Focus on the Fab Five
India usually celebrates its heroes at every opportunity but two important milestones - Sachin Tendulkar's proximity to Brian Lara's record and Laxman's 100th Test - have been overshadowed by the talk of voluntary retirement schemes. Anil Kumble began his pre-match press conference by calmly answering a question about his future as a Test cricketer but his response to a similar question, a few minutes later, carried a hint of annoyance.
The criticism of India's most accomplished Test cricketers, though its degree was magnified with the media having less to do after the Champions Trophy was postponed, sprung from a wretched tour of Sri Lanka. More than the statistics - Tendulkar and Ganguly scored less than 100 runs in six innings, Dravid and Laxman had one half-century each - it was their helplessness against a spinner that stuck in the memory. And on those same pitches, Kumble picked up only eight wickets at 50 apiece.
Since then Tendulkar and Ganguly have had little match practice. Tendulkar was recovering from an elbow injury, Ganguly wasn't included in the squad for the Irani Trophy while Dravid and Laxman had satisfactory outings against Delhi. The core of India's batting order has had to rely on an intensive camp in Bangalore to prepare for Australia. Gary Kirsten, the coach, said they had put in a "massive effort physically" as much as working on skills.
There has been enough indication from the Australian camp that their strategy will be similar to the successful campaign in 2004, which brought their first series win in India since 1969-70. Adam Gilchrist protected boundaries with men in the outfield and also had close-in fielders to save singles, thereby reducing India's rate of scoring. Kirsten, however, said they were "very aware" of Australia's plans and their batsmen's preparations were "spot on". The key, according to him, was India's batsmen striking form early in the series and building from there.
Their task, however, could be considerably easier than 2004 because the composition of Australia's current bowling attack doesn't compare to the class of 2004 when Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Michael Kasprowicz and Shane Warne executed plans with precision. They also lack a quality spinner but to put too much emphasis on that factor would be forgetting a series earlier this year, when South Africa's fast-bowling arsenal, inexperienced in Indian conditions, made batsmen struggle even without a proven spinner.
The Indians will also have to be prepared for concentrated attacks on their perceived areas of weakness. Five out of the probable XI are well into their 30s, Virender Sehwag and Zaheer Khan are approaching that age, and fitness is an area Australia are keen to exploit.
"Putting pressure on their fielding is something we're certainly going to try and achieve in this series, also putting a lot of pressure on their batsmen running between the wickets," Ponting said. "We'll just try to stop the rotation of strike. If we can create a run-out in each Test innings that's a huge achievement.
"We know the way the Indians go about playing their cricket. It's more of an old school type of Test match cricket. We're really going to bring a new-age type of Test match cricket here and see how it goes."
|"I don't think it's a distraction. I hope this series will be good for him and for the team as well. For us the team comes first and then the individuals"Anil Kumble, India's captain, brushes off talks that Sourav Ganguly's farewell series will affect the team|
India also have to be wary about losing focus because of Ganguly's retirement. Australia nearly lost the Test series at home in 2003-04, during which the country said goodbye to Steve Waugh, and they did lose the tri-series in 2007-08 when crowds at every venue gave Adam Gilchrist a rousing send-off.
"I don't think it's a distraction," Kumble said. "I hope this series will be good for him and for the team as well. For us the team comes first and then the individuals." Ponting, however, has experienced a similar situation twice and knows it isn't so straightforward. "I'm not sure if it took our whole focus away when Steve [Waugh] announced that he was going to retire. What it certainly does is create distractions.
"There's no doubt yesterday afternoon and today the Indian team would have faced the pressure of different distractions than they're used to. They'll be facing that now for the next four weeks. We dealt with it pretty well when Steve Waugh announced his retirement and probably a bit differently when Adam Gilchrist announced his retirement."
The pressure on Ganguly, therefore, is considerably lesser than it is on others. Come what may, this is it for him. The others will have to ensure that they don't get affected by emotion, or the external pressures that hound an Indian team.