A daunting task ahead

In a manufactured world, India will beat Australia in the Test series. In a debate where one side must oppose the motion, there might be arguments put forth in India's favour as well.

By HARSHA BHOGLE

In a manufactured world, India will beat Australia in the Test series. In a debate where one side must oppose the motion, there might be arguments put forth in India's favour as well. And to the optimists blooming in our land of hope, where politicians and movies offer sugar-coated reality, the thought could be a pleasant pastime. The real world though is a bit different from our Lagaan inspired one. Lagaan was only a script; a beautiful inspiring script, but in the end only just that. Australia's cricketers are unlikely to follow it. We now have 16 players picked and the unfortunate charade of picking 20 is behind us. If there was a thought behind that, then it was as well concealed as Saddam is. It was an act that, at best, spoke of indecision and is a precedent that must never be followed again. There was little to be learnt in three days and apart from supplying nourishment to the vicious rumour-mills, it could achieve little. Worse still, off-the-record comments from selectors have started appearing in newspapers again. That is why integrity and commitment, not Test match experience, must be the prime qualification for a selector. Unless they were pushed, they have let themselves down.

A combination of Virender Sehwag (left) and Akash Chopra would seem to be just right during the Australian tour; one playing the shots that the wickets demand and the other moving the strike around and ensuring that Sachin endulkar isn't in too early. But they need to hit form early for there is no time to acclimatise on these frenetic tours, says the author. -- Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN-

There is one question that stares at you from the line-up eventually picked. To win a Test match India need to take 20 wickets for Steve Waugh is unlikely to offer a Hansie Cronje style declaration. A month and a half ago, you would have thought that a fit Srinath bowling behind Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra with Harbhajan Singh as back-up could test Australia. Since then, Srinath's knees have derailed his ambition, Zaheer's form is not as consistent as his spirit,

Nehra has become as rusty as a nail in a Mumbai monsoon and Harbhajan has looked as lost as a page three model would in the real world.

Australia will know that and their batsmen will come hard at the bowling aware that it has a fragile coating to it. Australia don't seek to dissect bowling, being gentle is not part of their approach, they try to tear it and India's bowling will have to combine ability with a lot of mental strength. On current form, there could be more questions in their mind than in this article.

And yet, if they want to offer a contest, India's young, and very inexperienced, bowlers must believe they have a chance. And that chance could well come from the arrogance of the opposition itself. Australia score between three and a half and four runs an over and while that is breathtaking to watch, it is also addictive. If India can keep Australia down to three, or under, per over, a bit like getting Schumacher to drive under 200 kilometres an hour, their batsmen might just do the outrageous in search of their run-rate. Steve Waugh alone seems to play the game the way it used to be played before he became captain, the rest approach Test cricket like the drivers at nearby Albert Park.

For India to do that though, discipline will be paramount. Control over length will have to be stringent for the Australians put a dominating front foot forward taunting the bowlers to bowl short, which is what they are waiting for. India's young bowlers must be wary of that, they must not get wide-eyed by the bounce they will get for if they dig it in short they will feed the cut and the pull. Australia's batsmen can dine on that forever. Control over line will be critical too for Australia's batsmen love any width they can get. Which of India's bowlers will bowl 20 overs in the day for 50 runs?

It is because of this relentless aggression, and extraordinary skill, that most opposition batsmen are tempted to bat to save a game rather than to win it. That is exactly what Australia seek to achieve and indeed, one of the key by-products of this awesome batting run-rate is that the bowlers often get enough time to get the opposition out twice. Numerous four-day Test matches are testimony to that. A stone-waller has to defend for much longer than he needs to in any other part of the world and with the wickets always doing a bit for the bowler, it is a more difficult exercise as well. Teams and players that play for time will not get too far. Sanjay Manjrekar discovered that in 1991-92 and Rahul Dravid did as well in 1999-2000.

To combat Australia therefore, you need the two arms of the side working together. The bowlers need to make the opposition batsmen work harder for their runs, and take longer to score them if indeed they do. And the batsmen need to cut the deficit and seek the lead quickly, rather than slowly. To be able to do that, the team needs starts and that is where India present their Achilles' Heel to their opponents rightaway. On the face of it, a combination of Virender Sehwag and Akash Chopra would seem to be just right; one playing the shots that the wickets demand and the other moving the strike around and ensuring that Sachin Tendulkar isn't in too early. But they need to hit form early for there is no time to acclimatise on these frenetic tours.

A consistent opening partnership would hide the other glaring deficiency in this Indian team. None of the bowlers picked can bat and indeed, none of the top six can bowl at this level, unless Tendulkar's forgotten leg breaks get a re-run. You can see that in the fact that India have gone back to picking Deep Dasgupta in spite of having little to show since being last left out of the Indian team; so desperate is the search for a seventh batsman, or indeed for a sixth who can allow five bowlers to play.

Beating Australia anywhere is difficult. Beating them in Australia is something only New Zealand in the midst of a purple patch have even approached. India will need to play out of their skins. More than that, they will have to believe they can do it.