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Sidharth Monga in Kanpur
April 10, 2008
The last time India faced a 1-0 deficit going into the final Test of a home series was against the same opponents in 1999-2000, and it incidentally resulted in India's last innings defeat - before Ahmedabad a week ago - in a home Test, when they lost by an innings and 71 runs in Bangalore. Interestingly India had played three spinners then on a spinning track, with Anil Kumble bowling the second over, and then 67.4 more for his six wickets.
Bangalore 2000 was not an aberration; South Africa have usually done better than other teams in India. Since the start of the 90s they are the only visitors to India who have won more than they have lost.
In a similar situation this time, and on a wicket that is dry, devoid of live grass and already cracking 24 hours before the start of the decider, India are not even sure they will get the services of Kumble. He said at the pre-match press conference that he wasn't "completely comfortable bowling in the nets", and would take a call on the morning of the match. "If I can bowl, I will play and that is the kind of attitude I have. So I will assess how I feel in the morning."
The good news for them is that Sreesanth and Ishant Sharma have both been declared fit. That gives them an option if they choose not to go with three spinners, something that has been expected in the lead-up to the match. Kumble's fitness concern is the main reason why India are not sure of their combination right now, discounting which they would have been sure of going with three spinners.
But the line-up could include Ramesh Powar, as Kumble made it clear that Powar was not merely a back-up for him. The choice will be between Powar and Piyush Chawla, who was included in the squad after Murali Kartik was injured. The two could play if Kumble is ruled out and India still go with three spinners. They both bowled fairly long spells in the nets, while Chawla had an extended batting session as well.
Going by history, India will be taking a big risk by putting all their eggs in the spin basket: just in case this turns out to be a slow turner, South Africa have shown they can do well on such pitches. And if the wicket is uneven and breaking, not many will be lining up to face Dale Steyn, Makhaya Ntini and Morne Morkel. Moreover, throughout this series, Harbhajan Singh and Kumble haven't really threatened the batsmen on a consistent basis. Although Harbhajan has taken 12 wickets so far, each has cost him 33.33 runs. Kumble has managed only four wickets in what would be one of the most disappointing series for him.
For Kumble, though, this is a different Test and a different wicket. "Conditions in Chennai were difficult and Ahmedabad was just one of those days when we lost ten wickets in 20 overs," Kumble said. "It does not happen every day. It is the one bad session we had in the last six years, and we have put that behind."
Ironically, despite the batting failure, India are not fretting over the line-up. With all the talk of this being a rank turner, the batsmen could well end up making the difference. Although it looks like the track should support India, facing three bowlers bowling at around 140kph on an uneven surface cannot be an easy proposition. This will certainly call for more application than was on show in Ahmedabad. The only change in the line-up could be the inclusion of Yuvraj Singh if India decide to go with six batsmen. If the wicket lives up to expectations, Yuvraj will give them a left-arm spin option too.
India are in foreign territory here. It's not often they go into the last match of a home series with catching up to do. On even rarer occasions have they done this with their captain's involvement in the match doubtful, their two fast bowlers coming back from injury, and the batting coming off a disaster. It is also true that in recent times they have surprised everyone when put in a corner. That is something Kumble is banking on. "It is not the first time we have lost one Test match and come back," he said. "We have done that in Australia and whenever we were pushed to the wall we have performed well."
Most of those famous resurgent efforts have come away from home, where they haven't been expected to win. The pressures will be different when on stake is a home series, a fortress that is fast changing into a tourist site.