It’s the most overused phrase in modern cricket - control the controllables, forget the rest. But, the reason it’s bandied about so much is that it rings so true in sport. Both Australia and India, on the eve of the first Test at Mohali, grappled with this truism in their own way.
For Mahendra Singh Dhoni, many of the factors affecting his team’s preparation had nothing to do with the effort they put in. For starters, the scheduling left little time for the players, who featured in the Champions League, to catch their breath and switch gears from T20 to Tests. The over-riding concern for India was over the availability of Harbhajan Singh, who has done all he can to test out the troublesome lower part of his left leg, and only on match morning can a final decision be taken on whether its worth taking the risk of playing these two Tests.
“It’s a difficult one because he has been one of our main spinners after Anil Kumble left cricket,’ Dhoni conceded. “Bhajji has been well supported by Amit Mishra and Pragyan Ojha, who have done decently well whenever they have played. But the main attack has always revolved around Harbhajan. It is a bit of a concern.”
The question before Dhoni, should Harbhajan not pull up ok, is whether to stick to the formula of playing two medium-pacers — Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma — and two spinners, or to leave out one of Ojha and Mishra and punt on S Sreesanth.
While this decision would have traditionally been strongly influenced by the state of the pitch, there’s little to go by on that count. The Test will be the first game of this season, to be played on this wicket, and the volume of rain that fell in the lead-up to the match has left people suspicious that it could be on the slower side. With moisture about, the chances of the pitch breaking up remain low, and a lack of pace and bounce blunts the quick men. With that in mind, there is no obvious combination to go for.
India has not been a happy hunting ground for Ricky Ponting. In 12 Test matches here he averages 20.85, a far cry from his overall average of nearly 55.
On the last tour in 2008, Ponting took the first steps towards remedying this, cracking 123 in Bangalore and then 87 in Delhi.
But, rather than focussing on his weaknesses against spin, Ponting is looking to cash in on his strength, and has spent the last month making sure his pull shot is working just right. ‘If I am playing it well then it probably is the biggest weapon that I have,’ he said. “I am making sure that I am strong where I need to be strong. As a batsman I try to control the length a bowler can bowl. There is an area on the wicket that is theirs, if they bowl it there, there is not a lot I can do, but what I try to do is make the area as small as I can.”
The battle to take control has begun and the margin for error in this two-Test series is lower than ever.