When the Indian team leaves for Sydney on Monday afternoon, there will be lots on Anil Kumble’s mind. He has spoken individually to a few and collectively to all his teammates after Saturday’s loss.
He has asked some to relax and some to up the intensity. He has talked at length about the importance of staying positive but the toughest part about all this may well be for the India skipper to himself stay positive and keep his spirits up after what has been a merciless thrashing by a relentless Australian team.
He talked repeatedly about how happy he was with how his bowlers fought back on Day 1. Very gracious of him, but everyone knows who took five of the nine wickets to fall on the day and who got the first breakthrough when Australia were 135-0.
Damned if he does, damned if he won’t. Records show that Kumble is not the sort of player who has held his head in his hands and given up. He has constantly looked to attack, to out-think the opposing batsman, to figure out what best works for him as a bowler. It follows then, that he will do the same as Kumble, the captain.
But he must be careful and pace himself out, for the effort could well sap India’s best bowler. Knowing that day after day, innings after innings, he will probably have to walk out there and make a difference. And then walk out there and do it again the same day, even while making team strategy, keeping everyone else positive, thinking on his feet.
At this point though, he will have a really tough call to make in the second Test at Sydney: Should Rahul Dravid, completely out of sorts in any case, but definitely out of sorts as an opener, be made to open again? Kumble was right on Saturday evening, when he indicated that whatever he did would probably be held against him. That sinking feeling, again.
It is that awful Catch-22 situation.
Logic dictates that Dravid (given his record) be sent down to his customary No. 3 situation, given a chance to get back his equilibrium and, in the current situation, Yuvraj Singh make way for an opener. Possibly Virender Sehwag, as he is there on the tour, he should be played, otherwise, it made no logic to bring him in.
Then again, Yuvraj made 169 in the Bangalore Test, has been in great form across all formats and to drop him after one Test failure seems unfair. But it’s a situation of India’s own making, by pushing Dravid to open in the first place when he didn’t want to, to “accommodate” Yuvraj.
In professional sport, you cannot win (or win consistently) by accommodation. Ricky Ponting said as much when he stated there was no question of the Aussie selectors picking a non-specialist for the opener’s job.
The hard call should have been taken before the first Test — either Yuvraj or one of the Big Four should have sat out. India opted to go with the softer option and gamble. Now, they will either go with that gamble again (unlikely) or go with another in Sehwag. At this point, they are utterly confused. How can they not know, still?
India’s assistant coach Lalchand Rajput may have phrased his words differently on Sunday at the MCG, but the minute he was asked about the openers and he said “the options are open”, that’s already advantage Australia.
“We will go to Sydney and have a look at the wicket before deciding what to do,” said Rajput. “We have to see what is best for the team. We thought this combination was best suited for the first Test. We will re-look that aspect.”
Australia, on the other hand, are riding high on a system in which Phil Jaques has seamlessly moved into the role of Matthew Hayden’s partner. In his last five Test innings (two against Sri Lanka and this one vs India) have seen scores of 100, 150, 68, 66 and 51. Their last five opening stands have been 69, 48, 83, 135 and 83.
India’s opening stands in the last four Tests (three against Pakistan in home conditions and this one) have been 4 & 26, 15 & 2, 2 & 75 and 8 & 17. In conditions where it is absolutely vital India see off the new ball, lack of clarity at the top will hurt very badly. Mitchell Johnson made an important point on Sunday, when asked about how it came together for Australia. “We all work really well together. We kept the patience and stuck to our plans. Everyone was backing each other up. It all started with our batting, with the openers getting us off to a good start in difficult conditions.”