The mind games have begun.
Mitchell Johnson wants to play chin music and Ricky Ponting thinks Indians are suspect against bounce! In particular, Mitchell Johnson thinks that Virender Sehwag is suspect against the short ball. Either the Australian ideas-chest is bare or they are actually planning on bowling a bagful of yorkers, but throwing a few red-herrings around so that the Indians get confused! Do the Australians think they are going to be bowling at a few school-kids? Oh, and meanwhile, Nathan Hauritz says he is going to target Sachin Tendulkar. Great. Now we can all sleep easy, for he is not going to target Ishant Sharma, India’s secret batting weapon! Phew!
So clearly the Australians must be in town! There’s a lot of talk; a lot of pre-game chirp…
And what are the Indians doing? They are quietly practicing ahead of an important series. And some of them have been involved in the Champions League T20. Is MS Dhoni saying much at all? Yes he is saying, “Well, of course it is Tuesday today” and “Well of course, my name is Dhoni” and “Well of course, cricket is a game played with bat and ball”. This lad is straight from the “say a lot and yet say nothing” school of communications!
The chirp is back in town and in our troubled times of spot fixing and T20, cricket cannot have wanted a tough and engaging Test series more than right now.
To be honest though, the pre-series-chirp from the Australian camp has not been as viral and feral as it has been in previous tours. I remember Ricky Ponting talking about “New Age” cricket ahead of the last series in India in 2008. They left India thinking they ought to sharpen up their “present age” cricket before even thinking of moving onto the “new age”!
The chirp and pre-series mind-games are of a different tone this time around. And I think the IPL has a lot to do with it. I also think that now, more than ever, Australia believes other teams can play cricket too. There is respect and there is definitely a greater understanding.
This will make this series a cracker of a series, in my view.
In the times of Hayden, Langer, Ponting, Waughs, Gilchrist, Warne and McGrath, the fact that teams would lose to the #1 placed Australia was always a given. The question was more one of how badly teams would lose to Australia, the then world champions.
India, as the #1 ranked team, do not have that air of invincibility about them. Although Ricky Ponting conceded that India deserved her #1 ranking, I think he was being unusually coy, somewhat needlessly diplomatic and rather polite. I still maintain that unless India wins a series in Australia and South Africa, in my view, India cannot be ranked as the #1 team in the world. Australia, by the way, has won a series in India.
India lacks that air of invincibility because of her bowling. India just does not have a McGrath-Warne. Yes. Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan are good. They are better in Indian conditions. But they are not in the same class as a McGrath or a Warne. In my opinion, as a result of that lopsided strength (when compared to her batting) Team India is still in development phase.
Pity! Because the batting has never been better!
I say the batting has never been better because the opening combination (despite Gautam Gambhir’s recent “dip” in form) is lethal. Sehwag looks menacing each time he goes out to bat. With a steady Gambhir at the other end, this is the opening combination in world cricket today. Rahul Dravid is… well… Rahul Dravid. Not a single brick in that wall has had to be replaced over the years. Sachin Tendulkar is looking hungrier this year than he did last year and he was quite mean last year! VVS Laxman is in the midst of one of his best (batting) years in Test cricket! Suresh Raina has stepped into the #6 role as though it was meant for him. Raina demonstrates a hunger as well as a “continual willingness to learn” (in Sunil Gavaskar’s words). I do believe he will make a solid and strong #6 for India. And if all of that is not sufficient, India has MS Dhoni in at #7. This batting list is not only impressive, it is formidable. If one or two of the above gets injured, the replacements are M. Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara — and these lads can hold a bat!
The Australian bowling will have to be at its very best to shake that batting line-up.
So, in these times, the lopsidedness (in terms of bowling-strength) is, indeed, a pity for a fan of Team India. It is no wonder that the team lacks that air of invincibility that is thrust upon champion teams.
So any team — and in particular, Australia — does have a chance, in my view. The door is ajar.
That said, I think Australia will need to play exceedingly well.
I might be wrong, but I think this series will claim Nathan Hauritz like it did Shane Warne, Jason Krejza and Gavin Robertson. There is a fixation that Australian cricket has with off-spinners whenever they tour India. Even at the height of the Shane Warne express, the Australians brought Gavin Robertson along with them! He played a few games too. I think Australia has got it wrong. In recent times, India has demonstrated a particular inexplicable weakness against left-arm spinners. Even Ashley Giles and Paul Harris did well against India! The fact that Australia does not have a good left-arm spinner is another story altogether. But my view is that, unless Nathan Hauritz bowls out of his skin, or unless the Indian batsmen commit hara-kiri against him, Hauritz will have a nightmare-series. In my view, Michael Clarke has to bowl much more than he did in the last series. Whether his back will allow him that luxury is quite another issue altogether.
The real weak-link in the India team is the bowling. I believe that Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma, Harbhajan Singh and Pragyan Ojha will play the 1st Test. There is a chance that Sreesanth will play ahead of Ojha, given that the first Test is going to be played at Mohali — a track known for its even bounce and carry.
However, I think India should shave all grass off the Mohali track and chuck Harbhajan and Ohja at the Australians. A view that I have held for long is that the day Perth becomes a spinning track, India can prepare a bouncing green-top for the visiting Australians.
The Australian batting is good without being sensational. What the team lacks in runs and experience, it (always) makes up in discipline, determination, application and preparation. Shane Watson and Simon Katich hold the key to this series in my view. If Ricky Ponting walks in with the scoreboard reading 191-1, I think the Australians will have a terrific series. If he routinely walks in at 12-1, he will probably perform worse in this series than he has in past tours to India.
Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid have proved, time and time again, that they deserve to be amongst the worlds’ greatest batsmen (like Brian Lara, Viv Richards and Sunil Gavaskar before them) because they have made runs in all conditions. Ricky Ponting’s CV in Indian conditions represents a big hole occupied smugly by Harbhajan Singh!
Unless Ricky Ponting does well in Indian conditions, he will certainly not feature in my list of best batsmen in the world! Time is running out for this excellent cricketer to make the walk from being excellent to great. This is probably his last chance to take that walk. He will have a greater chance to make that walk if Shane Watson and Simon Katich give him (and Australia) a good start.
Michael Hussey had a relatively poor series last time around. He is too good a player to have two poor series in India. To me, apart from the openers, Michael Hussey is the key.
The Australian bowling sports a similar kind of look to it. The presence of Shane Watson as a batsman and a 5th bowler adds sensational dimension to the team. That and the presence Micheal Clarke as a left-arm bowler means that this bowling line-up should do much better than previous bowling attacks have! The fact, however, is that this attack has presided over the worst period in Australia’s recent cricketing history.
So, what is the conclusion? I am going to have to sound like Dhoni here (sentence spoken without a stop for breath)… “Well of course, each day is a new day the past is the past and the team that plays best on the day will win and well of course the boys are raring to go and are really keyed up for this important series and well of course Australia is a terrific team and they keep coming at you like a steam train and well of course we have to stay alert at all times and play our best cricket and well of course the team that plays the best cricket on the day will win!”
The sledge is back in town. There is a chirp in the air. There is some excitement.
The Australians are here? Well of course…