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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

India can't justify Test status without a bowling superstar

It is often said that the Indian cricket public are not terribly interested in Tests. But a glance at the blogosphere suggests that they are thoroughly enjoying their team’s rise to No. 1 in the world rankings.

When a fellow English columnist (sorry, “ranting Pom”) recently scoffed at the table, suggesting that India were poor under pressure and didn’t deserve their lofty position, he was subjected to a ritual disembowelling online.

For myself, I tend to feel that India are every bit as deserving of the laurel wreath as South Africa or Australia. The problem is that we have become accustomed to the idea of a single champion team, because that is the way the game has been since the early 1970s.

In theory, the concept of three or four half-decent sides scrapping it out at the top of the table – a hung parliament, if you will – should make for greater drama than the monotony of totalitarian rule.

But that is to under-estimate our love of neatness in all things, especially sport. We like to know who the pillars of world cricket are, so that we can look for cracks in the edifice. There is no story as resonant as the fall of a dynasty (as Tiger Woods, a dynasty in his own right, has just discovered).

The ICC’s algorithm does a decent job of turning results into placings, as far as that goes. But the definition of a true champion side is that you don’t need to look at the table to know they are the world’s best.

The other issue with India is that they are a team without great bowlers (begging Harbhajan Singh’s pardon). Their batsmen do the attacking, crushing the life out of sides with the weight and the speed of their run-scoring.

Yes, the attack may be solid and professional. But it is hardly up to the level of Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, nor the all-conquering juggernaut that was the West Indies’ mean machine.

You can almost see their Test cricket as an extension of their one-day skills. Virender Sehwag’s 293 was a 50-over innings that happened to go on for a whole day.

This is the modern way. But it is also an ancient way. The Indians are turning the clock back to the 1930s and 40s, decades when the giant score was the building block of every Test series win.

That was the last era when pitches were flat enough, and bowlers subservient enough, for a batsman (Sehwag now, Bradman then) to eye up the possibility of scoring 300 runs in a day.

In the modern game, we are still seeing isolated examples of bowlers (Dale Steyn, Mitchell Johnson, Ajantha Mendis) who manage to upset the established order. At least, for a while, before the combination of an overstuffed itinerary and exhaustive video analysis brings them back to the pack.

India need someone with that wow factor. Harbhajan had it at the start of his career, when he ambushed the Aussies with the slippery variation that has become known as “the doosra”. Yet his performances since then have been impressive rather than truly iconic.

Perhaps the solution is in front of us. Perhaps the combination of Sreesanth and Zaheer Khan, which performed so well against the Sri Lankans, can develop into a genuinely world-beating pairing. But until the Indians can dominate opponents with ball as well as bat, the arguments will go on.

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