Australia plan attack to close down series
The problem, for any team in the world, with playing against Australia is that you're always trying to catch up. It is Australia who set the standards, Australia who call the shots, Australia who control the game. Of course, a team as talented as this Indian one has the ability to beat anyone, even the Australians, on their day. What remains to be seen is whether the fifth ODI will be one such day.
The script, even before the toss is done, suggests Australian dominance, and the challenge before Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his team is to break this mould as early as possible. For the Australians, the fifth match in Vadodara, with the first of the series being washed out, is a chance to shut India out. It's a chance for them to ensure that they can't lose the series, and this is likely to translate into all-out attack.
"This is like a finals game for us," Ricky Ponting conceded on the eve of the match. "Generally when the bigger games come around the Australian team plays its best cricket. We'll play our best cricket [on Thursday]."
India were represented by Murali Kartik at the pre-game press conference, and he too said things would have been completely different had India not won the last match and earned themselves some breathing space. "Against Australia you need that momentum," he said. "Once they have a foot on you they keep it there. Now, with this win in the last game we've got that foot away, it's a question of momentum. It would have been difficult to comeback from 3-0."
There is one small problem for India, though. The IPCL ground has always been a high-scoring one. The average total here is around 280, and from the looks of things, this game is going to be no different. The outfield is well-maintained and quick, the boundaries are not especially long, and only the stifling heat should come in the way of batsmen scoring heavily.
"It is a very good wicket," Kartik said. "Every time I've played here, either for Central Zone or for India, it's been a 320-wicket. I'll only say, hopefully it'll take a bit of spin."
Whether it takes turn or not, Australia's batsmen are ready to take full toll. They, more than the Indians, are benefititng from the new rule that stipulates a ball change after 34 overs. "It will have an effect on the game," Ponting said. "The hardest time to bat in an innings is generally around that period where the ball starts to get a bit soft and lose a bit of colour and now that they are changing the ball at 35 overs, it [the ball] is generally getting a lot newer and a lot harder. If you have got wickets in hand when the ball changes you can really accelerate the score quite a lot through that last 15 overs."
Generally when the bigger games come around the Australian team plays its best cricket
This means that the new, hard ball comes on to the bat nicely, something Australian batsmen relish. And none more so than Matthew Hayden, who has made 261 runs in the series, and Andrew Symonds, only three short of that mark. They have not merely been scoring heavily, they've been the difference between the two teams.
"Once those two guys get in and start striking the ball like they have in these last few games - and they are intimidating players, both are six feet tall as well - and both tend to get down the wicket a little bit and put the bowlers under some pressure," Ponting said. "That's the way one-day cricket is going, to tell the truth, I think the more one-day cricket is played we are going to see more batsmen of that sort of stature playing the one-day game."
Kartik admitted the burly pair were giving India plenty of grief. "You have to give it to them, they are good players," he began, before turning to humour when asked how Hayden and Symonds could be stopped. "Take them away and lock them up ... But seriously speaking, they're both going through a very good patch at the moment. They're in sublime form but it will stop one day, hopefully soon. We've been persisting with whatever plans we have."
With all the worries over Symonds and Hayden, though, India will not lose sight of that other big gun at the top of the order. Even with Gilchrist making only 12, 0, 18 and 29, Australia have barely ever looked like they won't rack up 300. If Gilchrist also fires, and he's due, then India will have that much more to worry about.
Anand Vasu is an associate editor on Cricinfo