Last men standing

Australia have no business being 2-2 in this series. Seven first-choice men out, followed by two of their replacements (Moises Henriques being the latest).

That pretty much sums up today’s game  — and the problem for India not just in this game, but through this series.

The team has taken pride in the knowledge that it has been the only international outfit to consistently push Australia to the limit and beyond, in Tests and ODIs, during Australia’s period of unquestioned hegemony. On the back of that record, and given Australia’s problems fielding eleven fit men, this series should have been lopsided — a 4-0 result heading into the fifth game. And yet, India finds itself even stevens, mostly through its own faults: in the first game, the team was a boundary hit from winning; in the fourth, it bowled and fielded above par to restrict Australia to 249, went into the chase with a 50 balls-to-runs differential in its favor, saw Sehwag rewrite that equation to a 61 differential, and still contrived to lose. All this, despite Australia fielding what started as a second string team and, by now, has become an exercise in stretching the notion of ‘bench strength’ to the limit.

If India wins, it will have only done what is expected of a team aspiring for top of the table status against an opposition cruelly hit by injury; if India loses — and that too at home — against this opposition, its pretensions to supremacy will be badly exposed.

It would be an amazing effort to win, says Ponting in classic understatement; elsewhere in his comments is the clue to Australia’s hopes.

“And we haven’t played our best. With our batting we probably left 30-40 runs out there the other night so, hopefully, that all clicks tomorrow, and if it does we know we’ll be well in the contest again.”

Given the ragtag nature of its bowling attack, it is with the bat that Australia has to win against an Indian attack that started the series shaky, but has grown progressively more assured with each game. If batting is Australia’s strength, it is proving equally to be India’s weakness: both its losses were attributable to poor negotiation of the chase.

With Gautam Gambhir likely to come back into the playing eleven, India solves one of its problems. Virat Kohli is talented and has done well at the sub-international level, but looks less than the finished article at the highest grade [and this against an attack that is under strength]. Part of the blame rests on the team management’s decision to bat him at number three — to take a raw youngster and ask him to occupy the slot, and fulfill the role, a Ricky Ponting performs for Australia is clearly preposterous; even more so when you have a Suresh Raina, who has been groomed for the number three role, batting at six.

My argument for why Sachin needs to bat at three has been made earlier and nothing I’ve seen since causes me to change that opinion. IMHO, India needs to go in with Sehwag, Gambhir, Sachin and Yuvraj in that order, with Dhoni and Raina picking positions five or six depending on the state of the game.

The management’s signals to Ravindra Jadeja are equally mixed. From a batsman who can bowl a few tight overs, he appears to have been reduced to a bowler from whom ten overs, and a couple of wickets, are expected; where batting goes, he seems to be viewed as somewhere between Harbhajan Singh above him, and Praveen Kumar below. That’s a travesty — if in fact Jadeja has been picked for his bowling and the management believes his batting is incidental, the team might as well go the whole hog and pick a real bowler in Amit Mishra.

The other change India will have to make, IMHO, is in its concept of the chase: it will need to move beyond its mindset of gentle progress in the middle overs and learn to run from the front — more so as a depleted bowling attack is especially vulnerable during that middle phase.

Personally, the only point of interest in today’s game is to see how the team processes whatever it has learnt from the first four games, and how it fine-tunes its game. The result is largely inconsequential: if India wins, it is no more than the situation warrants; if it loses against a second string Australian team, then all this talk of team composition and strategy is moot anyway.

PS: Aakash Chopra’s piece is on bowling well in T20s — but most of it is equally applicable to the 50-over format.