Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Lords’ Encore – 18 years down the line

Eighteen years back in the evening of 22nd June the whole India were treated to the welcome note sung by the two young Indian batsmen making their way into the grind of international test cricket. It was the second test of India’s tour of England and in an extremely messy scenario, perfectly exampled by the Indian team quite a few times during that era, those two young men were playing their first test match in the ‘Head-quarters’, the Lords.
India was already behind in the test series thanks largely to a very mediocre batting performance in both the innings of the Trent Bridge test match. Even a Sachin Tendulkar century was not enough for a team to save the test match for whom the next best score in that innings was 18. Clearly something has to give and it was obvious that Tendulkar needs some support in the other end to build his innings and also for India to make some sizable total.
To make matter worse, Navjot Singh Sidhu, one of the mainstay of the Indian batting line up walked out of the tour just before the second test due to an ugly spat with then Captain Mohammed Azharuddin. Already there were talks of giving chance to one of the newbie’s Sourav Ganguly to make his debut in Lords. Ganguly just played two ODIs before that with a gap of more than 4 years between them. But his 46 in the last One day was a good innings and he was generally in a good form during the tour with couple of centuries in the first class matches against the counties and other minor teams.
The other option in the middle order was Rahul Dravid. Despite being a prolific run scorer in domestic cricket Rahul was quickly gaining the dubious reputation of being a ‘domestic tiger’ much like Raman Lamba and some others due to the poor return in his first few ODIs. From his debut in April of that year till that test, Rahul played 5 ODIs scoring only 43 runs in those. But he also got a chance in that last ODI along with Sourav and made quick unbeaten 22 of 15 at the death. Hence when Sanjay Manjarekar was deemed injured before the second test then Rahul replaced him in the number 7 position in the batting line up.
(Source: Internet)
India won the toss and put England in. England with a very strong top order with Atherton, Stewart, Hussain, Thorpe and Hick found an unlikely hero in their eccentric wicketkeeper Jack Russel, whose 124 along with support from Thorpe, who scored 89, took England to 344. For India, Venkatesh Prasad, playing his second test, put his name in the Lords Honour board with five wickets. Srinath got 3 and Ganguly with his slow medium pace utilized the condition and pitch to get enough swing to finish with two big scalps of Hussain and Hick.
At the end of second day’s play India was 83 for loss of two wickets with Ganguly and Tendulkar in the middle. India kept losing wickets in regular interval on the third day and at 202 for 5 was at the risk of getting allout below 300. Ganguly was solid in one side but needed support. Rahul Dravid came out of the dressing room and joined Sourav to bat in his first test match. Rest as they say is history. That day, their partnership of 94 runs was the first of many such partnerships in next 12 years. Ganguly got that elusive debut century at Lords to get out for 131. Dravid built important partnerships with his Karnataka team mates Kumble and Srinath but unfortunately got out just 5 short of his debut hundred.

That test match ended in a draw but the course of Indian cricket was changed that day. Those two youngsters with their talent and capability drive Indian cricket to many new peaks and accomplishment throughout their career.
Together they have scored almost 43,000 international runs to go with 137 wickets and almost 600 catches. I can keep listing their 100’s and 50’s but these dry statistics cannot completely illustrate their contribution to the Indian cricket. They are two ideal ‘Sportsman’ in true sense of the term and as leaders and as great performers they are well respected and loved by thousands of fans and critics all over the cricketing world and beyond.

Let’s move forward to 2014. India is playing another test match in Lords and the surroundings are very similar to that 96 tour. India has not won an away test match for over 2 years during which they have played 15 test matches outside home. People are asking questions about the team combinations and line up. To add to that, things got messier with India’s complaint against James Anderson and England’s counter-complaint against Ravindra Jadeja just before the start of the test matches. India again has a young batting line-up and although no one is making their debut but two of them have played less than 10 test matches. Among them Ajinkya Rahane played just 6 test matches and all though he already scored his maiden test century in New Zealand it’s safe to say that he is still finding his feat in the longer version of the game.
After the slow lifeless pitch in Trent Bridge during the first test, the Lords pitch was completely different. It is the most greenish pitch produced in Lords in ages and just before the test match the tweeter and other social media sites were buzzing with ex-cricketers and cricket followers exclaiming their surprise in such a green pitch.
(Source: Internet)
India lost the toss and was sent in by England. The pitch had lots of life in it and Indians had quite a difficult time throughout the first session. But after a relatively better first session where they scored 78 runs with loss of just 2 wickets India lost their way in the middle session and when they lost their 7th wicket with 145 on board even 200 looked like a distant dream. Rahane came to bat at the fall of 3rd wicket and by the time the 7th wicket fall he reached 26. Although he looked solid but there was a possibility that he could run out of partners.
But Bhuvneshwar Kumar was not ready to give in easily; he became just the right ally for Rahane playing very sensibly with a mindset and technique of a batsman. And as the pressure were off from his shoulder Rahane became more and more assured and with the second new balls coming to bat more quickly he started playing his shots which included a wonderful lofted six of Anderson, arguably England’s best bowler of the day. Although Kumar got out with Rahane at 78 he found more able support in Mohammed Shami and finally reached his first Lords’ century with punch through point boundary.
It is a memorable innings played in a difficult pitch with the team in dire straits. Rahane is slowly making his name in test cricket and getting the reputation of not only Top-class test batsman but also someone who has the traits to build long partnership with the tail, an enviable quality for any middle order batsman.

18 years back those two gentlemen made an entire generation of cricket followers falling in love with their brand of cricket. And although we do not know whether India will be able to snatch a win or not but we can just hope that Ajinkya Rahane will be able to create many such generations of fans with other great innings like this one.