21 March 2001.
Astonishing it is how often a top sportsman follows a poor performance with a strong showing. Setbacks are not allowed to linger in the body lest they fester. Rather, they become a motivation as the competitor tries to re-establish his position in the rankings. Such players do not like to let the side down.
Glenn McGrath must have been disappointed on the second night of this Test as he contemplated his contribution and his team’s position.
Although buoyed by his team’s amazing win, Sachin Tendulkar must have been dismayed by his mistakes in the Calcutta Test. Both men responded to their failures with the sort of fightbacks that have been the trademarks of their careers.
McGrath took the early honours as the Australians took wickets in the morning. Something had upset him on the previous day and fingers had been pointed at his stomach. At any rate he had bowled lots of bumpers and in his last spell hardly landed a ball on the cut strip. Regarding his mood, it was not perhaps the time to proffer some off-the-cuff witticism.
Pulling up his socks on this third morning, McGrath began by ruining Orissa’s hopes of a first Test century by removing its favourite son, Shiv Sunder Das, with his opening salvo.
He followed by testing Very Very Special Laxman’s patience with a spell directed a foot outside off stump. Evidently, the Australians had resorted to this restricting tactic as a means of containing an exuberant opponent.
After some restraint, Laxman fell into the trap as he pushed firm-footed at an outswinger and was held at second slip, a position left empty during his onslaught in the previous match.
McGrath also bowled some excellent deliveries to Tendulkar before retiring for a period in the paddock. Nothing is better in sport than watching two great players pitting their wits against each other. The respect was mutual.
After lunch McGrath returned with another energetic spell. To his delight he removed the opposing captain with an off-cutter better left alone. He had done his bit. Australia’s other pace bowlers also kept things tight without taking wickets.
Jason Gillespie gave staunch support but his run of bad luck continued.
Accordingly, the Australians could not exploit the breach opened by McGrath’s breakthroughs. Tendulkar saw to that, and later began to plunder the spinners.
As ever, Tendulkar was captivating. Even his defence is worth watching because his elbow is high, his head still and his footwork immaculate. And he defended an awful lot in the first two hours, scoring only 27 runs.
The Australians played a waiting game, setting a defensive ring of fieldsmen and waiting for Tendulkar to take a risk. He was not to be tempted.
Two days before, this masterful batsman had arrived at the ground for a private net at 2.30pm and departed at dusk. Next day he prepared himself for his innings with another long session.
As a boy, he once travelled with his team on a train and arrived in Bangalore at 5am. The coach sent the players to bed but could not locate Tendulkar. At last he found the 12-year-old throwing a tennis ball at a wall and practising his strokes on the rebounds. He promised to go to bed as long as he was allowed to field near the bat (the coach had sent him to the outfield, as he was a chatterbox). This is a dedicated cricketer.
Tendulkar kept a straight bat. All great players can bat in various moods. He is a humble cricketer, too, and has not the strut or ego that demands domination. If he must defend, he will.
After lunch this batsman began to move ominously forward, welcoming Colin Miller’s off-breaks with a clout over mid-wicket and a tap over his own shoulder. Pretty soon, the Australians were starting to fear the worst and he duly completed a century.
As has been evident throughout this series, cricket remains a game of glorious uncertainties. But some truths are eternal among them that it is not possible to keep good men down.
McGrath and Tendulkar were bound to produce something on this day. Their contest defined the direction of the match. This time Tendulkar prevailed. He is a superb craftsman and conditions were in his favour.
Rahul Dravid lent a hand as the Indians took a lead.
It’s been a terrific match, and a series in which great cricketers have produced great performances.