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Laying siege to Fort Knox

December 25, 2007

MCG aheadWhile there are prettier cricket grounds around the world, this is the most imposing that I have laid my eyes on. The lifesize bronze sculpture of Dennis Lillee at the entrance to the main gate, at the highest point in his delivery stride leaves no one in doubt about the ordeal awaiting visiting batsmen. The arrays of seats in varying colours tower over the playing area without appearing to crowd the players. The state-of-the-art training facilities in the bowels of the building with its practice pitches that simulate all possible conditions inspire the kind of awe that the German Wehrmacht must have done in its day. Inside, is another bronze sculpture, albeit looking much less aggressive than the one above, but I wonder how much fear the sure-footed feet and the crackling blade must have struck in the hearts of visiting captains. Beneath the sculpture, it says – Sir Donald Bradman. This is the cricketing equivalent of Fort Knox – The Melbourne Cricket Ground.

The Border-Gavaskar series will begin in a few hours from now in what is one of Australia’s many strongholds inMCG Lillee world cricket. Australia’s eight-match winning-streak (which is very different from a no-loss record) at the MCG is not surprising given this venue has always hosted the most important test match of the year for the Australians – The Boxing Day test. The enormity of the occasion tends to spur the Aussies and overwhelms the opposition resulting in mostly lop-sided affairs at this venue. Add to that the traditionally hard Australian pitch covered with a smattering of green owing to the weather at this time of the year, and you have the ingredients of a ‘spicy’ encounter. 

India goes into the series with the usual questions about the opening combination and the incisiveness of the bowling attack. Notwithstanding the 2003-04 series which was less a competitive series and more of a prolonged farewell party for the then Australian captain – Steve Waugh, most Indian tours have resulted in their batting being blown away in double-quick time in the first couple of test matches gradually finding its feet in the latter half of the series which is when the frailties in the bowling show up.

While the question marks of the Indian prospects are very real, there are a couple of aspects on which this series coulMCGd be different from those in the past. The key positives and negatives for the two teams going into Boxing Day:

INDIA

Plus- Opening Combination: On most previous tours, India have had the part of openers being played by greenhorns who got there by filling their boots against mediocre opposition in a home series or two. This time however, India’s opening combination bears little resemblance to fish in a barrel. While Pakistan’s resistance in the recently concluded series was nowhere near world-class, a mostly functional Shoaib Akhtar did make sure to keep Wasim Jaffer and Rahul Dravid honest with some searingly fast spells. Wasim Jaffer has been around the block enough times to not be completely overawed by the occasion.

Minus- Dravid as opener: Rahul Dravid’s predominantly front-foot technique is not ideal for Australian pitches and his early fall can easily knock the stuffing out of an Indian effort. Mcgrath exploited this to the fullest on the 1999-2000 tour but it remains to be seen whether the other bowlers find that length.

Minus- Safety First Approach: As was evident in the 3rd test match against Pakistan, Kumble and India are likely to take the conservative approach of batting on when on top (which could potentially happen at Adelaide and Sydney). In contrast, Ponting will most likely make daring tactical moves (shuffling batting orders, selecting all-pace attacks all the way through) and therein lies one of the reasons for their dominance in world cricket.

AUSTRALIA

Plus- Brett Lee’s emergence: The absence of Mcgrath and Warne is unlikely to be felt, atleast till India’s second innings. The utility of these bowlers was a lot more than the wickets they took. It was also the pressure they maintained with a nagging line even when the wickets were not tumbling. Their absence will ask sterner questions of the relatively inexperienced bowling lineup. However, in the absence of the two stalwarts, Brett Lee has managed to take on the much more demanding role of bowling with control while being penetrative. His feel for the big occasion also means the Indian lineup will face a fair amount of sustained hostility.

Plus- Explosive batting lineup: Unmentioned and unnoticed in the debate over the Indian opening combination and Australia’s pace attack is the lethal Aussie batting lineup. While it is true that you need the bowlers to take 20 wickets to win test matches, that would be moot if the batsmen couldn’t put runs on the board. The lineup bristles with aggressive stroke-makers who can take games away in the course of a session. India’s biggest challenge will be to close out Aussie innings with the likes of Symonds and Gilchrist coming in with the bowlers and fielders sagging in the field.

Minus – Inexperience in the pace department: The success of Australia’s support bowling will be dependent on the wickets that Lee gets in his opening spell. If the Indians see off Lee without too many casualties, the confidence of the pedigree batting lineup might give the Australians some long sessions in the field.

Not many teams in world cricket would envy the challenge laying ahead of India, not of inflicting defeat on the Aussies but to avert being made to look like a club team by the most effective cricket establishment in the world. The fact that the Australian captain has not made too many of the customary chest-thumping announcements is only an ominous sign. This could mean he has 4-0 on his mind.

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