Pressure is on India
India have left themselves a mountain to climb to win this series; down 0-2 and with four games to play, they will have to raise their game significantly, knowing Australia need only a half-chance to shut out the opposition in the fourth one-day international at the Sector 16 Stadium in Chandigarh.
India have, however, responded well to such extreme pressure in the recent past. Trailing 3-1 in the NatWest Series in England, they were out for the count but managed to stretch the series till the final game at Lord's. At the World Twenty20, India were faced with three must-win games against Pakistan, England and South Africa and won all three to make the semi-finals - and the two knockout games as well.
The trend in the series has been for Australia to bat first and score 300, putting the Indian batsmen under immense pressure against an incisive new-ball attack. India's openers haven't coped well - 1, 11 and 10 in three innings - and the lack of partnerships at the top has crippled their run-chases.
Monday may just be different because, for the first time in this series, India have the option of opening with Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly, who has recovered fully from his hamstring strain. Both of them went in first during the net sessions and had lengthy stints.
There was confusion in Hyderabad over why Ganguly was left out: was it because he didn't fit into the team combination, as the BCCI secretary, Niranjan Shah, said, or that he hadn't recovered enough from his injury? The decision to play him in Chandigarh might be made easier with news that Gautam Gambhir strained his groin during a net session and hobbled back to the dressing room. He was sent for an MRI and will be assessed by John Gloster, the physio.
|Kartik's left-arm spin, in tandem with Harbhajan's offspin, could build pressure during the middle overs where Australia have dictated the pace and built the platform for their assault in the death overs|
The failures of the top order have left the rest with too much to do and Robin Uthappa said the batsmen had to "take responsibility" for they had "let the team down". Uthappa and Mahendra Singh Dhoni played cameos at Kochi and Yuvraj Singh scored a century in Hyderabad, but to beat Australia they must fire at the same time.
Another worry is Rahul Dravid's form - 31 at Kochi and 0 at Hyderabad - given his vital steadying role at No. 5, which allows Yuvraj and Dhoni to bat aggressively. Dravid's last substantial contributions came in England where he scored 92 at Bristol and 56 at Edgbaston. Since then he has struggled and, not coincidentally, India slipped to defeat in England and started the series against Australia poorly.
Equally under the scanner will be India's bowlers, who have conceded 307, 306 and 290 in the matches so far. India played five bowlers at Bangalore and Kochi and four at Hyderabad and Uthappa said they were likely to play five bowlers again. That means Murali Kartik, the left-arm spinner who replaced Ramesh Powar in the squad, forming a two-pronged spin attack with Harbhajan Singh. His inclusion could be at the expense of Rohit Sharma in the middle order.
Harbhajan bowled an economical spell in Hyderabad - 0 for 38 - but Andrew Symonds and Michael Clarke were able to see him off because there wasn't enough pressure from the other end. Kartik's left-arm spin, in tandem with Harbhajan's offspin, could build pressure during the middle overs where Australia have dictated the pace and built the platform for their assault in the death overs.
They'll have their task cut out though, for Australia's batsmen have been in such form that Ponting virtually ruled out a change to their batting line-up. Brad Hodge hasn't contributed much in the series - 0, 3, 3 - while Brad Haddin was dropped in Hyderabad after scoring consecutive half-centuries. Ponting, however, said that they would stick with Hodge.
"Our batting's pretty settled at the moment," Ponting said. "We had a tough decision to make, leaving Haddin out in the first place and leave Hodge in the side. But Hodge has a record that has stood up well over a two-year period. He has trained really well today so if he gets an opportunity tomorrow I think he'll get runs."
One change Australia are likely to make is in their bowling department. Nathan Bracken, the left-arm medium-pacer, didn't play at Hyderabad but Ponting indicated he had a strong chance of making the XI.
"Bracken is one of the top ranked one-day bowlers in the world. If the rest of the guys pull up okay, we'll have to make a tough decision and leave one of the guys who have been playing out and bring Bracken back in." Bracken's ability to swing the ball, his precision and clever changes of pace will add an extra dimension to the Australian attack and make life harder for an Indian batting line-up that is struggling to put in a collective performance.
Monday's game is the first ODI being played at the picturesque Sector 16 Stadium in nearly 15 years and Ponting felt the pitch was dry and would get drier and slower as the day progressed. He did not hesitate in saying that he would bat first if he won the toss. If that is the case, the first half of this match could go the way of the previous three games with Australia scoring 300. Whether the Indian batsmen pull together could determine how the match and the series is decided.
India (likely) 1 Sachin Tendulkar, 2 Sourav Ganguly, 3 Robin Uthappa, 4 Yuvraj Singh, 5 Rahul Dravid, 6 Mahendra Singh Dhoni (capt & wk), 7 Irfan Pathan, 8 Murali Kartik, 9 Harbhajan Singh, 10 Zaheer Khan, 11 Sreesanth.
Australia (likely) 1 Adam Gilchrist (wk), 2 Matthew Hayden, 3 Ricky Ponting (capt), 4 Michael Clarke, 5 Andrew Symonds, 6 Brad Hodge, 7 Brad Hogg, 8 Brett Lee, 9 Mitchell Johnson, 10 Nathan Bracken, 11 Stuart Clark.
George Binoy is an editorial assistant on Cricinfo