Australia start New Year on note of stability
To follow a year of swings and roundabouts, Australia have chosen to begin 2012 on a note of recently uncommon stability. The same team that swarmed on India in Melbourne has been asked to repeat the trick in Sydney, on a ground the visitors have always found to be friendly to their batsmen, even if the centuries of Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman have not been enough to deliver a victory.
Australia's captain Michael Clarke followed his announcement that Ryan Harris would carry the drinks, leaving Nathan Lyon to weave his web around spin conversant batsmen, with a note of caution about consistency. He had delivered similar words in the aftermath of the MCG victory, and as a captain yet to win more than one Test in a series, the message is a vital one.
"Consistency is obviously very important for us and I've said before this series that we've played some really positive cricket at times and some cricket we'd like to forget," Clarke said. "I guess this is another test of our character to be able to back up after such an impressive win in Melbourne. It's important our preparation has been just as good, which is a big part for our team improving our consistency - making sure we're doing the hard work whether we have success on the field or not.
"I've been really happy with the way the guys have trained over the last two days so our preparation has been spot on. Now it's about the same commitment, the same determination and the same execution, we have to be able to execute our skills again like we did in Melbourne to beat this Indian team."
Sporting pitches have played some part in Australia's fluctuating performances. Having raised their games admirably to defeat Sri Lanka on a tinder-dry Galle pitch, the Australians then slipped up badly in Cape Town, and were similarly confounded in Hobart against New Zealand. Clarke pointed to these surfaces as reasons, though not excuses.
"I think it's a mixture of things, I think conditions have played a big part," Clarke said. "There's no coincidence in Cape Town, South Africa were 9 for 47 we were all out for 47, Hobart not many runs were scored from both teams, throughout the Melbourne Test we rolled India for 150-odd in the second innings. So there's been seam and swing consistently in the last half a dozen Test matches we've played - it's not an excuse but it's a reality, it's there.
"I think we're learning from it, I think our techniques we're working on our techniques at training, we're working on our techniques at training we're working on batting in tough conditions at training, as you guys see all the bowlers are using either brand new balls or reverse swinging balls and it's a real challenge at training. When you've played, like a lot of guys have, so much cricket over such a long period of time it's hard to change your technique, you can certainly improve little parts of it but it's hard to really change, so it's just about trying to do your best in fighting conditions I guess."
Such conditions may again be glimpsed on day one in Sydney, on the same pitch used for last year's Ashes match. The first day had the ball swinging and seaming alarmingly at times, Clarke winning the toss as the then stand-in for Ricky Ponting and battling for traction against England's crack bowling quartet.
"I think there's going to be enough in the wicket," Clarke said. "There's a tinge of green there, it's a little bit tacky at the moment I think it's going to be quite tough to bat on day one but the sun shine yesterday, today and tomorrow's forecast obviously helps, but I think it's going to be quite a similar wicket to what we faced against England last year. I think there's going to be a bit of sideways movement early and I think it's going to turn out to be a really good batting wicket."
James Pattinson, Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus formed a powerful fast bowling union in Melbourne, using intelligence and aggression in equal measure to keep the Indians uncomfortable. Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag were chief contributors to India's ascent to No. 1 in the world, and have been equally important to the subsequent decline, their returns petering out in 2011.
"Hopefully they continue not scoring too many runs, they're two very good players," Clarke said. "It's the game, your time comes around, you score runs, you don't score runs, good form, bad form it's just the game, they're two class players and we'd love for them to continue not scoring too many runs in this series, but if they do they're class players and it won't surprise anybody if they do.
"We have plans to every Indian batsman and we will continue to look at footage of them and improve those plans but I think we stuck to our guns well in Melbourne and that worked well for us so hopefully it won't be any different in this Test match."
Pattinson has the capacity and the desire to be Australia's speed spearhead for some years to come, possessing the sort of confident, prickly visage that his forebears used so well to torment opposing batsmen between the ears as well as the wickets. Clarke expressed quiet hope that Pattinson would go on from his imposing start, but also spoke of the depth of bowling that would help him.
"I hope so, again I think Patto's only just starting, he's a wonderful talent, don't get me wrong, I'd hate to see us put extra pressure on him, he's got a good crew around him as well, let's not forget that," Clarke said. "Patto's got the results over the last few Test matches, but with the way Sids has been bowling, Ryan Harris over the last couple of years, Hilfy the other day even Pat Cummins when he came in in South Africa I think we're building a good crew of fast bowlers.
"They're all as vital as each other, I don't think there's one in my opinion who is above the rest, they've all got a lot of talent and we're going to need every single one of them to continue to perform for us to continue to go forward in Test cricket."
At the other end of the scale from Pattinson is Ponting, who played two valuable innings in Melbourne though again falling short of three figures. Amid all the hubbub about Sachin Tendulkar, it has not been forgotten by Clarke and his team that a Ponting century would be met with similar enthusiasm.
"I think the way Punter is batting at the moment is he's not far away from a big one, that's for sure," Clarke said. "One thing I know about him is if he gets to 100 he won't be stopping there, so he's got a very good record at the SCG, I know he loves playing here at this wicket so it wouldn't surprise me at all if he walked out and made a hundred in this Test match."
Like an unchanged and settled team, a Ponting century was almost unheard of in 2011. Australia have every right to expect more in 2012.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo