A domineering India sniff an opportunity to seal the four-match series at Feroz Shah Kotla in the third Test beginning Wednesday.
The Australians have been stripped off their cloak of invincibility and are squirming in an unfamiliar rut while India are spoilt for choices after leg-spinner Amit Mishra made a wonderful debut in Mohali.
India’s thumping 320-run win in Mohali was a rude jolt to the Aussies, for whom, winning so far was just a matter of habit. It was the manner, and not merely the margin, of defeat in Mohali which punctured Australia’s aura of invincibility and suddenly the world champions looked as fragile as any other team. In contrast, India’s brusque openers and the middle order batsmen have blunted the Australian attack with disdain while their brash leather-flingers ran through the Australian batting order like knife through butter.
Rattled by the Mohali mauling, Australia decided to take a couple of days’ off, purportedly for an introspection, and even though they believe the grey areas have been addressed and the mistakes would not recur, Ferozeshah Kotla’s tremendous bias towards the hosts is the sort of statistics which is least likely to amuse the Aussies.
India have won the last seven Tests here in a row and the only time Australia managed to win here was way back in 1959 when Richie Benaud used to skipper the side. Mark Taylor embarked on a similar mission in 1996 but was sent packing within four days before a seven-wicket defeat was shoved down the visitors’ throat.
Personally, Anil Kumble would have liked to roll the 22-yard strip and take it home as souvenir after grabbing all 10 wickets in Pakistan’s second innings in the 1999 Test and the India captain would surely expect Kotla to remain equally benign to him over the next five days. As coach Gary Kirsten put it, India raised the bar high in Mohali and the onus is now to maintain the sky-high standards. And if Kumble’s teammates can replicate the Mohali magic here, the fourth Test in Nagpur would be of only statistician’s interest.
If well begun is half done, India owe their success to a large extent to the explosive Delhi duo of Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir. They have shattered the myth that a swashbuckler necessarily needs a stonewaller as his opening partner and that opening pair should, almost as a matter of rule, never be peas of the same pod.
Sehwag and Gambhir essentially belong to the same school of thought which propagates offence is the best defence and bowlers, as a tribe, don’t merit any respect whatsoever.
So far in the series, only once they failed to raise less than 70 runs for the opening stand and more often than not, the Australians found bowling to them a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea. And even if they managed to get rid of the duo, the star-studded middle-order, boasting some of the greatest names in modern cricket, nipped any hopes of a batting collapse right in the bud.
His scores may suggest otherwise but Rahul Dravid’s defence remains as impregnable as ever, while Sachin Tendulkar is relishing doing what he does best — turning stones into milestones.
Playing his last series, Sourav Ganguly is hell-bent to go on a high and though VVS Laxman looks slightly off-colour of the quartet, his past exploits would never allow the Aussies slip into any complacency against the Hyderabadi wrist-artist. Not that their bowling colleagues lacked behind.
Since his numerous run-ins with the Aussie, Harbhajan Singh never lacked motivation against the world champions while Anil Kumble, who is expected to return to the team after sitting out of the Mohali Test because of injury, too commands great respect from the Aussies.
However, what has been most heart-warming is the pacers coming to party and seldom did Indian fast bowlers made such an impact in a Test series. A country considered the spiritual home of spin bowling suddenly discovered two potent pacers in Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma who can make the ball talk — both conventional swing with the new ball and reverse with the old.
Zaheer has already found his bunny in Matthew Hayden, while Ishant continues to haunt Ricky Ponting.
With their frailties laid bare, the Australians are not looking the same redoubtable bunch anymore. The void created by Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne could not be filled and Brett Lee, the man they banked most on, is clearly ill at ease leading the attack.
The batting looks brittle as well with Michael Hussey possibly the lone exception and that competitive edge which makes them such a redoubtable force has simply vanished into thin air.
Since salvaging the draw in Bangalore, India has not put a foot wrong in the series and Kumble will have his hands on the Border-Gavaskar Trophy if his team maintain the same standard over the next five days.
India: Anil Kumble (C), M S Dhoni, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman, Sourav Ganguly, S Badrinath, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Amit Mishra, Munaf Patel, Ishant Sharma and RP Singh.
Australia: Ricky Ponting (c), Michael Clarke, Matthew Hayden, Michael Hussey,Simon Katich, Shaun Marsh, Shane Watson, Cameron White, Doug Bollinger, Stuart Clark, Brad Haddin,Mitchell Johnson, Jason Krejza, Brett Lee and Peter Siddle.