It was a glorious Australian morning of the new year. A fresh new start, and an opportune time for India to exorcise the ghost of its previous failures. 35,000 spectators were at the refurbished SCG for its 100th test match. The Indian Optimist was feeling good, in spite of the last test loss. 2011 was over. It was a new start. Dhoni won the toss and opted to bat on a green top, expected to become a flat wicket progressively. A good decision, provided India did not lose early wickets, thought the Optimist. However, at lunch with 72/4, the decision already looked questionable. By tea, at 178/8, the whole Indian line-up looked questionable. In another 5 overs after tea, at 191 all out, India had managed to lose a 5-day test match in 59.3 overs, on the first day. The 100th SCG test match had seen its result on Day One. The match was already lost.
But not for our Indian Optimist, failing to realize that the Australian script writers had now taken over. India had their come-back moment, he thought – 3 wickets from the mighty Khan had Australia at 37/3. But Ponting and Clarke fought back. Australia finished the day at 116/3. However, the Indian Optimist was reasonably happy. Early inroads would be made the next morning, and India would get to enjoy the best of the batting conditions in Day 2 and Day 3. But a tireless Clarke and a determined Ponting lumbered on. Lunch on Day 2 was at 236/3, with a Clarke century. Tea was at 394/4, with Ponting finally dismissed, after a century. There should be a collapse now said the Indian Optimist. Hussey came, but did not go back. Clarke made his 250. Australia finished the day at 482/4 in front of 30,000 spectators. The Indian Optimist was concerned. Australia needed to be restricted, and then India could go out and score their share of centuries. They had done it before in Kolkatta, and even won the test match.
Day 3 lunch, 583/4 and a Hussey century. Surely something must give, thought the Indian Optimist. A Clarke triple century and a sporting Australian declaration at 659/4 post-lunch. Finally, thought our Optimist, what a batting paradise! Poor India had got a difficult wicket on the first day. The Indian batting maestros were going to make a feast of it now for the next 2 days.
Day 3 Tea, India 53/1, Sehwag out. End of Day 114/2, Dravid too. Hang on here, thought the Indian Optimist. Could we actually lose this match as well? But no, we still have Sachin, Gambhir, Laxman, Kohli, Dhoni and Ashwin too. Partnerships will happen, and Australia will have to bat on the last afternoon. Anything can happen. India was only 277 more behind.
Day 4 dawned. At 243/3 at lunch, India were still looking good. Sachin and Laxman had things in control. The Indian Optimist was gleeful at the prospect of Sachin’s 100th 100. He was already thinking of Sachin’s 200 and Laxman’s 100. When tea was taken at 351/8, there was no Sachin, no Laxman. Not even Dhoni and Kohli. The lone warrior was Ashwin, battling on. Hope had gone, the match was as good as lost. The Indian Optimist was disillusioned. It has happened again. As with the last time, and the time before that and many more times before that. The players returned after tea. The last rites were completed. India were down 0-2. The Indian Optimist was distraught, dismayed and choking in disbelief. His team had let him down. How could this have happened again?
The commentators analysed, the expert comments flowed in. The Indian team is psychologically scarred said one. Get new people in and out with the old, said another. Batsmen need to introspect said the third. Then spoke the Indian captain. We are confident for the next test at Perth he said. Confident of losing, thought the Indian Optimist. But his ears had perked up. And so had his mood. Ofcourse, India would win the next 2 tests, square the series and still retain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. India would regroup and come back to fight. After all, they had scored 400 runs in the second innings. His focus had shifted. It was all about the next test now, the changes needed, how to get the winning combination. Sydney and its woeful memories were beginning to look distant already. He was ready, he was waiting and he was confident – our Indian Optimist was feeling good again.
Now, as many times before, his hope stems from the faith in his team, in the system that manages it and the feeling that “all is well”. But is all really well? Can this hope continually survive the harshness of reality? Is it chance that produces these bad results? Is the system really right? Or are the cricketers over-worked and their minds over-cluttered? Is the frenetic public life distracting them from the long periods of concentration needed for test cricket? Are days or even weeks of rest not helping them overcome the cricket fatigue? Is it too much to play all formats and the T20 league as well, apart from all the commercial commitments? No easy answers here, yet a talented bunch of cricketers with repeatedly insipid and disheartening performances has to raise some of these questions. And just one more, how long will the Indian Optimist continue to remain one in his infinite hope?