Unfamiliar territory for both sides
Steve Waugh is in unfamiliar territory, doing the chasing for the first time in a home series
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It has now come to this. Steve Waugh, two days before the last Boxing Day Test of his career, sought to put the onus on India. "The pressure is on them," he said, "They are in the unfamiliar position of being ahead in a Test series abroad. Now people back home will expect them to win." An hour later, Sourav Ganguly was having none of it. "It is unfair," he retorted, "We have won Test matches on every tour abroad in the last couple of years. And the pressure is on both sides." If you read between the lines, the subtext was clear: for both teams, the stakes have never been bigger.
These statements contained both truth and posturing. Irrespective of what Ganguly might say, this is an unfamiliar position for both sides. For the first time since Steve Waugh took over, Australia have been forced to do the chasing in a home series. And despite being ahead against Zimbabwe and West Indies, being 1-0 in Australia is beyond the wildest dreams for India. And as for pressure, both teams must feel it surely, but for Waugh, the time is running out. If he fails to win here, cricket history's most winning captain will end on a note that will taint his legacy; and if he loses, he will have nothing left to play for apart from token pride in his last Test on his home ground. For India, a win will secure their first series in Australia and the first outside the subcontinent in 17 years. People have killed for less.
"This is the biggest Test for all of us in recent times," Waugh admitted, "being one-down is something we are not used to. We know we have to lift our game, this is a good opportunity to put our hands up and perform. We had a bad day at Adelaide, but we are not so far off. We need to lift out game by 10%." For Ganguly, it will be a case of trying to play well everyday. "We need to focus on the present rather than look at the future," he said, "If we can do well everyday, we will do well in the Test."
Both teams will have more teeth in their bowling. Brett Lee, who had a long bat at the nets, but did not bowl - he sent down more than 50 overs in New South Wales's Pura Cup match against Tasmania - is being held out as Australia's striking hope. For India, Zaheer Khan, whose hamstring problem was diagnosed as a frayed nerve, is certain to return. He bowled full tilt at the nets yesterday and was at the ground early today in the company of Ashish Nehra and Ajit Agarkar, absorbing tips from Wasim Akram, who made a trip to the MCG just for their sake. All three had a bowl alongside the central square and Bruce Reid was nowhere in sight.
The pitch itself was the focus of great attention. It has had the benefit of glorious sunshine for the last couple of days. Tony Ware, the curator, spent a few hours rolling it and inspecting the track. It is an unusual looking pitch. From a distance it looks a whitish brown, but on closer inspection, it reveals not a bit of earth. The cover comprises entirely of dry grass, which has been rolled flat into the ground. Both captains described it as a typical MCG wicket.
"If we hold all our catches, we will win", said Waugh. His men practice
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Ganguly was asked if India would play for a draw. He said 'no', emphatically. "There are not too many draws in cricket nowadays," he said, "playing for one will not be the right approach." He was clear that the key to winning this Test lay in batting. "Whoever bats better will win this game. We have to turn up focussed, we have learnt from our good showing at Brisbane and Adelaide, we will have to put it to use here." To Waugh, it was the missed catches at Adelaide that rankled the most. "If we hold all our catches in Melbourne we will win," he asserted.
Both teams will have decisions to make about the final eleven. Waugh was asked if he would consider playing five bowlers, and though he said the decision was up to the selectors - the team management is waiting for David Boon to arrive tomorrow to help make a decision - he made apparent his personal preference for four bowlers including a spinner. "Five bowlers sound good on paper," he said, "but it's a bit difficult to juggle them around. And I always like to have a specialist spinner who gives a bit of option later in the match." Brad Williams betrayed no pain to his injured shoulder while bowling at full pace in the nets and it is likely that Nathan Bracken will sit out again.
For India, the choice will be between Ashish Nehra and Irfan Pathan, with Ajit Agarkar having earned the right to play by virtue of his second-innings performance at Adelaide. Pathan looked the better bowler at Adelaide, but Nehra earned the valuable wickets. It will be a marginal choice, with the scales tilting possibly in the favour of experience.
Sambit Bal, the editor of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine and Wisden Cricinfo in India, will be following the Indian team throughout this Test series.