India must avoid a slow start
February 6, 2010, against South Africa in Nagpur: Jacques Kallis and Hashim Amla score centuries, South Africa are 291 for 2 and go on to win the match. November 16, 2009, against Sri Lanka in Ahmedabad: India are 32 for 4 in the first session before Rahul Dravid rescues them with a 177. December 11, 2008, against England in Chennai: Andrew Strauss scores a century on day one, India trail in the first innings, and have to bat last. October 9, 2008, against Australia in Bangalore: Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey score centuries, and it is down to late partnerships to rescue India.
For a team that has started slowly on the first day of its last four home series, it is a bit risky to be getting together just two days before a Test series. Four players were involved in the Champions League T20 in South Africa: M Vijay started training on September 30, MS Dhoni and Suresh Raina a day before that and Rahul Dravid on September 28. Things could have been worse had Mumbai Indians - for whom Sachin Tendulkar, Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan all played - made it to the later stages.
Dhoni, though, seemed unperturbed by that. "If we complain now - three days after the home series against New Zealand we will be in South Africa - we will be complaining the whole year then," he said on the eve of the match. "We all knew exactly what the schedule was and how exactly we are positioned."
Knowing the schedule in advance doesn't do away with India's reputation of being slow starters. Especially against Australia, whom they haven't beaten in the first Test of a series since 1997-98. Among all opposition, the last time India started a home series with a good day was against Pakistan in November 2007.
Dhoni said planning and overly acclimatising are over-rated, which is in complete contrast to how concerned Australia have been about the late arrival of Doug Bollinger and Michael Hussey, both of whom played for Chennai too, despite the rest of the squad having made Chandigarh home for the last 10 days.
"I don't believe much in strategising before the match. A lot depends on the conditions available at a given time. A successful batsman will adapt himself to each and every condition, so the basic plan remains the same. Most of our players have played against Australia, both home and away. Whatever time we got was enough to get our plans in place."
India's captain has the luxury of being able to say that because there has been another aspect to his team. After Nagpur came Kolkata where India levelled the series despite rain interruptions; in Ahmedabad, Dravid's first-innings effort was followed by those of Gautam Gambhir and Sachin Tendulkar in the second to save the match; in Chennai, Tendulkar completed a record chase; and after Bangalore, India hit Australia back in Mohali.
The ability to bounce back has been the hallmark of this Indian side, but they can't afford a slow start in a two-match "series", where one bad day could mean having to fight for a drawn series. If India want to keep intact their record of not having lost a Test series for more than two years, it is the first day that they need to watch out for the most.
Meanwhile Australia are well aware of this trait of India's and hope to capitalise on it. "Generally, we are very good starters as well," Australia captain Ponting said. "Our record starting Test-match series is very very good. That's one area we can focus on a little bit more, making sure that we start the game well knowing in the back of our minds that India generally are slow starters. I'm sure they're aware of that as well. I'm sure that's something they've spoken long and hard about over the last few years."
That Australia have never lost a Test in Bangalore is another reason why India will not want a repeat of the catch-up act they successfully completed against South Africa earlier this year.
Within the limitations of the schedule, however, India have perhaps worked as hard as they could in preparation for the series. The training sessions have been intense, the atmosphere relaxed. The tennis balls, which swing crazily and bounce high, have been used to simulate reverse-swing and short deliveries. A day before the match, the team arrived to train early in the morning to get used to those conditions too. Harbhajan Singh, who is in a fitness race once again, has been working harder than usual to see if his body can take the strain of the Test. And the batsmen and bowlers have practiced for long periods on various kinds of tracks at the PCA Stadium.
"Some of the players were together before some of the boys came after the Champions League," Dhoni said. "Equal importance was given to cricketing skills and fielding aspects. I think we have made best use of the time we got ahead of the series and hopefully it will reflect on the field."
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at Cricinfo