India search for more SCG heroics
Sydney, by all accounts a city bubbling with life, has recently been associated with the dead Test. Visiting teams usually come here for the final Test, with the series gone. Don Bradman has a stand named after him in the SCG, as do other legends like Bill O'Reilly and Monty Noble, but there is reason enough to build a new one named Pride. Normally that's the only thing left to play for once the teams land here.
A large section of the bucket-seats are painted green but white would be more appropriate, considering how often Australia have applied the whitewash at this venue. England were left pale last year (5-0), Pakistan in 2005 (3-0), Zimbabwe in 2003 (2-0), South Africa in 2002 (3-0), West Indies in 2001 (5-0) and India in 2000 (3-0). It's 13 years since Australia lost a 'live' Test here. This is the theatre where dead horses are flogged.
Things are different this time. India are down but far from out and couldn't have chosen a better ground to begin their fightback. Their eight previous Tests at the SCG have included four draws and a win and the surface is usually one that assists spin. There's talk of this being a more lively pitch but the curator, Tom Parker, said it would be a sporting track that "changes as the game goes along". Rain, which is forecast, could play a part too.
India thrived on the pitch that was laid out in 2004. They amassed 705, built on a towering 241 not out from Sachin Tendulkar and a magical 178 from VVS Laxman. Tendulkar will also have fond memories of his 148 back in 1991-92, an innings which Richie Benaud called the best he had seen in Australia. There was a bit to cheer in 2000 too, when the then prime minister John Howard thanked Laxman for making his day.
"When you come to foreign venues and do well, it has a bearing on what happens later," Ricky Ponting said of India's previous heroics here. "They scored 700-something last time but it's a fresh game. They are capable of doing that but our plans and execution need to ensure they don't. Take the MCG away and they've made a truckload of runs against Pakistan. Everyone has a bad Test. They're an ultra-talented batting line-up."
It's that ultra-talented bunch who may be currently giving Anil Kumble some sleepless nights. So often has the word "suffocated" been uttered in press conferences that you would think they were playing in a gas chamber. "Uptight" was how Kumble described them and wished for a more fluent display here. He's asked them to stay away from practise and try to unwind instead.
"Some people feel the more you are seen on the field, the better prepared you are," Kumble said. "I'm someone who has played this game and understand what it takes. It's about switching off, forgetting what's happened in the past. One hit in the middle won't make you a good player. It's all in the mind at this level. So it's important that we're tuned in after the break."
The uncertainty surrounding Zaheer Khan meant that there was no way Kumble could reveal the playing XI. Zaheer's niggling landing-heel problem cropped up during practice and made him a doubtful starter. He went to a local Sydney hospital for an MRI scan and the team management was awaiting results before taking a final decision. He missed the third and final Test against Pakistan recently with the same injury. If he's ruled out, Irfan Pathan is likely to play.
One batsman who had a bigger break than the rest was Virender Sehwag, but though he was one of the three batsmen to pad up first, he was eventually left out of the 13. It had been exactly a year since he figured in a Test and the temptation could have been to push him in to disturb the Australian bowlers' rhythm. But with Sehwag left out and the decision to open with Rahul Dravid not a success in Melbourne, it could be Yuvraj Singh that misses out as India re-jig the combination. In that case, Pathan could even be asked to open the batting.
Sachin Tendulkar was forced to practice indoors because of an allergy picked up in Melbourne. "He did so [practice indoors] because he wanted to make sure that he doesn't aggravate it out in the sun," said MV Sridhar, the media manager, talking to PTI. "He should be absolutely fine by evening. We don't expect him to face any discomfort when he turns out in the second Test."
Australia have no such problems. They will play the same XI and are in sight of equalling their record for the most Test wins on the trot. They've won eight of the last 10 Tests in Sydney and possess a bowling attack that's growing in confidence with every hour.
Ponting is talking of "600 contests they need to win in a day" and Mitchell Johnson has been practising his wrist position using a ball that's partly white and partly red. The pitch might have something in it for the faster bowlers and both Stuart Clark and Brett Lee are local boys who would know the conditions. India need to pull out something special to inject some life into this series. Otherwise Sydney could be witness to some funereal scenes after all.
Australia 1 Phil Jaques, 2 Matthew Hayden, 3 Ricky Ponting (capt), 4 Michael Hussey, 5 Michael Clarke, 6 Andrew Symonds, 7 Adam Gilchrist (wk), 8 Brad Hogg, 9 Brett Lee, 10 Mitchell Johnson, 11 Stuart Clark.
India (likely) 1 Wasim Jaffer, 2 Rahul Dravid, 3 VVS Laxman, 4 Sachin Tendulkar, 5 Sourav Ganguly, 6 Yuvraj Singh, 7 Mahendra Singh Dhoni (wk), 8 Anil Kumble (capt), 9 Harbhajan Singh, 10 Zaheer Khan/Irfan Pathan, 11 RP Singh.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is an assistant editor at Cricinfo