Monday, January 05, 2004

Kumble's day today?

It is just close to 3 hours before one of the most looked forward days in Indian Cricket unfolds at the SCG. A day, the likes of which hasn't dawned since that fateful day in June in 1986 at Leeds, when England capitulated to lose a Test match (and with it the series) by 279 runs. India has seen half a dozen captains since then who have failed to reach the door where Saurav Ganguly stands now, a door to what promises to be a golden period for Indian cricket. But there is more than just his foot wedged between that door and beyond. The Aussie juggernaut is seeking to shut the door firm on the Indian team's face.

That the team has come so far is itself a tribute to the brilliant game that the Indians have played in the last month or so. But to leave Australian soil without this last win should leave the team with nothing short of heavy hearts and disappointment. For what we have achieved in the last 32 days has been achieved earlier several times in the last couple of years. We have seen solitary away Test victories against a number of teams. But what we haven't seen so far during these series is the end game that would have given us that elusive series victory, a prize that has eluded India during the reign of at least five of Saurav Ganguly's immediate predecessors. I think the team does understand this - the fact that all that they have achieved so far in this Australian sojourn would probably be forgotten as soon as the next series begins. This is why the team has been measured in its public responses since the end of yesterday's play.

So what lies in store for India today at the SCG? Australia faces an uphill task. The 418-7 scored by the West Indians against the Australians last May at Antigua remains the highest score ever made by a team in the 4th innings to win the test match. Can the Indian team prevent a similar happening today at the SCG? Of course we can. Just for illustration, Ladbrokes puts the odds of an Indian victory at a healthy 11 - 4 and the odds of a draw are at 1 - 3 while an Australian win is at 8 - 1.

The key men for India shall definitely be Kumble, Parthiv Patel and to a certain extent, Ganguly. Kumble has proved every critic wrong by taking 20 wickets this series and he has every chance to match or beat Kapil Dev's 25 wickets during the 1992 tour. But to do so, he needs the support of at least one bowler at the other end to keep the pressure up. In the first innings of this test, young Irfan Pathan put his arm up with those quick wickets in the fag end of the second day. He remains my bet to be India's second best bowler in Australia's second innings. But people like Agarkar and Tendulkar (if Ganguly wants to do his part well, he should give Sachin a chance to turn his arm over), have to play their roles well too. Agarkar in particular, should decide not to go Brett Lee's extravagant ways, as he is prone to. Parthiv Patel should raise his level just a wee bit and make sure he concentrates on the job all day. This promises to be a brute of a pitch and Parthiv needs every ounce of his concentration to keep wickets to bowlers like Kumble who skids the ball through sometimes and bounce awkwardly at others (as the last ball of yesterday proved) and Sachin, who seems to turn the ball as much as Warne and his currently tormented understudy, McGill.

For Australia, every batsman needs to fire and fire rapidly. What makes a wee bit different is that this is the last day of a series that they have promised as a parting gift to a leader who has seen them rise to the pinnacles. This thought should be an additional source of pressure. And they need to play Kumble and the other slow bowlers with the same disdain that Katich displayed yesterday. As far as the farewell man is concerned, he has just 2 hundreds in the second innings of a test match and this is indeed a key statistic!

India for their part should attack every ball and should not repeat the mistakes made during the Gillespie-Katich partnerships. In fact the worst mistake India could do today is to settle for a draw from ball one. However going by how aggressive Ganguly's actions have been in the recent past, this scenario seems more or less unlikely. So India would in all probability go for a win, but how they do it will be serious business and will be discussed for a long time to come.

Hayden and Langer have been trying to sweep the Indian bowlers out of the park and this should present a number of opportunities for Kumble and Co. to get on top. However, this series has also seen either of/both the Australian openers get out cheaply to the Indian opening bowlers - especially Langer to Agarkar. Hence this is an avenue that could be exploited. Using Kumble as an opening bowler was a big move by Ganguly to unsettle the openers, but Pathan should be given a go early so that he can exploit the early jitteriness from the Australians. After that it's shaping up to be Kumble's day all the way.

I wish I were at Sydney with the Swami Army! Sydney is the place to be for every Indian cricket fan today. But will the swamis in charge of the weather help us? The forecast for Sydney today is this with chances of showers increasing as the day progresses. But this is opposite to what the Channel Nine commentary team said. So does the Aussie mental warfare include wilfully mis-forecasting the weather?

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