Australia must turn practice into performance
Over the next five days Australia face their toughest assignment in three years and the way they play will assist in determining whether an era of dominance is over. Usually a 1-0 result means Ricky Ponting's men are looking to seal the series, but in Delhi from Wednesday they will be trying to keep it alive.
Not since England in 2005 has Australia faced this scenario and since the players returned from a three-day break following the 320-run Mohali defeat they have been mixing detailed team meetings with training. Strategies have been devised to cope with everything from India's powerful batting line-up and probing reverse-swing to the visitors' spin options and ability to deal with the smog.
Special guests have appeared in the nets over the past couple of days, including Bishen Bedi, Steve Waugh and mates of the selector Merv Hughes. Advice has come from all directions but on the eve of the game Ponting said it was time to end the chatter.
"As I made clear to the guys, it's one thing to talk about these things, it's another thing to go out and do them under pressure in a Test," Ponting said. "If we get the chance to bat first we have to start the innings better than we have in the first two games. If we bowl first we have to start our bowling innings a lot better too."
The first session will be crucial and could determine the path for the rest of the game, which may be interrupted by leftover smoke from Diwali and bad light towards the end of the day. Australia's first goal is to limit the gains India made in Mohali.
"They got the momentum early last week and put us under pressure right from the start, and we were unable to claw our way back," Ponting said. "It's a lot about how you start here [in India], and it's how we've practised the last few days."
Stuart Clark has performed strongly in training and should return to the side, but Ponting is also weighing up whether to play one slow bowler or two. The look of the pitch on Wednesday morning will determine if the offspinner Jason Krejza makes his debut, playing as a sole spinner or in tandem with Cameron White, or is left out.
"He's definitely in the reckoning, the wicket is a little bit loose on the surface," Ponting said. "That would indicate late in the game it will probably loosen up more, so spin is a definite option for us."
Whatever combination Australia choose, Ponting is certain his players are ready to overcome India. "We can't do any more than we've done," he said. "Our training the past two days has been the best I've seen it for a long time. Steve Waugh was at training yesterday [Monday] and he said he'd never seen a team train as well as we did."
Now Australia must turn the practice into match performance and the side will look to its senior players for leadership. Matthew Hayden and Brett Lee have been below par while Ponting, Clark, Michael Hussey and Michael Clarke also know this is the time to perform.
"I've got to stand up as much as the next bloke," Ponting said. "It's been three innings since I had an impact on the game with the bat." Ponting opened the series with his first century in India but followed with 17, 5 and 2.
"I've tried to completely dismiss last week," he said. "It was one of those games where we were totally out-played and what you've got to do is look at reasons why. You learn your lessons and push on."
Since Lee, who has only four wickets in two games, finished the Mohali match he has been hitting the streets for runs and going to the gym for extra fitness, along with working on his run-up and action. Ponting was hopeful the extra effort would turn into greater impact.
"A lot of the things we've spoken to him about, and a lot of things he said he'd do, he's done," Ponting said. "His preparation this week has been spot on, hopefully that equates to results this week."
The bowlers have been focussing on reverse swing in an effort to keep up with the brutal tricks of Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma. "It goes against everything we do at home," Ponting said of the new methods. "In Australia you want to keep the ball as new as you can, and hit the seam as often as you can. Here it's the exact opposite. You've got to rough it up as much as you can and then bring one side up again to get it reversing.
"In their first innings in Mohali, Ishant bowled about four balls in his first over across the seam and banged it into the wicket. We're going to have to look at that, and be doing that at different times."