A week after the unexpected crushing victory at Headingley, the euphoria fails to die down. After all, it's not every day that a bunch of individual superstars play together as a team! Everyone in the team from the most talented of them all, Tendulkar, to the unassuming journeyman Sanjay Bangar, played his part, and the ultimate victor was Indian cricket. I must say that in the 15 years or so that I have been avidly following Indian cricket, I have not seen a more intensely ruthless performance from an Indian team overseas, and 'ruthless' is not a word usually associated with Indian cricket.
Once the noose was around the English neck, the grip was never loosened, except for a brief period towards the end of the 4th day, when Hussain and Stewart waged a grim battle. Hey, after all, this is Test cricket, and in this dog-eat-dog world, there are no freebies. When I woke up bright and early on the first day of the Test match, and I saw the Indian scorecard read 30 for 1, with the ball swinging, seaming and doing everything but talk, the first words out of my mouth were "Oh No! Not again!!". Bangar and Dravid were ducking, weaving and taking blows on their body, and the Indian team had picked two spinners, Anil "minefield specialist" Kumble and Harbhajan "One series wonder" Singh, both with abysmal overseas records.
I was bracing myself for another overseas defeat and cursing everyone in the team from Ganguly to John Wright! This was until I heard the magic words "uneven bounce" uttered by a commentator. One hour into the Test match, and already one could see balls bouncing variably from the same length. That changed my whole outlook on the game because suddenly, Anil Kumble was very much in the picture. He is probably the best "bad wicket" bowler in the game, and his performance in this Test was outstanding. His confidence levels were so high towards the end that he even started 'turning' the ball. Stewart's dismissal on the 5th morning was a classic example; a perfect leg spinner on the spot, and a resultant edge to slip.
It must be a wonderful feeling for him to finally be part of an Indian win overseas! His confidence must be sky high now, and the Englishmen better watch out at the Oval. One of the high points of the game was the exhilarating stroke play from Tendulkar and Ganguly towards the end of the second day's play. I was pleasantly surprised to see Ganguly go on an all-out offensive just 20 short of a hundred, a milestone he had missed by a run in the previous game. One could ask, what's the big deal? This is a team game and the team comes first, right? Wrong. I vividly recall India's first game in the last World Cup against South Africa. India batting first were in a great position, having made around 165 to 170 at the 32nd over mark, with Ganguly in his 80s.
To my horror, Ganguly started playing slowly with an eye on a hundred, with total indifference to the team cause. The funny part was Ganguly eventually did not make a hundred on that occasion; India made only 250-odd and sure enough, South Africa won the game. After the game, Barry Richards, the South African great, remarked "This is the reason India does not win too many games". Imran Khan called for Ganguly's head, saying that if he was the captain, he would drop Ganguly for the next game. Indeed, life has come a full circle for Saurav Ganguly! From a selfish, young cricketer to a selfless, aggressive captain, it's been one long arduous journey. And again, it's Indian cricket, which is benefitting from this change in attitude.
The Test match at the Oval is only a day away now. Needless to say, this is as good an opportunity as the Indian team is ever bound to get, to win a Test series overseas. The Oval traditionally favours spinners and the Indian team clearly has the upper hand now, but another proven fact is that the Indian team is consistently inconsistent. Who knows, Agarkar might again start bowling like a millionaire, Sachin might fail again when he is needed most, and it will all be back to square one. Only time will tell....