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November 5, 2008
The winds of change are blowing through Indian cricket and the man who is in charge of directing that change is part of the process himself. Mahendra Singh Dhoni has been stop-gap captain twice before - India won both - but the final Test against Australia will be his first as Anil Kumble's successor. By leading India to victory in Mohali, Dhoni has earned the opportunity to begin his reign with a series win over the world champions but his team has to pass a multitude of Tests in order to achieve that end.
India's best batsman - and forward short-leg fielder - has been banned and his replacement is a novice who was whisked away from a domestic game. Their No. 3 has the second-lowest batting average in the team - 23.40 - and is getting out by playing uncharacteristically loose shots outside off stump. He also had flu on the eve of the match but was expected to be fit. Two of their other key batsmen face possible distraction from personal milestones: for one this Test will be his last international match and for the other it will be his 100th. The pitch and the venue are unknown quantities for not only have India not played at the VCA Stadium before, they haven't even practised there.
Of all the issues Dhoni said the most significant one was the absence of Gautam Gambhir from the starting line-up. Gambhir has made 463 runs in the series - 150 more than the next Indian - and his opening partnerships with Virender Sehwag have been paramount to India's success. Apart from the runs they have added together - 372 in six innings - it is their aggressive stroke-play against the new ball and their terrific running between the wickets that has forced Australia on the defensive.
Dhoni was certain about Gambhir's unavailability only this morning. "Before that it wasn't 100% sure [that Gambhir will miss the Test] but now it's almost sure he won't be playing.
"It is crucial because he has been the man in form. A good start really matters, after that you can really capitalise and the middle order comes into action," Dhoni said. "But as Gauti [Gambhir] is ruled out, you can't really think about what would have happened if Gauti was here. We have confidence in M Vijay as well and hopefully he will give the ideal start that's needed."
Gambhir's ban and Kumble's retirement mean that India will have had a different XI for each of the four Tests. Kumble missed the second Test after playing the first and returned for the third, replacing Harbhajan Singh who had injured his toe. Amit Mishra, who made his debut in Mohali, performed impressively, taking a five-wicket haul, and he and Harbhajan will be India's spinners in Nagpur. Dhoni said that the constant changes to the line-up made a difference.
"Mostly when a player doesn't play he is not in good rhythm but touch-wood, everything is going on well. Whoever has got the responsibility he has contributed well, taken wickets, and put pressure on the opposition. If things go this way then there is no problem.
"In a normal scenario it makes a difference because if you are not playing in a series, and if all of a sudden you are playing a match, you don't know what the batsman's strengths are, which shots he is good at. Cricket is all about studying your opponents, putting plans in place and executing them."
Dhoni said the pitch at the new VCA stadium looked like a "normal Indian track" devoid of grass. He didn't expect the fast bowlers to find much assistance with the new ball but said there was a good chance the ball will reverse-swing. India's victory in Mohali was largely due to Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma's ability to reverse-swing the ball. However, they were unable to generate the same degree of movement in Delhi.
"It [reverse swing] is crucial because the new ball with the shine doesn't really do much. If it's not swinging the only option is to maintain the ball and get reverse-swing. Delhi was one venue where we didn't see much of reverse-swing because there was grass on the wicket and the outfield was also lush green. I think we have maintained the ball well. You have to keep it hard and dry as well in order to get it to reverse-swing."
Dhoni said the fact that this match will be Ganguly's last and Laxman's 100th won't make "zeroing in [on the goal] a problem". He preferred to look on the positive side of those milestones, citing the vast experience of the two players to be massive advantage in such a crucial game. According to him, there was no "added pressure or responsibility on the side".
And what of his own position? Is there a difference between being stop-gap captain and long-term leader? Dhoni didn't think so. "There isn't much of a difference," he said. "Whether you are captain for one match or for a whole series the responsibility is still with you." Keeping calm, in adversity and jubilation, has been the Dhoni way and he intends to stick to the method that has brought him tremendous success as captain in other forms of the game.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Stats highlights from the fourth ODI between India and West Indies in Dharamsala