Monday, August 13, 2007

The fear of winning

Many questions have been asked about India’s performance on the fourth day of the Oval test. Should they have sent England to bat again, especially considering the lead and the cloud cover? Why did Rahul Dravid bat like a much slower version of Chris Tavaré, especially considering the fact that India had the upper hand in the overall context of the game? And by delaying the declaration for so long, were India being too safe and thus denying themselves a possible 2-0 score line?

Many answers have been opined as well, by many distinguished analysts of the game. Irrespective of the result today (and I write this just after lunch on the fifth day, with a draw looking the most likely result), it is highly unlikely that Dravid will ever share the reality behind what went into the Indian think tank’s mind as they made those difficult decisions.

In what can only be termed a delicious irony, Dravid’s partnership with VVS Laxman and Harbhajan Singh’s subsequent demolition of Australia in that match seems to have redefined the way a captain looks at an opportunity to send the opposition back to the batting crease. Was that Dravid’s reasoning? Could be, except that that is too templated an approach, as in, “come what may, I will not enforce the follow on.” A twist to the old WG Grace dictum of what to do when you win the toss. Words to the effect of “Bat first. When in doubt, think, then bat first.”

Is 2-0 a better result than 1-0? That is a question that might well have passed Dravid’s mind. And if the decisions are any indication, 1-0 is good enough, and 2-0 is not worth even a hugely remote chance of a 1-1 score line, thank you. The latter would perhaps have cost Dravid his job. Fear of failure is perhaps one way to classify it. So the decision was made in the context of the series, not of the match. Battle versus war, and all that stuff.

Were the Indian bowlers tired after bowling more than 100 overs? It’s a reason often given, more often on the shirtfronts of the sub-continent. But with the cloud cover on Sunday morning, surely Zaheer Khan, Sreesanth and RP Singh would surely have fancied their chances? And Kumble too, as the pitch would have started breaking.

Or was it that the Indians were just plain lazy? They know that if they just draw this test, the series is theirs, and so is the (totally deserving) encomia that would follow. So was it just the lack of the much-talked about killer instinct? One remembers the 1981-82 series between the same two teams, when India won the first test and then aggressively played for draws in the following five. (Of course it didn’t help that Keith Fletcher’s England wasn’t particularly awe-inspiring either.) It was perhaps the most boring test series I remember following, but as Sunil Gavaskar, the Indian captain, is well likely to remind you, India finished on the right side of the series score line.

A more closer-to-home truth in this whole picture is that India just starting freezing as they sighted the end. A series win within sniffing distance, too unbelievable to be true, too scary to handle. Remember the Lord’s Test of 1986? Chasing a not-so-imposing 134 for victory with a full day ahead (not accounting for rain, of course), India seemed almost unwilling to win, Kris Srikkanth plodding uncharacteristically for ten balls before departing without disturbing the scorers, Mohinder Amarnath struggling to 8 off 50 balls (admittedly faster that what Dravid managed yesterday, but only just) and Mohammed Azharuddin getting run out, before captain Kapil Dev came and banished the devils in the collective Indian mind with a blink-and-you-miss it 23 off just 10 balls. I remember a reporter using the term “fear of winning” to describe that performance. Day 4 at the Oval reminded me of that expression.

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