The great healing at Perth that followed the great divide at Sydney

waca

South Africa’s win over Australia at the WACA, once the bastion of the Australians, brings back memories of a factitious Australian summer where India bounced back at the same ground after nearly threatening to walk out of the series. The well-fought match was a much needed panacea after the tempestuous Sydney encounter that divided the cricket world with accusations of racism and poor umpiring. 

The WACA at Perth is closing down. Major matches will soon be shifted to the newly minted Perth stadium in a couple of years. In this scintillating piece by Gideon Haigh, one of the best writers the game has seen, writes about how the loss will form a hole in the soul of Australian cricket, one that cannot be easily filled.

South Africa’s fight back and victory at the WACA came on the back of a Dale Steyn injury and being reduced to 32/4 in the first innings. A run out effected by Temba Bavuma to send David Warner back was the stand-out moment of the match

WACA at Perth.The name conjures up many images but two of them are enduring; a 19 year old Sachin Tendulkar scored one of his finest centuries at the ground as the rest of the side fell like nine pins around him (this was the 90s, just to be sure). Many rate it as one of his best test innings ever.

Then came a match that many Indian fans still hold dear to their hearts, in part for the result and in part for the negativity that it helped negate.

No one likes a good scrap like the Australians but what had transpired before the Perth test wasn’t a scrap, it was an ugly brawl. Most of didn’t even take place on the ground but in a hearing conducted by Mike Procter.

If the Perth test is one that we all like to remember and reminiscence about, the Sydney test that preceded it is one we all like to forget and confine to the depths of our selective amnesia. You don’t hold close to your heart victories that were ceded without a fight. Whitewashes and innings defeats are celebrated but not revered and recalled with the same fervor nor do they evoke teary-eyed nostalgia as the the years go by.  A test-match is made of numerous parts that are woven together and when you look at the tapestry, it isn’t always easy to say which part clinched victory. Was it the innings of a lifetime, or the spell of a lifetime, or the run out of a lifetime? Or was it a pot-pourri of all of the above?

To recall the Sydney match, the favourite hunting ground of many a cricketer (Brian Lara named his daughter Sydney after the ground), will be to unearth wounds that are better kept under wraps. It means recalling the Indian side losing 3 wickets in two overs and Anil Kumble casting a forlorn figure after he had batted valiantly for 2 hours to help draw the match, only to see his side capitulate as the end came near. It would mean recalling the amateurish umpiring that hung over the match like a heavy cloud. It would mean recalling Michael Clarke claim a catch that Ricky Ponting vouched was a clean take, though the replays were far from conclusive. It would mean recalling Rahul Dravid’s dismissal and him walking away with a smile that had ‘did this just happen’ written all over it. In the post match conference, Anil Kumble said “only one team played in the spirit of the game” and received unanimous applause from the press corp present there. Ricky Ponting got into a tiff with a reporter who questioned his integrity.

Remembering Sydney would also mean revisiting one of the darkest chapters of India-Australia cricket that threatened to tear apart the very seams that bound the laws and decencies of the game. The rancor from the match was made to look like child’s play with what followed. Andrew Symmonds accused Harbhajan Singh of a racial slur. Players, umpires and captains from both sides were called for a hearing and Sachin Tendulkar, honorary saint to a billion, was accused of changing his testimony in order to defend what many thought was a guilty Harbhajan Singh. Mike Procter sided with the Australian version of events, even though neither umpire heard anything and handed Harbhajan Singh a 3 match ban. The BCCI chose the opportune moment to show its clout and threatened to pull out of the series, going so far as to have a plane on stand by at the tarmac to ferry the team back home if Harbhajan’s ban wasn’t revoked and Steve Bucknor not removed. In the end, power talked and cricket listened. Steve Bucknor was removed from officiating and Harbhajan Singh played the next match. His ban would later be revoked. The ugly turn of events was cloistered into the phrase  ‘Monkeygate’.

Then the team went to Perth.

Some things aren’t meant to happen, but they do. Some surprises are good, some not so good. Donald Trump winning the presidency is a not so good surprise. India winning at Perth, one of the fastest pitches in the world, on the backdrop of mistrust and anger and a tour that almost went off the rails, is good.

Virender Sehwag had been off-colour and out-of-favour with the selectors  but Anil Kumble pushed hard for his inclusion in the squad for the series. He played his first match of the series at Perth. India scored a gritty 330 on the backs of some good sensible cricket from Rahul Dravid (93) and Sachin Tendulkar (71). Australia’s reply saw them fall short by 112 runs, giving a decent lead to work with.

In their second innings, they looked like they would squander a good chance when they lost 5 quick wickets. An old nemesis, VVS Laxman, returned to resist them again and was helped by MS Dhoni and RP Singh. Australia were set 413 to win.

The passage of play that is most fondly remembered and reminisced about is the magical spell that Ishant Sharma bowled on the 4th day. He had Ricky Ponting prodding, jumping, swinging and missing. It was a tantalizing exhibition of bowling by a 19 year old yet finding his feet in international cricket. For over an hour, a man who ranks in the same league as Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar was made to look like a rookie who was facing a seasoned campaigner when it was the other way round. After his first spell, Kumble called RP Singh to take over when Virender Sehwag ran up to the middle and persuaded Kumble to persist with Ishant Sharma for a little while longer. He turned to Ishant to ask him if he was up for a couple more overs. There was no hint of hesitancy from Ishant. He accounted for Ponting in the first delivery of that over when he reached out and was edged a delivery to Rahul Dravid at slips.

The chase for an improbable victory watered down into a chase for a draw. Michael Clarke and Adam Gilchrist threw caution to the wind in a bid to raise the spirits of the Australian fans and they nearly succeeded before Virender Sehwag and Irfan Pathan returned to settle raw nerves with their cameos. Sehwag repaid his debt partially to Anil Kumble by taking two wickets, one of them being that of Adam Gilchrist. The Aussies, not known to give up, went for the last yard dash with much gung-ho and Clarke and Mitchell Johnson held on to their forts before the inevitable final breach.

The sight of RP Singh castling Shaun Tait is one of the most memorable images of Indian cricket. After the match, there were no harsh words or heated press conferences. It had two sides shaking hands and respecting each other for a well-fought match. Both sides went back to what they did best, play good, hard cricket instead of wasting all their energies on casting aspersions and accusations at one another.

Till date, India hasn’t won another test match on Australian soil.

The 2011-2012 series was a forgettable whitewash that saw Laxman and Dravid playing in whites for the final time.

The 2014-2015 series was played on the back drop of the tragic death of Phil Hughes and saw some fighting cricket, but still stopped short of offering a victory for India.

The difference between sport and life is that sometimes, sport offers you a chance at redemption and healing quickly. It can be the next ball, the next quarter, the next half, the next match, the next series or the next moment.

In these fractious times, that’s something to look forward to.

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