December 23, 2011

Can India seize their chance to win in Australia?

Much depends on whether their lead bowlers can wrest an advantage for the batsmen to build on

On the fingers that wrap themselves around a new ball, or indeed on the ankles, shins, hamstrings and other allied muscles of the owners of those fingers, could well reside India's chances in Australia. The signals aren't encouraging so far. Zaheer Khan has been jogging in, sitting in, jogging in, sitting in, resting his ankle as much as he tests it. Meanwhile Ishant Sharma worries about whether his ankle has been strapped well enough. You are what you repeatedly do, the sage said, and India will have liked the two bowlers to have steamed in for at least two spells before the first Test. Unless, of course, this is part of an elaborate charade, in which case it must go down as among the better-kept secrets of our time.

Zaheer's and Ishant's readiness, and consequently their rhythm, needs to be looked at in the light of the travails facing a once-proud batting nation. Australia are uncertain - you can discern that in the selection of a 29-year-old with an inconsistent run-making pattern behind him. More so, you can feel it in the absence of dismissive remarks about the opposition in the build-up. In earlier times, by now Australian spokesmen would have decided the outcome of the series and buried the tourists. There is a reason they haven't this time. Australia don't often get bowled out for around 100, and never for less than half that. And therefore, if Ishant and Zaheer are on top of their game, the pitches are unlikely to be too lively; the boot has been on the other foot too often for that. There are a bolter and a rookie at the top, an uncertain legend and an out-of-form champion to follow, and little clarity about who bats before the wicketkeeper and the bowlers make their way in.

If, however, they expect a polite Indian new-ball offering, the tracks could well be garnished with additional spice, for it is with the new ball that Australia most fancy their chances against an Indian batting order that has extraordinary pedigree but a little trouble starting. And so I believe that among the many contests to savour, it is Australia's new ball versus India's top order that could be the most riveting. It is a bit like a game of chess, where if your rooks are strong the queen can win you a game. So too, if India's new ball is strong, the batsmen could win the series.

For the first time India have the opportunity to play to the fear in the opposition camp. When Matthew Hayden was marching out with Justin Langer trotting alongside, and Ponting was padded up at No. 3, the dressing room didn't have to sit on the edge of the seat. No. 5 didn't have to worry about whether his kit was all ready for battle. There would have been excitement, but confidence would have been the overpowering fragrance in the room. Now you don't quite know when No. 4 could be walking out; and No. 6 could be watching intently before lunch. A weak Indian attack will allow the Australian dressing room to breathe freely and think of aggression, which is their natural instinct and most potent weapon.

And so, just as Zaheer and Ishant will be critical to India, so too will Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir. Remember, both have endured injury and rehabilitation in 2011. Sehwag averages under 30 and Gambhir has probably missed more than he has played. In front of them lie inexperience and skill. Peter Siddle, James Pattinson, Ben Hilfenhaus, Mitchell Starc and Nathan Lyon are good cricketers without intimidating numbers against their name. They can bowl but do not yet bear comparison to Jason Gillespie, Brett Lee and Stuart MacGill, let alone McGrath and Warne. It is an opportunity for India but one they must exercise with caution: 60 for 4 on the first morning is a decisive psychological swing.

If Gambhir and Sehwag see off the new ball, and the sun starts to beat down, Australia could have long days in the field. For Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman know the art of building innings better than most. But if India's bowlers offer balls that go straight at medium-pace, they could just provide the early shot in the arm Australia's batsmen need.

India hold the high ground at the start of the series. If they can dominate the first Test, they can win a series in Australia for the first time. But much will depend on those ankles!

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here