So Rahul Dravid walked out to toss this morning. Sourav Ganguly was taking a rest, and it must be said that while Ganguly both walks the walk and talks the talk, his walk and his talk aren't always the same thing. Just a few days ago he was wondering why Ricky Ponting was taking a break from the VB Series, and asserting that India was - opposed to Australia, presumably - taking every game seriously. Well, not only did India get soundly thrashed by a Ponting-less Australia, but Ganguly himself decided to rest for the final league game against Zimbabwe. (You could give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he felt that Hemang Badani's inclusion in his place would improve the team's chances of beating Zimbabwe. Sure, and hey, look, the umpire's pointing at a UFO.)
In truth, India had to take this match seriously, and a full-strength team should have turned out. Forget about things like form, class, team balance and so on - what a team needs most in modern-day cricket is intensity. India lacked it in their last home series against New Zealand, but rediscovered it magnificently as the tour to Australia began, and, amazingly, they stayed intense all through the Test series, and through most of the VB Series. But they lost it in the last game at Perth, and needed to regain it. They should have played their first XI here and gone all out to win.
Still, if they're confident that intensity comes on a tap, and they just need to rest some overworked players (Ganguly? Ajit Agarkar? Murali Kartik?) and sort out the men on the fringes (Rohan Gavaskar and Hemang Badani, of whom only one can play the final), then perhaps their strategy was ok. But in that case, Badani and Gavaskar should have been promoted up the order, to bat earlier than they did. And also, Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar should not have batted with the reckless abandon they did at the start. Both men missed some of the series due to injury, both needed match practice, both played like it was a Delhi-Mumbai exhibition game, swinging and flailing, flashing and fishing, inging inging inging. Sehwag's lusty swipe to deep backward point just before the lunch break was especially galling. Sure, India were in no danger of losing this game, but discipline is a habit, not a contextual tactic, and given India's top-order collapse in the last game, Sehwag should have curbed some of his natural instincts. Time in the middle? 4pm.
India's bowlers bowled well. Irfan Pathan and L Balaji were spot on, and Amit Bhandari made good use of his first outing in the series. Of course, bowling to a mediocre bunch like Zimbabwe is entirely different from bowling to Australia, who are expert at hitting bowlers off their length. Still, Balaji had been as impressive in the last game at Perth, and Pathan and Agarkar's bad length there was a cause and not a consequence of the Australians' belligerence. India's bowlers are a talented bunch, but more than talent, what a team needs in modern-day cricket is nerve. (Did I say `intensity' earlier in this piece? Well, that too.) India's bowlers famously lost their nerve in the World Cup final against Australia, and we will find out on February 6 if they can redeem themselves on the next big occasion.
Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.