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Wrong numbers, right combination

If any bunch can pull this off, it would have to be the one with the Fabulous Four, reports Kadambari Murali.

cricket Updated: Dec 29, 2007 01:16 IST
Kadambari Murali

This doesn't make for pretty reading. Just look at some figures from the past 18 months, roughly the time over which India have played their last three overseas series (barring Bangladesh), in England, South Africa and the West Indies.

In this period, they have played 10 Tests, winning three (one each against England, South Africa and the Windies), losing two (both to South Africa) and barely hanging on in one: the Lord's Test, where, chasing 300 for a win, they were 282-9 when the rain came down and ended further play.

They have been set a target of 300-plus for a win thrice in these Tests, drawing twice, at Lord's and St. Kitts, and losing in Durban.

Ton-less wonders

If you look at their batting over the past year in overseas conditions, it gets a little scary. India's top seven batsmen have only one century between them in six Tests over the last one year outside the subcontinent — Wasim Jaffer's 116 in a losing cause in Cape Town. The only other ton in this period came from Anil Kumble's bat at The Oval!

All this doesn't really augur well for India, set an improbable, if not impossible 499 for a win in this first Test at the MCG here. In fact, if India are to do over the next two days what has never been done before, at least a couple of their batsmen would need to make really big runs, get in and stay there.

To find a time when India had at least two centuries or more in the same innings overseas, you have to go back 18 months, to June 2006 and the second Test against a relatively weak West Indian attack at St. Lucia, when Sehwag (180), Dravid (146) and Kaif (148*) all came good together.

Rahul and us

That match incidentally, was also the last time Dravid made a ton, which makes it his longest phase (23 innings at a stretch against all opposition not counting Bangladesh, he had a ton there this summer) without a century, since the time he made his debut in 1996.

He had a similar ton-less phase seven years ago, between the second Test at the Eden vs Australia in the 2000-01 season and the first against the West Indies at Georgetown in 2001-02, with seven half-centuries in the 22 innings in between, compared to five this time around at a lower average.

The worrying part about this is that all of India's most famous wins abroad over the past few seasons have had Dravid leave his stamp on them (except when he was captain): The 270 vs Pakistan in Pindi, the 233 and 72* in Adelaide, the 148 at that incredible game at Leeds (when Tendulkar made 193 and Ganguly 128 too). In all this though, they have never been asked to chase 499.

Coming back to Dravid, his importance lies as much in his ability to bat long hours at a stretch and use up time without getting worked up as his making sure those hours count. All the others could get edgy under the same circumstances.

Runs, runs, runs

Kumble, just before this game began, was asked what he thought was the single most important thing needed for India to make a match of this series. He replied unhesitatingly, "Runs on board."

While the Indian bowlers, unheralded as they were, did very well to restrict Australia in both innings, the advantage was squandered by some unfocused batting which led to them conceding a 147-run first innings lead. They have no choice but to make up for that. Here's the good part: India's Big Four batsmen, Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly and Laxman, have, among themselves, a massive 32,610 Test runs to their credit.

That is probably more than (or comparable to) any of the top four batsmen in any team from any era of the game. By sheer dint of experience and what they've done so far, if any bunch of players can pull off what would be a miraculous feat, these men can.

Don’t worry, be happy

The wicket still has no major demons, or, for those used to subcontinental conditions, any minor ones either. As Michael Clarke indicated later on Friday, it is low and slow but still playing quite firmly.

Scoring might become tougher if the cracks widen on Day Five (if the game goes so far), but surviving shouldn't be a huge issue. If India last out six sessions, they will pull this one off. No one expects them to and that is the sheer beauty of it. They have everything to play for.

For those who see a sign in anything, here's another straw to clutch at: The last time Ricky Ponting recorded single digits in both innings of a Test was at that 2001 Eden Test, when the old firm of Messrs Laxman & Dravid put on a partnership that would rewrite history.

The bad part: India didn't bat fourth then, Australia did.