Ponting calls for tempered approach
You hear the bowling machine clank, hear the ball thud onto bat, and voices echo around the walls. You see Anil Kumble calmly compose himself and hear him answer every question patiently. There's a calm about the indoor nets at the MCG, an air of assurance almost. All until Ricky Ponting walks in, rattles answers as if he's at an examination, laughs, and fills the room with an energy that was missing earlier. And all this without a microphone.
Both are tremendously aggressive cricketers but while Kumble exudes a quiet sort of energy, Ponting is more animated. It's a possible sign for the series: Australia going all out for the kill, India preferring the silent ambush; one side intent on coming out swinging, the other hoping for the crucial, fatal, counter-punch. You feel it in the answers: one gushing about the quality of his side, the other saying, wait and watch.
Both are colossal figures for their respective sides - one arguably the country's greatest bowler, the other being mentioned in the same breath as the Don [Bradman] - and it's fitting that they will walk out to toss in a gigantic arena that is the MCG. Kumble's priority was predictable: "put runs on the board". He's spent most of his career traveling with a batting line-up that has unraveled abroad. He himself is a different bowler when he has the comfort of runs on the board. He thrives on applying pressure, revels in bogging the opposition down. He's also clear that he's "first a bowler and then a captain". One cannot afford to come in the way of the other.
Ponting's career has coincided with Australia's golden age. He knows the conditions, knows the pitfalls, more importantly knows how to win. He holds forth on the Melbourne weather, the pitch and the conditions. Occasionally he throws in an 'aw, look mate' but never does he let up on the speed. He's spent the previous two hours in an optional net session, joined by around ten kids frolicking around. He mainly faced throw downs but the Christmas cheer was unmistakable - his team-mates' children having a go in the side nets.
Ponting is mostly dead-certain. The pitch isn't just damp, it's "very, very damp". He remembers Shane Warne's dictum for the MCG - "If it seams, it spins" - but knows he possesses the ammunition of work around it. "Mitchell Johnson impressed everybody against Sri Lanka. Stuart Clark's Test record at the moment is as good as any going around. I'm very confident we're going to take 20 wickets in every Test we play this summer."
Occasionally they both echo the same sentiment. India will first try and plot a means to get 20 wickets but Kumble is well aware of the need to keep the batsmen quiet in case they hit a roadblock ("We have plans and bowlers to hit the right areas"). Ponting also knows, from past experience, that Australia will have to refrain from over-attacking. "Last time [in 2003-04] we did over-attack some of their players just the little bit ... If you look to the way we played against India last time , we bowled a bit differently." He knows the dangers of a bouncer barrage. "It's not how many you bowl, but when you use them."
And just once in a while they drop their guard. Ponting, for all his aggression, knows the importance of a tempered approach. He feels they over-attacked in Adelaide last time around and "probably let them score a few too many runs". Kumble, for all his guarded responses, bursts through forcefully towards the end: "I am positive that we will be able to do well here on this tour. I don't see any reason why we can't win." No Indian team has managed to do so in the last 60 years, and this one is up against it, but Kumble will know a thing or two about scaling barriers.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is an assistant editor at Cricinfo