So much to play for

Many of the men readying for battle may never face off again in a Test series and for all there is so much to play for. This series means a great deal to India, but it means the world to Australia, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

THERE are more strands of grey to be found on Sourav Ganguly's head then one expects in a man of his youthful years. Of course, he once explained that this may have something to do with his genes, but it is nevertheless a greying hastened by the job he is entrusted with. No one has yet devised a scientific way to delay aging, but captaining India is almost certain to speed up the process.

The Aussie skipper Ricky Ponting with Indian captain Sourav Ganguly (below Sachin Tendulkar) are nursing injuries. While Ponting is ruled out of the first Test, it is still anybody's guess as to whether Tendulkar will be available for the Bangalore game. The coming Test series will be a real challenge for Ganguly and his men, whose recent form has been disconcerting. — Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN-

Six months ago, after a courageously drawn series in Australia and victory splendidly fashioned in Pakistan, Ganguly's India appeared a team that was meeting its ambitions. The players appeared driven, the huddle was so invigorating it even found a sponsor, a succession of fellows stylishly demonstrated the varying arts of batsmanship, and a good side appeared to be journeying to greatness.

Almost absurdly, a short break from cricket has left the team more flat than fresh; their step seems slower, their intensity stolen, their skill misplaced, their desire lost in transit. A fine team has not been abruptly transformed into a mediocre one since Pakistan, yet even the most polite critic will admit their form has been disconcerting.

It is the worst of times to be shorn of confidence for the best of teams is at our shores. Australia has arrived searching for weakness and India inexplicably cannot find its strengths. In a brave admission, Ganguly articulated his team's reality, stating that only now would we discover how gifted a captain he was. If he wins, no doubt the word Churchill will be tossed around.

Many of the men readying for battle, McGrath, Warne, Kaprowicz, Lehmann, Hayden, Tendulkar, Kumble, Ganguly and Dravid may never face off again in a Test series and for all there is so much to play for. This series means a great deal to India, but it means the world to Australia. Victory wrought here is the one addition to the CV every visiting captain craves, more so Australians for they have not won here since Tendulkar was born. It makes greatness, in their minds, incomplete. It is a frontier not crossed even by Mark Taylor or Steven Waugh, their grand legacies slightly tarnished by their eventual collapse into the Indian dust.

Now arrives Ponting's chance. Or should one say Adam Gilchrist's. Fortune for India has arrived in the ugly form of a broken thumb, and while Australia prides itself on its belief that no one man is indispensable, the Tasmanian fellow, whose maturity and character have been in evidence with every stroke and utterance as captain, will find his absence felt. But it scarcely alters the reality that opportunity is knocking softly at the Australians' hotel room doors. And this is why:

THE TENDULKAR FACTOR: In 1998, when Michael Kasprowicz faced a belligerent Tendulkar in India, and immediately after in Sharjah, he was reported as saying with forgivable frustration: "I'm sick of that %$$#". He was possibly echoing his team. At home, in 1998, Tendulkar scored 446 runs at an average of 111.50; in 2001, 304 runs at 50.66. But now Tendulkar's elbow is so painful it stops him from even gambolling with his children, his time in the middle has been restricted, his form under scrutiny, and while this is a man who eats pressure for breakfast, he may not pose as powerful a psychological threat as he once did.

INDIA'S INDIFFERENT BATTING: If the Indians provided a compelling tutorial in Australia 2003-04 that they were scarcely a one-man batting team, then that boast sticks in the throat these days. It is harder to find an in-form Indian than an Englishman who doesn't swear Flintoff can walk on water.

Even the men who have compiled the odd hefty innings look somewhat absent of composure, Ganguly back to his wifting and wafting outside off-stump and Rahul Dravid's bat sounding like a guitar a trifle out of tune.

Momentum is hard to quantify, and even harder to maintain once a season breaks, yet since the Asia Cup, India appears to be stuttering. Furthermore, Aakash Chopra, whose argued exchange for Yuvraj as Test opener, presently appears absurd, has not had much cricket himself. Some reassurance may arrive from the fact that India has only played one-day cricket since Pakistan, and that we are more accomplished in the Test arena, but winning breeds self-belief and we are short of both.

FAST-BOWLING MISFORTUNE: Just when our chests had begun to swell over India's fast-bowling fortunes, injury has come calling. Zaheer Khan is constantly battling his weight and hamstring, Balaji's groin has grounded him, Nehra's body is so delicate he must find it hard getting insurance, and an inexperienced Irfan Pathan, while relishing every opportunity he gets, has been catapulted into the role of leading bowler although he is yet to bowl in a Test in India.

RETURN OF HARBHAJAN: In 2001, the spinning Sardar had the Australians searching for refuge on a therapist's couch, though practice not Freud has helped self-esteem return. They have played Harbhajan occasionally since without a discernible quiver (but mainly in one-day cricket), and whether the ebullient bowler can return from injury to even passably replicate his 32-wicket performance from last time is open to question. But if that surprise is lost, India's advantage may be restored through Anil Kumble, missing in 2001, but demonstrating unequivocally in Australia six months ago that only the most arrogant of batsman would discount his discipline and combativeness.

SUB-CONTINENTAL SUCCESS: Sri Lanka at home, we might self-indulgently presume, do not pose quite the challenge Ganguly's India does, but the Australians' impressive 3-0 series victory there earlier this year, dubbed "outstanding" by Ponting, was an emphatic statement. Muttiah Muralitharan may have finished the series with 28 wickets, but was unable to play a sufficient role in altering the result.

FAMILIARITY WITH INDIA: The foreignness of India, its crowds, the heat, once left the insular Australian winded and confused. But teams are adapting, travel has broadened the mind and experience has brought some wisdom; many of Ponting's men have had a taste of India and enjoyed it. Not to be discounted is the reality that numerous Australians are endorsed by Indian corporates and make regular trips to the sub-continent, breeding a familiarity with the environment.

Circumstance evidently is ganging up on Ganguly, but fortunately the Indian captain hasn't met a fight he doesn't like. He might stand arms akimbo, scowl etched on face, but adversity stirs something in him. He has shown spirit in vociferously backing his teammates, now he must display strength in demanding more from them. Recently, Ravi Shastri suggested, "The players have to be hungry," and Ganguly should remind them that it is dis-spiriting such a statement should even be made. They have scarcely won anything to be satiated.

Still, Ganguly may not be entirely despondent. On mere paper, like this column, India appears in some strife but is capable of surprise. Playing at home is often the revitalising elixir that teams need, the food, the crowd, the familiar dressing rooms and family at hand easily worth more than a few extra runs. Eventually, too, India's batsmen, or so one presumes, are too gifted to hibernate for too long and their spinners must be salivating at the sight of dusty pitches.

Ganguly and Wright might find some comfort as well in Australia's bowling, its practitioners at present not necessarily as menacing as their reputations suggest. Glenn McGrath, whose insides are surely all wires and levers is not quite back to his mechanical best, and while Shane Warne arrives in India for the first time in three occasions fully fit, redemption for the spinner may not easily be found.

Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee are back from injury layoffs and are finding their rhythm. -- Pic. HAMISH BLAIR/GETTY IMAGES-

Perhaps, too, Australia brings out the warrior in the Indian player, for the last two exchanges between both nations, in India in 2001, and in Australia in 2003-04, have been enthralling and unpredictable, cricket at its near best, sport as high adventure, and mainly because India accepted every challenge thrown at it. Now it must again.

If Ganguly's team is a superior unit to 2001, then at the same time he knows its ambitions are more pronounced. It searches for universal acclamation, and its performances suggest a job so far well-done but half-done.

Beating Australia, India knows, is the only real measurement of accomplishment in cricket, and to lose at home would be an untimely interruption of a grand dream to be the best in the world.