Midway through the second day of this Test match in Sydney,with twelve and a half thousand runs and thirty nine centuries behind him,Ricky Ponting charged off for a single with the enthusiasm and judgement of a school kid in the junior team searching for his first run. And when he lifted himself off the turf,shirt muddied,aware that he was lucky to survive,he celebrated almost like he had never known what it was to get a hundred.
Sport does that to the greatest of champions. Ponting,one of the legends of the game,entered the series with his career hanging by a thread,in fear of losing his spot to cricketers whom history would never place on the same page as him. It was an examination he wouldnt have faced since he made the number three spot his own. But now,he had bought time,maybe even a Tendulkaresque revival. He could look forward to the morrow as an Australian Test cricketer. That was the emotion that came through. It was better to watch than all the runs he might have scored. It was also the feeling you got when you saw Miachel Hussey celebrate.
It also suggested that there was some insecurity in the Australian team that India did not,or maybe could not,exploit. In sport,people often talk of the fear in the enemy camp. The reaction to the Ponting and Hussey centuries confirmed it existed. But halfway through the series,they have dispelled it.
But for all the emotion spilling over,it was Michael Clarkes triple century that was the more decisive innings. Seven years ago,I saw him make a debut century in Bangalore that was characterised by some of the most decisive footwork you will see. Now he takes his place in history. The record he broke had stood for a hundred and nine years.
But Australia will be aware that they were up against an Indian side that was a bit leaden-footed and occasionally devoid of intensity. I am not denying that there is steel in this side,you dont acquire these kind of records otherwise,but there was very little zing to them. On the second morning with Australia a mere seventy five ahead and anxious to get a good start,India offered a loosener as the first over. The singles ticked over,there were a couple of boundaries and within fifteen minutes it looked like Clarke and Ponting had been batting for an hour. You hoped India would come harder,induce a sense of uncertainty in the batsmen,make them earn the early runs. That didnt happen and it is my thesis that it is the lack of athleticism,and the lesser importance attached to it,that is the reason.
Traditionally,we in India have always placed a huge premium on skill and that is why it is rarely in short supply. But Indias icons have rarely been noted for athleticism. You remember a Kapil Dev,an Azharuddin but they are the exception and I believe it is unpardonable for this generation to be unathletic. When a Dravid or a Laxman were being indoctrinated,physical prowess was rarely stressed upon; you were expected to bat,bowl and catch and India have been pretty good at those. But cricketers around twenty five today have seen world cricket from the time they were fifteen. They have no excuse and that is why it is frustrating to watch someone like Ravichandran Ashwin with all the skills in the game but not,by any stretch,an athlete.
So too with Zaheer Khan,among the most skilful bowlers in the game today. Few can move the new ball and old at will like he does and watching him set up a wicket is one of the joys in the game. But down at long leg he rarely,if ever,takes a start and Australias batsmen have regularly pinched singles and twos wherever he has been fielding. So what does that tell another generation? That you must learn to bowl like him,which is fine,but also that it is ok to be back on your heels in the field? It is a question that Indian cricket needs to answer. The package he presents is still invaluable but he is not the only slow mover in the field. Five or six more and you have a side that is low on physical intensity.
I guess the reverse,being athletic but possessed of few cricketing skills is worse but that is not a valid argument any more. Athleticism is non-negotiable for this generation. It helps you win the small points that can make a big difference.