Can India spin out Proteas at Bangalore?

Written by: S K Sham
Published: Wednesday, March 1, 2000, 0:00 [IST]
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With the immediate causes of needless heartburn having been more or less settled, the Indian cricket team might just be waiting for the good, old bon homie to return to their ranks so that they once again start playing as one unit. The team's performance in the first Test in Mumbai may, as the ultimate result is read on paper, appear as one more of those dismal defeats suffered recently in Australia.

That the Indian team was beaten by South Africa inside three days might even suggest that the encounter was one-sided.

Nothing, however, is farther from the truth. The result could have been the other way round: A victory for India, with as much as two days to spare.

After getting a very modest total of 225 in the first innings, it was remarkable the way the home side eventually managed to grab of 49-run lead. The bowlers helped to achieve this and almost did it a second time, as the Proteas struggled to reach a moderate target of 163 runs for victory.

At 115 for 5, they had the chips down and India, for the first time in the match, sensed victory. Two bad overs from debutant Murali Karthik, however, allowed the South Africans to get off the hook.

The batsmen had once again let the team down. On hindsight, if India had only been able to add some 40 or 50 runs more in the second knock, there might have been a different story to tell. Then, there were the usual "ifs" and "buts..."

If only Tendulkar had not padded up, without offering any stroke to Hansie Cronje in the second innings.... If only Rahul Dravid, after being nicely ensconced, had not gone for a wild cross-batted stroke against an express delivery from Shaun Pollock... If Srinath had not taken off on an impossible run... and if only Karthik had not been advised to bowl wide off the leg stump, in the bowlers' rough...and so on...

In the sum total, India had allowed an excellent opportunity of achieving victory, after a long wait, to slip out of the hands. There was, however, a silver lining to the cloud of defeat. This came in the form of a strong belief that this South African side, strong as it may be, is not unbeatable. And that is not the only consoling factor to emerge from the first Test.

Watching Tendulkar bat in the first innings gave one the impression that, after a long time, the little master was beginning to enjoy his batting. The reason for that was clear. He had, just before the first Test, decide to relinquish his captaincy, giving the selectors enough time to find a successor.

Tendulkar's whole approach to his batting was such as to exude the freedom of action. The second Test, starting at Bangalore on Thursday, will be the last time that Tendulkar will lead the present side. For the one-dayers here and at Sharjah, Saurav Ganguly will take over the captaincy.

It is not that Tendulkar will not captain India again. But it will not be for some time at least. Ganguly's success or failure, as much Tendulkar's own reconciliation to shouldering the responsibility, will be the deciding factor.

The return of Mohammed Azharuddin, after some uncalled for trials and tribulations for the former captain, might settle an old argument, but the fact remains that he is better off in the team than sitting out, as his exclusion has been the focal point over which so much division, if not show of acrimony, was seen.

Tamil Nadu's Sadagoppan Ramesh has taken a long time recovering from a fracture hand. His very presence will make the team hopeful of a sound start. Mumbai's Wassim Jaffer gets another chance to prove his mettle.

The start of India's innings of late has been so pathetic that as many as nine combinations in the openers' slot have been tried for the last eleven matches.

In the batting line-up, Azharuddin will take Jadeja's place, but one is not sure whether he will agree to bat at no 6. When Azharuddin was captain, he had kept Ganguly at no 6. It is no secret that the left-handed stylist did not relish batting so low down.

The wicket at the Chinnaswamy stadium has traditionally aided the spinners and, as such, India might be tempted to play three spinners in the side, with Nikhil Chopra likely to get his chance to play his first Test.

If this comes about, then it will be Ajit Agarkar who will have to be left out. It is sad if that happens because Agarkar played a cameo innings in the first knock to boost India's total with a record last-wicket stand with debutant Murali Karthik, no rabbit with the bat.

If India do decide to play three spinners, then Ganguly will have to share the new ball with Srinath. In Mumbai, the South Africans' weakness against spin bowling, especially on India wickets, was fully exposed.

With India one down and the Bangalore Test, the only one to help them level the series, it is important for them to play what will be the best winning combination. The cutting edge in the attack will come only through playing all the three spinners.

Although the South Africans eventually won by four wickets, skipper Hansie Cronje and coach Grant Ford, were not very happy and there were no celebrations worth the name. The players utilised the two extra days, on account of an early end to the Test match, practising and practising.

This then is the great difference between the two sides. Kapil Dev, full of regrets for the team not having pushed for victory, now knows what went wrong and where. Tendulkar, however, stated that they did "try their damnedest."

Be that as it may, one expects a happier bunch to take the field against the South Africans on Thursday at Bangalore, a venue where India have achieved some fantastic victories. Will this be another of those famous victories?

Sachin Tendulkar would certainly like to sign off on a triumphant note, and for that he has to play a stellar role once again.

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