Relentless Australia look to seal the deal
Brett Lee was at one corner of the ground, batting at a practice net, launching balls deep into the outfield, hitting repeatedly over cow corner. Brad Hogg and Nathan Bracken were sprinting right across the length of the ground. Adam Gilchrist was moving to his left and right, taking catches as someone glided the ball off fierce throws from Mike Young. Hogg was bowling at one stump with Troy Cooley gathering the ball.
Looking at the Australian team practice, different people doing different things in all directions, you wouldn't have a clue what they were up to. But they certainly do.
Ricky Ponting, speaking after the win in Vadodara, put their win down to the preparation they put in soon after the loss in Chandigarh. Looking at their practice, there promises to be no let-up for the Indians. In the past teams have managed to sneak a few wins in against Australia in dead rubbers, but Sunday's sixth ODI at Nagpur is anything but a dead rubber. It's a chance for Australia to win the series, and equally it's a chance for India to play freely, with nothing to lose and everything to gain, and enjoy the slight lessening of pressure, if such a thing exists in this cricket-crazy country.
While Australia are relentless in their application of pressure on the opposition on the field, they are not machines in the manner in which they prepare. Given the heat in which they've had to play some of these games, and the travel that's been involved, they've been careful to give themselves the right workloads at the right times.
"Once we've got into this series, with only two days between games, we haven't trained that hard physically. We've worked very hard on our skills and making sure we've got our skills right for each game and for the different conditions we're playing in," explained Ponting. "Today we had a team meeting back at the hotel and an optional training session.
"It's really up to the players to come down to training and get whatever they want out of training. The coach, physio and fitness trainer sit down a day in advance and map out what sort of training will be ideal for us. Then they leave it to the players to get what they want from the training."
The Australian team got Friday completely off, with only travel interrupting what would have been a day for rest and recuperation. And Ponting believed that days like this were crucial to preparation, but cautioned that it might not be the best thing for all teams in all circumstances. "It depends where you are as a team. If you're struggling as a team and certain individual players are struggling then there probably shouldn't be days off," he said. "Those players [who are struggling] themselves should want to get out there and do something about their game.
"If you do get a day off you should use it properly. Rather than sitting around and doing nothing it's a chance to get to the gym or the pool and get some work done. As long as it's in your interests and your best preparation for the game that's all you should be thinking about."
A critical factor in Australia's success in this series has been the effectiveness of their new-ball attack. Mitchell Johnson and Brett Lee have left a gaping hole in the Indian top order in all but the Chandigarh match. It's no coincidence that it was the only game India won. Johnson and Lee have 14 wickets between them, at an economy rate well under five an over.
Some credit here must go to Troy Cooley, the bowling coach, who has put in the hard yards with both these bowlers, and Ponting acknowledged this. "Troy has been terrific since he's been back in Australia, after spending a couple of years with the England team where he did a great job. I actually grew up with Troy and played all my club cricket with him so I know him very well and our relationship is very strong," he said. "If you talk to any of the fast bowlers he has been associated with in the last couple of years they all say the same thing, that he's very thorough, very professional, knows a lot about fast bowling. Mitchell Johnson will be the first to say that he's got a lot of help from Troy in his career."
While preparation is a bare minimum, it's execution of these plans that makes the difference between winning and losing. That said, the Indian board needs to take a hard to look at how they have allowed this team to prepare for success. Playing against the best team in the world the Indians have no coach, and a cricket manager who was only appointed for the series at the last moment. Fortunately the team has a settled support staff when it comes to physical fitness, some of whom work harder than the some of the players, but when it comes to skill training you have to ask if this Indian team has all the support it needs.
To say that India won in England without a coach is neither here nor there. When they take the field for the last two games the Indians can still win and upset the pundits' prediction. But it will be despite not having the best preparation, not because of it.
Anand Vasu is an associate editor on Cricinfo