December 23, 2007

The quest for 17

Will Australia break their record of 16 wins in a row? India just may be able to stop them if they draw at the MCG



India's best chance of repeating the heroics of 2001 lies in drawing the Melbourne Test © Getty Images

In 2001 India stopped Steve Waugh's record-setting team dead in their tracks at 16 successive Test wins. On that occasion Sourav Ganguly's team delivered the knockout blow, a punch the Australians didn't see coming.

Now Anil Kumble's side, with a star-studded and experienced batting line-up, is the only thing standing between Ricky Ponting's team and that much-sought-after record. Ponting's side is on 14 successive wins, but the Australian attack has a big adjustment to make in order to achieve victory in the first two Test matches.

They have been feasting on a New Zealand top order that is closer to first-class than international standard and will now have to raise their sights against the potentially powerful Indian batting line-up. In good form the Indian batting order, even with an opening dilemma, as they have at present, is more like world class, and will provide a stiff test for the Brett Lee-led Australian attack.

India has two choices as opening partner for Wasim Jaffer: the technically correct and run-hungry Rahul Dravid or the flamboyant flayer, Virender Sehwag. It would be a gamble to pick Sehwag but his attacking instincts, if successful, could provide India with the perfect start and the Australian bowlers with more headaches than a New Year's day brunch party.

If the tour game against Victoria is anything to go by, it appears the Indian hierarchy will opt for a more sedate opening, with the combination of Dravid and Jaffer. At the Junction Oval they balanced this cautious ploy with a good choice in VVS Laxman at No. 3. Whether Australia opts for Mitchell Johnson or the speedy but erratic Shaun Tait, someone in the Indian top order has to challenge the fast bowlers. Laxman, with his effortless strokeplay and tremendous record Down Under, is equipped to handle that role. He completely changed the complexion of the 2000-01 series when he moved to No. 3 and amassed a double-century after India had been forced to follow on. If he plays in that vein again, India will be competitive in this series.

A good and confident start is essential. Australia rely heavily on pace and on taking wickets with the new ball, and any weakness in their attack will be exposed if they can't achieve early breakthroughs. Conversely, India have great strength in the middle order and a good start will allow Sachin Tendulkar, Ganguly and Yuvraj Singh to launch an assault on an attack that wilted in the face of some top-class batting by Kumar Sangakkara at the Bellerive Oval recently.

 
 
The big difference between the Indian line-up and others that have toured Australia lately is that the Indians know how to make big scores. They have the skill and the experience to battle through the tough periods they will undoubtedly face
 

The big difference between the Indian line-up and others that have toured Australia lately is that the Indians know how to make big scores. They have the skill and the experience to battle through the tough periods they will undoubtedly face against a confident Australian side. One of the reasons for Australia's dominance at home is the ability of their batsmen to survive tough periods and go on to make big scores, while their bowlers make the opposition struggle for runs and, eventually, wilt.

Australia definitely have the batting to continue in that vein but the question is, do they have the bowling to dominate top-class players now that Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath are missing?

The Indian attack has more question marks over it than an exam paper, and it would help enormously if they are bowling with the luxury of a decent first-innings total. As a spin-bowling captain, Kumble has two immediate advantages: he won't be tempted to send the opposition in if he wins the toss, and he will understand the extra pressure it puts on the Australian batsmen if India post a big first-innings score. Conversely, if Australia bat first and pile up a big score, it will help paper over any cracks in their bowling attack.

It's appropriate that this series should start on Boxing Day as it has the potential to be a heavyweight bout. The last time India stopped Australia's record run, it was with a stunning come-from-behind victory in Kolkata. If history repeats itself, it's most likely to occur via a high scoring-draw at the MCG: more a TKO than a knockout.

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