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March 16, 2006
One up with one to go, against a team crocked before the series began, and further hit by Steve Harmison's shin splints today - the picture looks rosy for India. As Rahul Dravid pointed out after the Mohali triumph, their's is a problem of plenty, and it's a happy problem for a team to have.
The biggest issue for the team is its composition - six specialist batsmen and four bowlers, or five of each. With only a draw needed to seal the series, it's a tempting thought to bolster the batting and drop a bowler, but the picture is unlikely to get any clearer until much closer to the match.
Much of it depends on the pitch too. The last time a Test was played here, it lasted barely two days and a bit, and produced 40 wickets for 605. Talk to Sudhir Naik, the curator, and he assures such a situation won't arise this time: "This is a true wicket. The match will definitely last four-five days." A typical Mumbai pitch offers some bounce as well, which won't be bad news for the bowlers. Out of the last eight Tests here, only one has been drawn, further reason for India to believe that six batsmen might be the way to go here.
Either way, Piyush Chawla looks certain to sit out, making way for either a fit-again Sreesanth or VVS Laxman. If India play bold and opt for Sreesanth, Laxman, who missed most of the nets due to a delayed flight, might have to spend yet more time off the field. Once firmly slotted as the fifth batsman in the side, he has now relinquished that position to Yuvraj, who has quickly taken over the mantle of senior batsman.
The lack of runs from the middle has been a worry, but Yuvraj himself wasn't too concerned, and suggested that a change in fortune was round the corner. And what about the pressure of playing with five specialist bowlers, knowing that the team is one batsman short? "Obviously there is the thought in your mind that you are left with five batsmen, but you also see that Irfan Pathan and MS Dhoni can bat. There is that thought at the back of your mind, but you just play your normal game."
Yuvraj confidence was there to see in the nets too, as he tackled a fiery spell from Sreesanth, who showed no ill-effects of the flu which forced him to miss the Mohali Test. After a few warm-up deliveries bowled gently enough, Sreesanth let them rip off his full run, testing Yuvraj with a slew of short-pitched deliveries, but they were mostly handled with impressive poise. Next to them, Munaf Patel was charging in as well, a happy sign for those who have been lamenting India's lack of firepower.
More than the batting and bowling, though, what caught the eye was an extended session on close-in catching, led by none other than Yajurvindra Singh, a former international player who once took five catches, all fielding close to the bat, in a Test innings at Bangalore in 1976-77. It remains a joint world record.
Here, he was offering tutorials to Wasim Jaffer, Yuvraj, Mohammad Kaif and Rahul Dravid, with Greg Chappell joining the gang as well. Repeatedly, he crouched low, very low, and stayed still - exactly as he suggested to Wisden Asia Cricket in an interview on close fielding - before covering his face with one quick motion, while still refusing to flinch as an imaginary ball was hit in his direction. Then Chappell did a Kaif - hopefully telling him what not to do - standing knock-kneed and then jumping up - a style Kaif has patented as his own, and which makes for a fine spectacle but would hardly help the bowlers' confidence. At a press conference later, all that Yuvraj revealed was that Yajurvindra offered them some "tips on in-field catching". The next few days might reveal how well the players grasped those tips.
After more than twenty minutes of theory, it was time for the practicals, as sharp catches were glanced in the direction of the fielders as they stood in a semi-circle. Jaffer, the home boy, did better than the rest; will the short-leg position be his at Mumbai?