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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • hhillbumper on December 24, 2011, 22:56 GMT

    full blodded wallop.india similar to Carribean pace quartet- That is an ironic statement isn't it.Windies had some of the greatest ever bowlers and you have Ishant and Zaheer Khan.You can't compare the attacks.The Windies pace quartet would have shown the current Indian line up for what they are.Flat track bullies. Tendulkar would not have got near 100 centuries.That was when bowlers could bowl and bouncers would have found the line up out.

  • 4test90 on December 24, 2011, 20:46 GMT

    20 years ago when I was 20 myself I went to the MCG and was amazed as I watched India bat on Boxing Day that there was a talented bloke out there 2 years younger than me. Well, now I am 40, I am going again tomorrow - that same bloke is still two years younger than me, and he is still very much good enough. Welcome back Sachin !!!

  • sfali16 on December 24, 2011, 18:11 GMT

    @DYSP: what are you talking about "Sachin has not scored a hundred at Perth". You're forgetting his breakthrough innings - 114 at Perth in 1992:

  • SirViv1973 on December 24, 2011, 15:43 GMT

    Any India fans on here thinking the team's management are bluffing regarding the fitness of ZK and IS need to think again. Although DF did some very good things for English cricket, he has a history of selecting players who aren't fit. In particular I remember 02/03 ashes series when a list of players too long to name were selected and all had to go home and be replaced.

  • ankeshh on December 24, 2011, 15:13 GMT

    Well bhogle!!!

  • screamingeagle on December 24, 2011, 14:42 GMT

    This goes out to Randyoz, did you read Boycott's suggestion of 4 day tests? I think he had Australia in mind when he said that.Big talk from a team which is making PIN code scores in different parts of the world, even in home grounds. Stop making silly remarks....

  • dummy4fb on December 24, 2011, 13:42 GMT

    @RandyOZ RP Singh was INDIA"S BEST BOWLER in Aus in 2007-08 and was dropped after 2 tests 4 months later. The real dead rubber specialist is Kallis whose all tons vs Aus came in dead rubbers (except one maybe). THAT IS A FACT.

  • gopakumar85 on December 24, 2011, 10:49 GMT

    India should play 3 fasters zak,ishant and yadav. but if zak or ishan is not fit then probably we need to take vinay kumar who probabaly might be more effecitve considering the swinging conditions that dishes out in wont be a bad idea to have him in the mix if ishant or zak is not fit.number 6 position is becoming a nightmare for 2 boys rohit and virat they both a gifted crickets with all round ability they score runs can roll the arm over and even save runs and take those crucial catches but with the current form may be it will tilt in virats favour but rohit is highly talented probaly has more range of shots to combat the aussies in these pitches as he has played in the past but it will still be a great test and great experience to someone like virat would like to see how he deals with in big grounds like mcg.

  • Chris_P on December 24, 2011, 10:17 GMT

    Pretty good analysis Meety. I have seen all pitches (except Perth) the last year. Hobart was unlike anything I have ever seen in this country before. Adelaide will be a bit of a road, Perth, hopefully will be back to the old days (nothing like last tour), Melbourne is mystery, but a little swing should be on offer and Sydney will favour the bowlers who put in. Not really much for the spinners though.

  • Johnny_129 on December 24, 2011, 9:37 GMT

    Zak, Ishant & Yadav make a decent (not great) pace attack - although the fitness of the first two and the inexperience of the third pace bowler is a concern. Hopefully, India will not need to revert to their reserve pace bowlers because the selection of Mithun and Vinay, ahead of a fit and in form again Pathan, is inexplicable! Of the Indian spinners, Ashwin would be the most likely to succeed in Aus pitches - although the absence of Harbhajan will let Ponting breathe a sigh of relief! Id the unthinkable happens and India do win this series, I don't think the selectors will deserve any credit whatsoever!!

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