Gearing up without Ganguly
A minor surgery puts Sourav Ganguly out of the Mohali Test © AFP
At the Irani Trophy a few weeks ago, Sourav Ganguly was asked by a journalist how Yuvraj Singh might find a place in the Indian Test side. "When you're a special player," replied Ganguly, "places automatically open up for you." Yet, even Ganguly wouldn't have thought that Yuvraj's route to Test cricket would be via boils on his own thigh.
But that is what it has come down to. Ganguly, who underwent minor surgery for the infection last night at the dauntingly named Fortis Heart Institute and Multi-Speciality Hospital, is said to be flying home tomorrow, while Yuvraj is set to play in his first Test, and on his home ground too.
By late morning, news trickled in that Stephen Fleming had also stopped by the hospital, for a head-scan, and the spate of injuries was appearing a bit spooky. Fleming's scan turned out only to be a precaution, after "one of the young pace bowlers in the nets decided to make a point".
So Fleming will lead, though it is not clear what he thinks of Ganguly's absence. "I don't know whether it strengthens or weakens the team," he said, rather unflatteringly for Ganguly. Word from the New Zealand media is that Fleming, having spent time with Yuvraj at Yorkshire, has vast respect for his talent. And this in a season where Yuvraj averaged 17 and needed to be dropped from the county's 1st XI.
If Yuvraj felt tense, he certainly didn't show it, cheerfully sauntering alongside his crocked captain for the inauguration of a second gymnasium in the Punjab Cricket Association's unfailingly impressive premises. Wonderful though it is, Mohali's reputation for bouncy wickets must no longer be taken seriously. Ever since the first Test here, nine seasons ago against West Indies, there has been nothing to suggest that this is a pitch out of the ordinary.
Stephen Fleming got it right when he said that "your perception of bounce and pace in wickets is a bit different from ours. Last time too (when India were bowled out for 83 on the first day but eventually drew the game), there was not really too much bounce." Rahul Dravid, addressing his first press conference as Indian Test captain, tended to agree: "It was a bit damp, and the bowlers put the ball in the right areas, Dion Nash bowled superbly, and it was one of those mornings where we nicked a lot."
The discussion around the pitches on this tour hasn't abated. Ganguly was disgusted at the pitch at Ahmedabad; Dravid, while more subtle, holds a similar view. Yesterday Ashley Ross, New Zealand coach, let drop a snide one saying that it wasn't India's best preparation for Australia. And Fleming, while conceding that he wasn't one to talk after what India were served up last year in New Zealand, thinks that surfaces without some bounce and pace shave off an entire dimension of cricket, to the spectators' disadvantage.
This Mohali pitch does have a tinge of green on it, but nothing excessive, and the heat (about 33 degrees), says curator Daljit Singh, might lead to a surface that becomes increasingly dry as the match progresses.
It makes New Zealand's final selection tricky. They have retained the same XII that did duty at Ahmedabad. Tomorrow morning they will decide whether an extra seam option should be pursued in Ian Butler, or Paul Wiseman, the offspinner who took four wickets in the second innings, should keep his place.
India, meanwhile, are in a position with which they have become unfamiliar over the past two years. In each of their last three home series - against West Indies, Zimbabwe and England - they have won the first Test, and done so comfortably. The one against England was here at Mohali - and forget pace, India won because Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble took 15 wickets between them. They will have to be at their very best if India are to once more force victory at a venue where teams average 37.44 runs per wicket - six points higher than at Ahmedabad.
India (from) Rahul Dravid (capt), Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Akash Chopra, VVS Laxman, Yuvraj Singh, Parthiv Patel (wk), Ajit Agarkar, L Balaji, Anil Kumble, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Sairaj Bahutule.
New Zealand (from) Stephen Fleming (capt), Nathan Astle, Lou Vincent, Craig McMillan, Mark Richardson, Robbie Hart (wk), Daryl Tuffey, Daniel Vettori, Paul Wiseman, Ian Butler, Jacob Oram, Scott Styris.