Friday, October 24, 2008

The set up

Reports of the demise of the Australian juggernaut are premature. Extremely premature. Ricky Ponting has won 33 of the 46 Tests he has helmed. Think about that again. Only Steve Waugh with 41 wins (57 Tests) and Clive Lloyd with 36 wins (74 Tests) have been more successful in the entire history of Test cricket.

True, this Indian team does not seem to be as intimated by the Aussies as some of the other squads are, but it would be foolish to suggest that the Aussies are done. Peter Roebuck writes that the Indians have passed the Aussies, and there is some truth to his arguments.
India are better balanced and stronger at the top of the order and from seven to 11. The great players are the weak point. It is quite a thought.
The problem with historic wins (of the 320-run kind) is that they distort one's perspective. Let's not forget that just 6 Test-playing days ago, the question on everyone's lips was whether India could survive the last day of the Bengaluru Test without collapsing to another defeat. Five days of domination should not swing the balance in the other direction.

Here's a sobering thought. Dhoni felt that he needed more than 500 runs to feel safe that the Aussies would not chase it down. Targets in excess of 400 runs have been chased successfully only 3 times in almost 1900 Tests. Surely, 500 runs were an excessive luxury (I am repeating myself for emphasis). I suspect that the Indian team knows best how strong the Australian team, sans all those greats (McGrath, Warne, Gilchrist, Langer, Martyn, etc.) still is. As long as Hayden, Ponting, Hussey and Clarke put on their pads, the batting is still strong.

It is the bowling that is weaker. Brett Lee does not even seem like swinging the ball except for a ball or two to start the innings. What happened to that brilliant out-swinger that surprised everyone, including me, when he threw it down at such a blistering pace? Mitchell Johnson is consistently bowling faster than Lee. There is something wrong about that. They lack that brilliant spinner, but then so does every other team except Sri Lanka and India. (With due apologies, Vettori and Panesar are more restrictive, than incisive, spinners).

Yes, the Aussies are down, but they are certainly not out of it. The Indian team was in a similar predicament before it went to Perth earlier this year. Australia had just won it's 16th Test in a row, and all signs pointed to an annihilation of India on the bounciest wicket in the world. Cast your mind back to that Test. India went in with a bowling attack that read - RP Singh, Irfan Pathan, Ishant Sharma (playing in his 4th Test) and Kumble. The fast bowlers took 14 of the 20 wickets to fall, and out-bowled the Aussies on their turf (Shaun Tait was so demoralized he even left the game briefly). Unheralded players can produce results given the right set of circumstances. Remember Shaun Udal?

Underestimate the heart of a champion at your own peril. I am sure that Australia will lose the series - India is, pound for pound, a far superior side - but I don't think it is a done deal as some people believe it is. I just hope that the members of the Indian team (yes, Harbhajan, especially you) do not start believing tales of their own superiority.

Luckily, India has two captains - Kumble and Dhoni - who are pragmatic and sensible. That, in the end, will determine the course of this series.

(Harsha Bhogle chimes in with a similar thesis in his column).

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