India seek to spin a positive from the negative

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The Independent Online

It is Diwali, Hinduism's biggest religious festival, on Friday. But India is already in pre-celebration mode, after the country's cricket team gave their fans a rousing, though controversial, Test triumph over Australia from the clutches of defeat two days ago.

It is Diwali, Hinduism's biggest religious festival, on Friday. But India is already in pre-celebration mode, after the country's cricket team gave their fans a rousing, though controversial, Test triumph over Australia from the clutches of defeat two days ago. It followed weeks of agony and disbelief among the legions of Indian supporters over their side's ineptitude.

The pitch turned square from the moment a spinner was introduced on the second morning after a rain-affected first day. A wildly fluctuating encounter climaxed in pulsating fashion as Australia were bowled out for 93 in their second innings, which lasted just 30.5 overs. From first ball to last, the game lasted fractionally over two days.

The series had been decided after Australia established a unassailable 2-0 lead last week, so this was a dead game, which Australians have a tendency to lose. But Adam Gilchrist, who had deputised as captain in the first three Tests, had stolen Ricky Ponting's thunder. So the match was by no means of academic interest to Ponting, back at the helm after injury. Indeed, he set the scene with a combative pre-match charge that the groundsman had "cooked" a wicket for India.

This was rather in contrast to "the Gilchrist effect", which had injected a close-to-convivial atmosphere in the middle; so much so that Harbhajan Singh, who delivered the coup de grâce, complained of a lack of aggression in the Indian camp, perhaps disarmed by the abandonment of sledging by the Australians.

This teeming, western Indian metropolis - India's business and Bollywood hub - is cricket's commercial capital, with a reputation of converting top Indian players into millionaires - Sachin Tendulkar has an estimated annual income of £2.5 million.

But in the past month, the big names plummeted in public esteem; and advertising spend on new campaigns featuring such "brand ambassadors" was reportedly sus- pended. This latest result may be insufficient to restore normality; though Tendulkar and VVS Laxman probably took some heat off with a thrilling, match-transforming assault on the debutant off-spinner Nathan Hauritz in the Indians' second innings.

Matters of finance apart, there is a divisive debate under way over whether Sou-rav Ganguly should remain as India's skipper; indeed, whether he is genuinely injured or pretending to be so. Kapil Dev wants him sacked, Dilip Vengsarkar doesn't, and more voices are joining the clamour all the time. He was appointed captain yesterday for a one-off one-day game against Pakistan next Saturday.

An abbreviated Test is catastrophic for India's cricket economy. Where a sport so crucially revolves around turnover from television rights, a disappearance of three playing days irreparably diminishes advertising income. On Friday, the Doordarshan channel, who aired the series in India, were frantically inserting commercials, sometimes even before an over was completed, to reduce impending losses. And it was not exactly value for money for people who bought season tickets for the five days.

While Indian groundsmen have been reputed to conjure spinning tracks to feed the hosts' perceived strength, rarely has there been an Indian Test wicket which deviated so alarmingly and so early. Michael Clarke, only an occasional left-arm spinner, returned astonishing figures of 6.2-0-9-6. In such conditions, India, reverting to the Sixties and Seventies fashion of three specialist spinners, naturally had an edge, and they escaped to victory by forcing the Australians to bat last. The visitors perished in quest of a paltry target of 107. The capitulation was reminiscent of Greg Chappell's team being bundled out for 84 by the Indians when chasing 143 at Melbourne in 1981.

But Australia remain world champions, with the coming months likely to see a race unfold between England and India to occupy second spot.

What may decide that is the outcome of next summer's Ashes series in England, fertile ground in the past, of course, for Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Shane Warne, and perhaps in the near future for young Clarke.

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