India v Sri Lanka, 3rd Test, Mumbai

Dhoni upbeat despite Gambhir's absence

Nagraj Gollapudi

December 1, 2009

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MS Dhoni decides to take a break, Mumbai, November 30, 2009
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India go into this game 1-0 up in the series, having secured a record innings win in the previous match in Kanpur and eyeing a leapfrog over Sri Lanka and South Africa to the No 1 spot. Yet there is one gaping hole they must contend with - the absence of Gautam Gambhir, India's form player of the year and of this series too.

MS Dhoni did not comment on Gambhir's decision to place his sister's wedding ahead of a crucial encounter, saying only it was an "individual's decision". But Dhoni knows only too well that the opener's absence has given Sri Lanka a toehold in the game.

Such has been Gambhir's impact over the last two years that he has converted half his starts into hundreds. In the 14 games he's played since the end of 2007 - he only played one Test that year - he has scored seven hundreds to tally 1869 runs at an average of 72. Gambhir's figures are staggering considering the next batsman, Sachin Tendulkar, who averages 54 in 27 Tests since the start of 2007, has just one more century to his name.

Sri Lanka captain Kumar Sangakkara was also keen to take advantage of the situation. "The absence of a quality player like that leaves a gap, but it also means that the new guy coming in will be really hungry to make a mark. To exploit it is our responsibility."

However, Dhoni believed Gambhir's replacement Murali Vijay, who had a solid debut last year in Nagpur against Australia, would be up for the challenge. "The last time he [Vijay] played he did well for us," Dhoni said. "In the domestic games also he has done well so we are hoping that he gets off to a good start and gives us a good start as well."

A good beginning is crucial, as demonstrated in Kanpur, when the belligerent opening stand between Gambhir and Virender Sehwag helped India raise a 400-plus total on the first day and put Sri Lanka immediately under the pump, from which they never recovered. Luckily, despite the slow nature of the Green Park pitch, Sreesanth bowled with purpose to force the visitors into meek surrender.

Even if 11 of the 17 Tests played at the Brabourne Stadium have yielded no result, the pitch this time around looks promising, with both captains describing it as lively. Dhoni was confident that if his bowlers could prosper on unhelpful pitches in Ahmedabad and Kanpur, they could definitely take advantage of the helpful Brabourne track. "The first session would be crucial, as well as the evening one (where) the fast bowlers, If they maintain the ball, would be able to swing in the last half hour."

So far in the series, India have been lucky on a few fronts: Dhoni has won the toss twice, Sehwag was dropped twice early on and made the visitors pay for their errors with a fifty on the first occasion and a breathtaking hundred in Kanpur. But India had done the hard yards to make those breaks count, and they will have to repeat it one more time in Mumbai to claim their place at the top of the Test pile.

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo

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