India find themselves in unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory going into the final Test against South Africa. Firstly they’re trailing in a series at home, something they haven’t done since the same opposition had them on the mat back in 1999-2000. Secondly, serious doubts linger over the participation of their captain, a pillar of the team in any circumstances and much more than that when playing at home.
In sharp contrast, the South Africans are bouncing about in anticipation of what could be a third series win in the subcontinent this season. Even if they had they been scripted by seasoned professionals, the pre-match press conferences of the two camps could not have been more different from each other. Graeme Smith – worries about the pitch notwithstanding – was cheerful and talkative, while Kumble was restrained and almost fidgety.
To say both teams were eagerly looking forward to the first session of play would be overstating things, but certainly there will be a sense of relief by the time lunch is taken on Friday, whatever the scoreboard reads.
The uncertainty, and endless speculation, surrounding the pitch would have died down by then. While it’s possible to accurately say at the moment that the surface is dry and cracked, it’s difficult to see just how this will affect play.
The best case scenario for India is that the pitch turns out to be a low turner, and that they win the toss. There’s no doubt that whoever has the option will bat first, and once again the toss becomes hugely important.
The worst case scenario for the Indians is that the cracks widen, which will translate into erratic bounce and lateral movement.
Desperate times call for proportionate measures and what has been done with this pitch is nothing short of desperate. The Green Park Stadium is as famous for draws as Kanpur is for leather and pan masala, with 12 of the 19 Tests played here ending in draws. But a draw will not do for India in this instance, and this is why a “result” pitch has been called for.
Kumble spoke of how proud India were of their record at home and with that in mind, gambling with the pitch was the only option, given that there’s little difference between losing 1-0 or 2-0 if this meant a chance of squaring the series.
For some days now it has been a foregone conclusion that India will go into this game with three spinners. If Kumble is not fit to start, this plan may have to be shelved for Piyush Chawla, who, although in the squad and very much fit, has only one Test under the belt and it may be asking too much of him to be a part of an attack that does not include the man charged with mentoring him.
Kumble confirmed that Ramesh Powar was not in the squad merely as cover, and Powar’s experience could win him a spot ahead of Chawla. The other concern, if Kumble is ruled out, is that Mahendra Singh Dhoni will be leading in the longest form for the first time, and juggling three spinners is never an easy task.
There’s an unmistakeable sense of déjà vu that won’t be lost on Kumble.
When India last tried the three-spin trick on South Africa, in Bangalore in 2000, it backfired spectacularly. India batted first and were shot out for 158, and Kumble top-scored with 36 not out.
South Africa then piled on the agony and runs and bowled India out for only 250 in the second innings, with the left-arm spin of Nicky Boje fetching five wickets. India will be hoping that this is one instance where history does not repeat itself.