appeal, backing up too far or standing in the way of a running batsman - or a bowler following through - or playing games of "mental disintegration", events that occur in the spur of the moment on the field are later categorised, now according to the letters of the law, now according to the spirit of the game and now in the light of a mishmash of both. And we thought soap operas and reality TV were melodramatic!

January 19, 2012

On 'Sporting' in Sporting Pitches

I am one of the many disgruntled fans of the Indian cricket who have thought for a while that pitches which assist fast bowlers at home are the best breeding ground for Indian batsmen to tackle the barrage they are subjected to in places like Australia, South Africa and England. Consequently, I found  Virat Kohli and Ishant Sharma’s remark about how the boot would be on the other foot when Australia travels to India quite objectionable, especially with the team verging on a 3-0 hiding. However, that view does not, and in my opinion should not, detract from the fact that pitches which offer plentiful turn make for contests in test cricket which are as exciting as those played on pitches conducive to fast bowling. This being the case I find the tendency to label the latter type of pitches as sporting, to the exclusion of the former type, somewhat unfair, convenient and even parochial.

While going through the comments’ thread on a cricinfo article about the Indian cricket team’s woeful performances since its tour to England last year, I read an observation from a gentleman – presumably Australian – which suggested that the pitches in Australia befit the tag of sporting decks more than those elsewhere. To some extent this view is borne out: Sydney is a particularly compelling example given that it keeps fast bowlers interested with the new ball, the batsmen interested after that even as good spinners can come into their own during the last two days. Indeed, the case of the Sydney Cricket Ground, and to some extent the Melbourne Cricket Ground, is ideal and should not, therefore, be confused with what is normally meant by sporting wickets – those on which a good contest between bat and ball is assured. Against the latter sense, a spinners’ dustbowl is often referred to as “unsporting” whereas a pace man’s paradise is seldom referred to as anything more than “challenging”, a bland adjective if ever there was one.

Besides being unsporting, pitches that offer spin are often accused as being tailored to suit the home team’s – in most cases a team from the subcontinent – needs even by the most sapient of observers. What is more, you would think that this is a crime. By contrast when South Africa prepares a twenty-two yard strip sprinkled with grass to intimidate Sri Lanka or when Indians await a “talked up” perked up Perth pitch (just a metaphor; the wicket at the WACA for the last test was a beauty and the Indians batted woefully!) we hear zilch about the home team playing to its strengths but seldom hear the end of the fabled frailty of sub-continentals against the moving and bouncing ball. While the Australian and South African teams of the recent past have admittedly adapted better to playing on turning tracks than sub-continentals to juicy ones overseas, that is no argument as to why wickets that offer turn alone should be singled out as being home team-conspired even as those which assist chin music are surmised to be neutral fait accompli.

The fact of the matter is exciting test matches are no more a norm on fast and bouncy turfs than they are on slower ones which aid considerable spin: the state of the pitch offers a context for the contest, no more no less. Whenever the term “bad pitches” is mentioned my mind instantly goes back to the 2004 test match at Bombay where Australia, chasing a measly fourth innings target, was dismissed for 93. Ricky Ponting complained about a sub-standard pitch; but what is forgotten in all the hullabaloo is Michael Clarke, too, picked up 6/9 in the second Indian innings in that test. Whether Ponting’s complaint was legitimate, and whether it would have come forth had Australia lost the test, is a matter of speculation, but it is undeniable that the test match in question was as exciting as test matches can be. The tied test between India and Australia in 1986 was played out at Chepauk, the site of Hirwani's sixteen-wicket debut, a game where Dean Jones scored one of the most tenacious double-hundreds of all time! THE  test match of 2001 was played on a typical Kolkata strip but there was little in the wicket itself to foreshadow the Australian collapse in the final session. Similarly, there was little in the pitch (forget the umpiring) at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 2008 that justifies India’s losing three wickets to Michael Clarke in a single over and eventually getting bowled out minutes before stumps on Day 5. South Africa chased down 414 against Australia at Perth to set up a famous win and take a 1-0 lead in their 2008/9 series Downunder; nor did the second Ashes test at Edgbaston in 2005 turn out to be a nail-biter only because the curator at the home of Yorkshire roll out a fine pitch for the clash. Trivially, a pitch can only influence the contest but ultimately it is the thirteen who are out in the middle at any given point in time who dictate its terms. 

After all, Malcolm Marshall, Dale Steyn and Glenn McGrath have conquered the sub-continent as well as Bhagwat Chandrasekhar bamboozled England in England, Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralidharan made the world their stage and Anil Kumble (towards the latter part of his career) succeeded during his last two tours to Australia. If they had carped instead of going out there, competing and raising the bar, they would have been the poorer and world cricket the poorer for them.