'You can't go in with a set formula' - Dravid
Having finally chalked up one in the win column, Rahul Dravid was in a much more relaxed frame of mind going into Friday's DLF Cup match against Australia, a semi-final in all but name given that West Indies have already sealed a place in Sunday's final. And though India have been at the receiving end of some real beating from the Australians in recent years, most notably in the 2003 World Cup final, Dravid reckoned that his players wouldn't be intimidated going into the match.
"A lot of the young guys haven't played against Australia, so they don't have that experience of losing to them," he said, referring to players like Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Munaf Patel, Suresh Raina and Sreesanth. "Australia have done really well over the last few years. Their record against any team in the world is good, not just against India. Having said that, it's a great opportunity and challenge for us. I thought we did well in the first 50 overs of the last game against them, and we do believe that if we play well, we can get the right result."
For Ricky Ponting, who comes back into the side after sitting out the last game, the tournament has been as much about assessing the bench strength as it has been about preparing for the Champions Trophy. Admitting that Australia were expected to win every match and that there would be no excuses if they missed out on the final, Ponting looked to return to business as usual against India. "Every time you put on the green and gold, you should be able to give your best," he said. "I wasn't surprised by the result yesterday, India had everything to play for and the West Indies had nothing. Tomorrow happens to be a really big game for both teams, and the sides should have their skills at a better level than at the start of the tournament."
While the Australia XI had been decided much earlier, with the in-form Michael Clarke and Shane Watson sitting out, India could gamble on playing five bowlers once again. Ajit Agarkar and Yuvraj Singh were feeling slightly unwell on Thursday, but both were expected to figure in the match.
Dravid said that his team composition would be dictated by the nature of the pitch. "Ideally I'd love to be able to five bowlers, but that's when all your batsmen have had a lot of batting and are coming into the tournament in good form. That's where Irfan was doing a great job for us when he was bowling well and batting well through Sri Lanka and England and Pakistan. But you can't go in with a set formula. You have to keep weighing it depending on the kind of personnel you have, the kind of form they are in, and be flexible."
Ponting was bullish when asked about Stuart Clark, who's being persisted with despite going for 87 from seven overs against West Indies. "He had a really good workout yesterday and got some rhythm, that's what he thought was lacking the other night," he said. "He knows his game very well and is experienced. I expect him to bounce back."
The rotation policy employed by the selectors for this tournament also had Ponting's full support. "There could be a lot of positives to come out from the experiments," he said. "We've seen that Mitchell Johnson was a fine force, and Shane Watson at the top of the order could be one more thing that could happen at some stage down the track. It's good to get a look at guys in different positions; otherwise you bring your squad of 13 or 14 guys and don't look at the younger ones. When the World Cup comes around, if you have a few injuries, you'd be going into the tournament with inexperienced players."
For Dravid, most of the concerns were to do with the batting. Sachin Tendulkar has scores of 141 not out and 65, but there have been few other sizeable contributions. "Two matches back, we had made 309," said Dravid. "We definitely want to do better, we know that. The top six or seven must make runs and bat out the full 50 overs."
His own lack of runs at the top of the order has made it hard to judge the suitability of the decision to open with Tendulkar. "It would be nice to score some runs," he said. "But then, I am desperate to score every time I go out to bat, irrespective of whether I have scored in the previous game or not."
India's batting frailty had certainly caught Ponting's eye. "The Indians will worry about their batting, but we could be worried about it as well," he said. "We know they are all good players, a lot of them exceptional one-day players. If we can put them under pressure for long periods of time, then I think everything should be coming our way."
That pressure was bound to be applied from the start, with Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee slated to share the new ball. Dravid, though, refused to focus only on those two, harking back to the debacle against West Indies on Wednesday. "I don't think we can focus on just McGrath or Lee," he said. "They have got a quality bowling attack, so we will have to play well right through the 50 overs.
"That showed yesterday with someone like Dwayne Smith bowling really well. You wouldn't have thought of him being one of their strike bowlers who could remove four of the top order, but he did that. It just shows that if you bowl in the right areas, anyone can be a threat."
Though being rolled over for 162 had dismayed him, Dravid was satisfied with the manner of the riposte which sealed that elusive first win of the season. "To come back strongly the way we did showed a lot of resilience and character," he said. That's a good sign. It also showed that there are areas of the game that we can work on. But it's just been the first full game of the season for us. We have been on the road quite a bit and to have had just one full game is quite strange."
Ponting suggested that he would analyse the previous games and the pitch conditions before deciding whether or not to bat first once again. He also said that the pitches at the Kinrara Oval had been challenging for the batsmen. "I think it's hard work starting on that wicket, particularly with the new ball when it is up and down. But once you get set, you can accelerate. We've seen some batsmen get on and make big scores. It's about 15 or 20 balls that you have to get through, and make adjustments."
The team that adjusts best will extend their preparation for the Champions Trophy by one more game. For the losers, early flights home beckon, not to mention the disappointment of dropping a game in a rivalry that has captured the imagination like few others over the past decade.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo