It may sound cynical, but there are two distinct advantages of having low expectations from the two great imponderables of Indian public life: politics and cricket. For one thing, it allows you to remain sane if things go awfully wrong. And for another, if the performance is even slightly better than expected, it can cause immeasurable ecstasy. Sure, it runs contrary to the power of positive thinking. But would even Dr Norman Vincent Peale have expected Saurav Ganguly—not Stephen Waugh—to be smiling at the end of inarguably one of the most engaging cricket tours in recent memory? A Test series that went 2-1 in favour of the hosts, and a one-day series that went all the way to the wire in Margao last week before the Australians came out victors by a 3-2 margin.
When the all-conquering Australians approached 'The Final Frontier', only incurable desh bhakts would have given Saurav Ganguly and his 'boys' a chance of halting the invaders. The cloud of match-fixing hung heavy. There was no Anil Kumble. There was a question mark over the other bowling spearhead, Javagal Srinath. Sure, there was Sachin Tendulkar, but would he get the support at the other end? So, as news of the Aussies' 'mental disintegration' tactics and Shane Warne's fit arm reached our shores, the word was out: we would simply get roasted. And after two-and-a-half days in Mumbai, even the optimists stood cured.
But cricket's such a funny game that only one side is left laughing at the end. So, three Test matches and five one-day internationals later, guess which side is now claiming that winning is not all there is to cricket, guess which two batsmen ended the tour as badly as they began it, guess which spinner consistently got hammered, and—surprise, surprise—guess which captain is now crying on the shoulders of the media accusing his rival of treating him badly. (Answers: Australia, Michael Slater and Ricky Ponting, Warne and—surprise, surprise—Steve Waugh).
Never in the history of the game (probably) has a freak dismissal as that of Captain Waugh being adjudged out handling the ball in Calcutta heralded such a dramatic change in fortunes to a series. Suddenly, a 20-year-old off-spinner with a suspect action and a bit of a reputation became the first ever Indian bowler to bag a hat-trick in a Test. Suddenly, two talented but less-heralded batsmen decided to come up with something extra-special to enable India to win in spite of following on. But who would have thought that the heroes would be Harbhajan Singh,
V.V.S. Laxman, Rahul Dravid—and Sachin's leg spin? Certainly, the Test series was closer than what the 2-1 scoreline after the Chennai tie-breaker indicates, but what the Indians have shown is what we have all known but conveniently forgotten: that this is a marvellously unpredictable game, and should remain that way. Only the very foolish would venture to make any guesses, and only the very foolish should. But in performing so creditably under pressure against the world's best team, Ganguly's men have ensured that they can still hold on to the 'Tigers at Home' epithet.
But the flip side to low expectations being exceeded so delightfully, as on this tour, is that it covers all the cracks and gaping holes. While we exult at Harbhajan's bag of 32 wickets, we forget that nine bowlers shared the remaining 18, out of which three went to a genius-batsman turning his arm over. While we exult at Laxman and Dravid (and Tendulkar's 10,000 runs and 100 wickets), we forget that all that Captain Ganguly could manage in six Test innings was a measly 106 runs.While we exult at having socked it to the Aussies by playing to our strength, our pitches are graveyards for our fast bowlers.
The evenly balanced one-dayers on batsmen-friendly tracks may have seen tonnes of runs being scored (and the verdict being uncertain till the very last match in Goa.) But with two run-outs in Bangalore, three in Pune, two in Indore and one in Goa, our batsmen are still to demonstrate that they have mastered the 22 yards that separate them from their partners. With Mohammed Azharuddin and Ajay Jadeja cooling their heels, Hemang Badani lived up to his promise in Pune with a century, but Sameer Dighe in the last Test and Vijay Dahiya in the one-dayers couldn't quite match Nayan Mongia's glove-work.
But nobody in the country today can quite appreciate the virtues of low expectations more than the captain himself. It is one thing for Ganguly to be publicly commended by another former captain for giving back to the Aussies as good as he got. With just over 100 runs in the Tests, and with scores of 6, 4, 0 and 9 in the first four one-dayers, the captain would have been under the kind of pressure that had Sachin Tendulkar relinquishing his post in a hurry—though the Indian skipper did make a redeeming 74 in the fifth and final match. But then Ganguly has his great friend Steve Waugh to thank. What if Matthew Hayden hadn't shouted 'Watch Out!' when Waugh swept Harbhajan and the ball ballooned up? And what if 'Tugga' hadn't handled the ball...