Nine balls. That’s the difference between glory and permanent regret. It’s the refrain Morne Morkel and Hashim Amla will hear in the wee hours of the morning as they relive this game in their dreams, desperately willing a different result each time. It’s cruel that such outstanding young sportsmen have to see the prize elude them by such margins, but that’s the nature of this greatest of sports – it pummels you for five days, pretends to lay dead as you close in hopefully, and, at the last moment, fells you.
How on earth have English cricket fans survived three such matches in the last seven months? Just this one made me physically sick, suicidal and hopeful, again and again, till there was just a dull churning inside, a resignation which couldn’t quite fathom the result when it arrived. I may have been a partisan in this one, but I wouldn’t wish this kind of defeat on anyone, especially the wretchedly unlucky South Africans. Wasn’t it just a week ago that we were lauding South Africa to the skies and marvelling at the poisoned chalice that the no. 1 ranking had become? But in a display which will rank right up there for its ruthlessness and a determination to fight back from a crushing loss, India have managed to hold on to their pole position for at least a few more months.
An innings victory apiece for both teams might suggest wild inconsistency but this series has been about some brilliant performances entirely worthy of a top of the table clash; and a nerve-shredding grandstand finish, better than the one seen at the Eden nine years ago. South Africa seemed to be from a different planet last week, but it was thrilling to watch the Indian riposte, kickstarted by the bowlers and comprehensively rammed home by the batting. And even as the Kolkata weather threatened to break a billion hearts on day 4, the three-man bowling attack somehow broke through minutes from the end, consigning South Africa to yet another off-season of angst and soul searching.
Purple prose aside…
Indian batsmen don’t do things by halves – indeed, Sehwag seems to deal purely in exponents. I can’t blame them too much for last week’s collapse – the bowling was just sensational – and this week, the middle order cashed in. Was Laxman the difference? He was certainly instrumental in getting the lead up to 350, but very high praise is due Sehwag and Tendulkar – the former for wresting the initiative, and the latter for chipping away, and importantly, talking Sehwag through some of his rushes of blood. The South African bowling was decent, but Sehwag (he’s already becoming a verb, as in “sehwagged”) took full advantage of JP Duminy’s continuing horror series and well, Tendulkar was there too.
Tendulkar haters have always managed to find sticks to beat him with, and he’ll be chided for “throwing it away after reaching a century.” What rot. It’s not his fault that he’s expected to be there at the start, middle and end, and do it with style. He has 19 centuries in wins, in a team which was largely mediocre for the better part of his career, and evidently knows a thing or two about putting his team in winning positions.
But if he had an opportunity to do so at all, it was only because of an afternoon of madness on day 1. It was 2001 all over again, and there nearly was another hattrick for Harbhajan as well. When Graeme Smith and Corrie van Zyl mull upon what went wrong, this is the session they’ll pinpoint as the one which killed off their hopes of winning. For India, the big positive was the effort put in by a three man attack on the last day, and Ishant Sharma’s vital contributions, both on day 1 and on day 5. Can he keep up his pace? Can Harbhajan retain the menace, at home as well as away? And can Mishra realise that bowling magic balls in between dross is not the way to go? The answers to these questions will determine this team’s trajectory over the next year.
But the defining player of the series was certainly Hashim Amla. He saw off everything thrown at him with a languid elegance and equanimity borne only of supreme belief – the only way India was going to win in Kolkata was by getting the other ten men out. Is it too soon to call him the next Dravid? I, like many others, doubted him, but this was a batting exhibition for the ages from the quiet man from Durban. He stood on the burning deck at the Eden, and few greater performances have been seen in defeat. He will be crushed, but should take heart from this performance, and prepare to be the glue in the South African middle order for the next decade.
So, when the dust has settled…
It’s all wonderfully muddled in the cricketing world at the moment, and even a few Australians might grudgingly admit that this makes Test cricket far more compelling than watching the Aussie juggernaut roll over everyone. When India ascended to the top, there was a lot of grumbling, with some arguing that they’d need to be consistent world-beaters like Australia were a few years ago, to be called no. 1. All of which completely misses the point – this is a ranking of the current teams, not an all-time list, and India satisfied the criteria.
For my money, the South Africans are the best team in the world, in a chess-final type situation where the top two face off. Home and away, they hold the edge over India, and India will do very well to get something out of their series in Africa later this year. But they’re even with Australia, an opponent over whom India hold a slight edge. South Africa remind me of the Arsenal at the turn of the century, who consistently did well against the Man Uniteds and Liverpools, only to lose out against the Boltons and Evertons. Meanwhile, England, under a calm Andrew Strauss, certainly look capable of challenging all three. Eighteen months from now, having faced both Australia and India, England could well be on top. Of course, if they haven’t choked on tabloid hype by then.
But 18 months is a long time in cricket, especially in the fluid, perpetually unresolved arena of Test cricket. India have been forced to take some painful steps to bolster their batting, and it will strengthen them in the long run. It’s the bowling that’s the real worry, and fleeting glimpses of form apart, no Indian bowler other than Zaheer Khan has looked consistently top class in the last year. If India can find two consistent pacemen to aid Zaheer, and if Harbhajan doesn’t lapse into, well, Harbhajan, India will stay top for a long time.
My overwhelming feeling at the end of this “series” is a sense of wistfulness. What a five test series this would have made! The crowds would have flocked in their thousands and loved it, and the two best teams in the world would have locked horns in a truly titanic battle of equals. Instead, it feels like the plate has been snatched away after the appetisers at a Michelin-starred restaurant. And we’ll now have to make do with the hot dogs masquerading as the Indian Premier League.