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Up from the ashes

THE one thing about the India-Australia Test series that intrigues me is a little-known thing. The day the second Test was over, there was a report by the Australian domestic news agency about the game. Nothing unusual about that, part of their job, that's all. What intrigued me was the last paragraph; it stated that umpire S. K. Bansal, the Indian umpire in the Test, has so far stood in six Tests involving India and all of them have been have won by India.

Nothing more, nothing less. Yet to anyone who knows English, the insinuation was clear - Bansal is influencing victories the Indian way. Yet this same agency reporter could not point to a single concrete instance in either the first or second Test to prove what he had been trying to hint at. Of course, since the first Test ended in a crushing win for Australia, there was no need to look for a fig-leaf. It was a way of trying to deflect blame for a massive defeat and also a way of preparing the road as it were to apportion the blame if Australia lost the series.

Happily, the third Test went the same way in terms of umpiring. There were no bad decisions, nothing even remotely approaching the type of rubbish which was witnessed when India last toured Australia. During that summer, there was a new kind of dismissal - head before wicket - given by Darrell Hair and plenty of others which led to allegations that the Australian umpires were targeting India's captain Sachin Tendulkar.

This time, even though Australian batsmen often shook their heads when they had to leave the crease, there was no denying the evidence of replays - they were all out, every single one of them. The humidity, the crowds, the food are generally cited as negatives by touring teams but then that cuts both ways - there are enough louts in both countries and nobody can claim to be an angel.

When this failed, the Australian press found a new drum to beat. Australian supporters in India had rubbish thrown at them while they were watching the Tests and Indian players gave them the finger while they were doing a victory lap. Now I don't support the idea of players, especially, the captain, behaving like a school kid, but the complaints about being treated badly by the crowd are just so much tosh. Whenever a team from the subcontinent plays in Australia, supporters of the visiting team have to cope with a barrage of bad language and beer bottles. Things are a little more under control in Sydney and Melbourne but pretty much par for the course in Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. I seem to also remember the little matter of a guy named Warne giving English supporters the finger the last time the Ashes were contested in England but nothing happened to him, did it?

The Indian captain, Sourav Ganguly, clearly set out to get up the collective nose of the Australians. And he succeeded by a combination of both rude and cunning tactics. Steve Waugh rarely lets things get under his skin but this time he was matched, sledge for sledge. Waugh even went to the extent of donning a helmet and fielding at silly point to try and rattle Ganguly by sledging; Ganguly returned the compliment when Waugh was at the crease. Ganguly was accused of negative tactics by Waugh, for making one of his bowlers pitch outside the leg-stump on the final day; Waugh, of course, conveniently forgot that McGrath had done the same thing when India was batting - only thing, he pitched outside the off. Sadly, these are the kind of tactics which one has no employ in order to get the better of the Australians.

I think it is time for the Australian team to step back and take a good hard look at itself. This run of victories has masked some serious lacunae in the team and it is better not to paper over the cracks. Much as the captain may try to cover up for players who failed miserably, there is a need to question why a batsman like Damien Martyn was never given a chance. Ricky Ponting had a single-digit average and Adam Gilchrist made 124 runs, 122 of those in one innings. Warne's wickets cost a bit over 50 runs apiece. If these statistics mean nothing, then there will be a time when there will be regrets over the lack of action.

For a change, India showed a good deal of mongrel spirit, the ability to snarl its way out of a corner when surrounded by a much bigger and seemingly unbeatable dog. Teams which get rid of any notion that the opposition is unbeatable can do this. I don't know at what point this happened but it would appear that Laxman led the way with his knock of 59 in the first innings of the second Test. He played with great fluency and suddenly everyone realised that the Australian attack could be treated with disdain once every now and then.

Singh's contribution was phenomenal. He is clearly talent for the future and India should nurture him carefully and not let him waste away by playing too much of one-day cricket. He is an attacking off-spinner and India hasn't had one like him since Venkataraghavan retired. He also uses his head and has sufficient variety in his arsenal.

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