The time has come for the final fling. Having started the series on Boxing Day in Melbourne, India hardly threw a punch right in the first Test and despite trading blows almost equally with Australia in the second, they could not score a point. After prevailing in the third in Perth, the visitors face a final test. If they win, honours will be shared; more importantly, India will emerge moral victors.
No marks for guessing that it's going to be an uphill task for Anil Kumble's team. Australia have drawn just two series at home in the last 10 years and won 47 of the 60 Tests in this period with just four defeats. But what could still inspire India is that Australia suffered two of those four setbacks against them and of the two drawn series, the last one, was against their team, in 2003-04.
Even if they decide against looking too far back, less than a week is all they have to go back to. The win in Perth was made possible by some disciplined and determined cricket over most of the 12 sessions in four days, where India beat Australia at their own game without resorting to tricks deemed unsporting by the unwritten laws of the game. They stuck to the basics and reaped the rewards of persevering, probing and being patient.
But the triumph there has led to a dilemma too and that's whether to retain the winning combination or bring in Harbhajan Singh with people concerned predicting that the pitch would offer turn in the later stages. Some might say it's a problem of plenty, which a captain likes facing, but that may not be the case here. Kumble will have to take a tough call because the only player who can be dropped on form is Wasim Jaffer and it's up to the captain to decide who comes in — Dinesh Karthik or Harbhajan.
Including the extra spinner would weaken the batting and cause uncertainty over an opener's slot, while having Karthik back as the sole change would mean a lack of spinning options. Going in with five bowlers could have solved the problem to an extent but that appears to be a risky ploy and given the state of things, whatever Kumble does would be a gamble. But gamble he did with Virender Sehwag in Perth and it clicked. Barely a week after that, he has to do that again, albeit in a different form.
Very few India captains have faced such a tricky situation in the recent past and that too at such a critical stage of a series. Coincidentally, Kumble himself was a central character in the tale of a captain confronting a similar problem and in that case in 2003-04, Sourav Ganguly had preferred Harbhajan ahead of him in the Brisbane Test. In a queer stroke of luck, Kumble hasn't looked back after returning to the side in the next Test at Adelaide and here he is, facing almost the same situation.
Back to the basics
Having said that, there will be no time to think about the selection quandary once the match starts. It will again come down to focusing on the basics, getting them right, keeping the intensity going for sessions and days. This Indian team has belied expectations and shown in Sydney and Perth that they can match the Australians in activities on the field, no matter what they say and do off it. What they got from these two Tests was different, but there was a lot of reason for them to take heart from their performance.
India came here four years ago as underdogs and by the time that series got over, they had proved that tags don't matter, although a draw was all that they got. Years later, their best efforts hereon can't better that in terms of the outcome. The difference is, the statement they would make this time would be louder than the previous one, because of the circumstances. The big five of the golden generation of Indian cricket couldn't have faced a bigger and more exciting challenge in their farewell Test Down Under.