Sport wouldn’t be sport if we didn’t root for the underdog. Which is why a lot of people here are hoping that India, as underdoggish as anyone can possibly be at the moment, at least make a fight of it.
The odds are stacked crazily against them. The highest successful run chase in Tests in any era is 418. India’s highest fourth innings total ever is 445 (also against Australia, in Adelaide in 1978, but they still didn’t win).
The highest total batting fourth on this ground was the 417 England racked up while unsuccessfully chasing 463 in 1977. The highest successful chase recorded at the MCG is 332 and that was exactly 79 years ago, on December 29, 1928, when England beat Australia by three wickets. And then, just as a gentle reminder, the highest total in this game so far is 351, for seven wickets — what Australia declared 45 minutes before stumps on Friday.
India meanwhile, have to get 499 to win, something no one’s come close to ever getting against anyone else successfully anywhere, forget a champion team that is looking at grabbing its 15 th Test win on the trot. Yes, we could say that the odds must be crazy.
Still, we hope. We dare to dream. We clutch at straws. We pray. Bring out the voodoo dolls. Or, if less murderously inclined, the history books (or, more likely, google) and point out examples of exhilarating, against-the-odds fightbacks, just so we can tell ourselves: “Yes, there’s a million to one chance it can happen.” And smile happily, reassured. That’s the beauty of sport.
As we go into the fourth day’s play of the first Test of this series to end all series, despite knowing what the exact chances of India winning are ( 0.005 per cent?); despite knowing that everything points to their being steamrollered by a team so clinical in its conquests that it is causing the game’s popularity to dip here; despite knowing that India’s top batsmen, wonderful players all, are four tiring cricketing years older than the time of their heroics of 2003-04 (when they came close but still didn’t win the series), we hope.
By stumps, a determined-looking Rahul Dravid and Wasim Jaffer, less dreamy-eyed than usual, had defied the Australians for eight overs. It was one tiny session won, walking back with no one lost. The Indians have been emphasising the importance of winning small sessions en route to bigger conquests — this was a start. But just that, a start: No more, no less. Saturday morning is what will really matter.
Whatever happens though, even while we root for the underdog, we should probably remember that India have only themselves to blame for the mess they are in. Or, more precisely, their batsmen.
This wicket, low and slow, was as close to home as things could have been at the MCG. India’s underrated attack, led by Anil Kumble and Zaheer Khan, did brilliantly to have the Aussies on the ropes (by their standards) on Day 1 itself.
On Friday, Harbhajan snapped himself out of his trance and helped in keeping relative calm. Most Aussie batsmen got starts and then fell, something that should make Kumble happy with his bowlers, as it’s always tougher to scalp a well-set batsman.
Sandwiched between these two performances though, was 196 all out and the conceding of a 147-run lead to Australia. Barring Sachin Tendulkar and, to a lesser extent, Ganguly, the batsmen lacked application and direction, seemed suffocated and often, thoroughly intimidated. Their running between the wickets was sloppy and their fielding and throwing continue to be largely atrocious.
If they can win or — let’s not get greedy here — even make a good fight of it in this series despite all that weighs them down, then that would be quite something.