Lessons to be learnt from scheduling - Ponting
Michael Hussey's comments on Thursday about being coerced into staying on for the final stages of the Champions League have been followed by Australia losing the services of Doug Bollinger, Hussey's Chennai Super Kings team-mate, for the second Test with an abdominal strain. In this case though, it is hard to blame the scheduling of the tournament, since it was the India-Australia Test series that was shoe-horned into the calendar at the last minute.
Ricky Ponting, who is set to play his 148th Test, is no fan of the itinerary, and echoed Hussey's words on the eve of the game. "It was definitely hard on Doug, and Mike Hussey, and even MS Dhoni for that matter," he said. "I think you could see from his [Dhoni's] performance in the last game that he'd been feeling the pinch a little bit as well. It definitely wasn't ideal preparation for those guys coming into a Test match but I know from the Australian players' side that they were doing everything in their power to try and arrive earlier. There are a lot of good lessons that can be learnt from the last week as far as our preparation goes, and probably even for the Indian players. All we can do is try and get our case across, and I know the individual players concerned have certainly done that."
If it is not the proliferation of Twenty20 tournaments that is causing players to break down, it is thoughtless scheduling. With the calendar so cramped and administrators keen to squeeze in as many games as possible, back-to-back Tests have become the norm rather than the exception. In subcontinental weather conditions, it takes a huge physical toll on the players.
"It is hard work for the bowlers, there is no doubt about that, when you have back-to-back games," Ponting said. "We have made sure we have looked after our guys as well as we possibly could. We had a travel day and an early start the day after the Test. The guys didn't do any bowling that day. Hilfenhaus, Johnson and Bollinger didn't do anything yesterday. Nathan Hauritz had a decent bowl yesterday. The quicks will do a little bit of bowling today but we'll make sure their recovery is as good as it can be going into the game tomorrow."
Dhoni was more sanguine about the situation. "We tried to make use of the three-day break in the best possible manner," he said. "The first day goes as a travelling day and you rest and recover after that. Yesterday, we had a long practice session. Now we had a slightly lighter session. Nowadays, we have a three-day break before every Test match so it is the same. It is very important to rest rather than practice. The body needs rest and it can help you more."
Nothing endures but change, said Heraclitus, and Dhoni's team have taken those words to heart over the last year or so. The Bangalore Test will be the 10th since the start of the last home season that India have entered with at least one change to their side. That they have won seven and lost only two of those games, despite the lack of continuity, is testament to the spine of a team blessed with talent and experience.
After a high-scoring draw in Ahmedabad last year against Sri Lanka, Ishant Sharma and Amit Mishra were dropped, with Sreesanth and Pragyan Ojha coming in for Kanpur. By the time the team got to Mumbai for the final Test, Gautam Gambhir had dropped out to attend his sister's wedding, leaving Murali Vijay to take his place.
Early in the new year, both Dhoni and Harbhajan Singh missed the Chittagong Test through injury, while Mishra came back for Ojha. VVS Laxman and Sreesanth hobbled out for the Dhaka Test, while a broken jaw ruled Rahul Dravid out of the subsequent South Africa series.
Laxman and Yuvraj Singh also missed the first Test of that series, where Wriddhiman Saha and S Badrinath made their debuts. Laxman's return in Kolkata was one of the catalysts for a series-levelling win. By the time the team got to Galle in July, Zaheer Khan was on the treatment table, giving Abhimanyu Mithun a chance to make his debut. At the SSC a week later, it was Suresh Raina that got his first cap for the indisposed Yuvraj, while Gambhir's injury gave Vijay another chance.
With Harbhajan missing the final game at the P Sara Oval, it was left to Mishra and Ojha to shoulder the spin burden, and Laxman, dodgy back and all, to lead the successful final-day run-chase. Zaheer's return to the fray in Mohali meant another change, and the theme continues in Bangalore with the enforced absences of Gambhir and Ishant.
The last three years have been memorable ones for Test cricket, with several games attaining classic status. South Africa chased down over 400 in Perth, England's last-wicket saved Tests in Cardiff and Centurion, while India's bowlers just about prevailed despite Hashim Amla's brilliance in Kolkata. Mohali was the last in a welcome line of games that have mocked at the perception of Test cricket being boring, but as both teams in this series are finding out, the entertainment comes at a cost.
Brett Lee, Andrew Flintoff and Shane Bond have already gone, while Shoaib Akhtar struggles to wheeze his way through a four-over spell. From the days of Demon Spofforth, fast bowlers have been an integral part of Test cricket's narrative. If those that run the game aren't more sensible with the scheduling though, they could soon be pushed to the fringes, and even the 70-odd Tests that Lee and Flintoff played before their bodies gave way will be a distant dream.
Michael Clarke spoke recently of how each individual needed to assess his priorities. The first men to look in the mirror, though, should be the administrators, who speak of the sanctity of Test cricket and then do everything in their power to undermine its 21st century renaissance.