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December 9, 1999


India Down Under
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Round one at the Oval

Harsha Bhogle

The River Torrens flows calmly, almost invisibly, by the Adelaide Oval. And the people sit alongside, as oblivious to the passage of time as the river itself. A couple of joggers pass by, thumping modern soles on a lovely old jogging path, but even they cannot disturb the solemnity with which the geese seem to float on a mere hint of a current.

On a day like today, with an invigorating breeze flowing across the river, and with the clouds shielding the harsh sunlight, you couldn't tell afternoon from morning.

The joys of tranquillity visit you very often in Adelaide.

Adelaide Oval A stone's throw away, and with matching pedigree, is the Adelaide Oval with four giant light towers the only concession to the contemporary. They were meant to be retractable, those towers, but they developed a little snag and chose to stay on. They are not the most welcome of neighbours.

But over the next five days, the stillness of the air is going to be disturbed and it won't just be the crack of bat on ball followed by a knock on the advertising boards. There will be appeals, sometimes too frequent, Glenn McGrath will continue to snarl and we will pretend we can't read his lips; Steve Waugh will let the opposition know what he thinks of them and Adam Gilchrist will do his cover version of "bowled Shane".

And whatever Waugh might say, there will be a stiffening of the arms when Sachin Tendulkar walks in. It is amusing to see how everyone tries to play it down. At today's press conference, Tendulkar himself reverted to his "it's India vs Australia" theme, and Waugh said, "We have a plan for Tendulkar but we have a plan for the others as well. At the team meeting, we give just as much thought to Ramesh and Laxman."

It might be a great feeling for the two young men, who must certainly be looking forward to playing tomorrow, to be bracketed somewhere with Tendulkar. But they would do well to realise that the Australian captain is trying to downplay their tormentor over the years. It's funny that the game sells on hype and the contestants play it down!

Australia have only one decision to take and Waugh said they would take it in the morning depending on the weather forecast over the next few days ( currently: cloudy but clearing, temperatures around 21). Cloudy, and a hint of grass, might mean Kasporwicz gets another game but if there is a chance the pitch will dry, Miller will get in. There is a disturbingly settled look to the rest of the line-up and for that reason alone, Australia must start overwhelming favourites.

"I know we are the better team," Waugh said.

India have a few things to sort out, with the form of Devang Gandhi and the fitness of MSK Prasad being top of the list. It didn't help Gandhi that his last net session before the Test was very quickly interrupted, and ended, by a very painful knock on the box from a big, unknown Australian fast bowler. Gandhi's preparedness could determine where Laxman, India's only centurion on tour, will bat. If Gandhi is able, he should open and that should have Laxman down at number six. Otherwise, Laxman might well have to go back to the top of the order, which is a bit different from taking a walk by the river -- but then we must revel in the joys our professions bring us. And Laxman's at the moment looks like it has the names of McGrath and Fleming written on it.

Rahul Dravid hasn't batted at number three on this tour, but that is where he must play. He has spent enough time in the middle, over five hours, for rather poor returns and the dismissal at Brisbane when well set must haunt him. He seems to carry the look of a burdened man, and while the shortage of runs is a burden batsmen hate to carry, Dravid must back his pedigree and his record. He wants to succeed here more than anywhere else, but if the desire becomes heavy, he must consign it away. Well as Tendulkar might play, an uncertain Dravid leaves India wobbly.

Sachin Tendulkar has probably geared himself to forfeit the luxury of a solid start. There is no softener this time and he will, most likely, have to meet bowlers in flight. His attitude will be fascinating to watch. Will he wait and see? Will he, like the sage Gavaskar, be willing to give the bowlers an inch to take a mile? Or will he, as he is known to do, burst forth rightaway? Tendulkar chooses to confront pressure rather than chisel away at it, and he couldn't ask for a better batting surface to make a statement.

Sourav Ganguly could well be the dark horse in this game. Happily away from the spotlight, he must relish the thought of timing the ball on an outfield Waugh calls the best in the world. Shorter square boundaries and slightly lower bounce will make for pretty comfortable allies and I must admit I will be surprised if Ganguly doesn't make some runs here.

He must shepherd the tail because MSK Prasad is at least one position too high at number seven. His knee seems to have healed more quickly than anticipated and Kapil declared he was "100 percent fit". In such a situation he must play, for he was the first choice though secretly, India would prefer to have the tenacity and experience of Mongia. But Prasad is an enthusiastic cricketer and backs himself to bat against pace and those are pretty good qualities to possess.

Ajit Agarkar's good form on the last day at Sydney, allied to his comforting run-making ability at number eight, look like giving him the third seamer's spot. Kapil Dev is impressed by his pace and believes he can hit a consistent 130 kms an hour. It is his length though that has been the worry, for when he pitches up, he is a far better bowler than when he digs in short for then he is like a boxer in a higher weight category. He tends to be brushed aside.

It was a good idea then for Kapil to lay out a napkin at the good length's spot in an empty net and get his bowlers to try and land on it. He has been speaking of the need to put machismo aside and spoke eloquently today about what the side has learnt from Pakistan's debacle; about how cricket is all about playing within limitations and not being carried away by the need to "show what you can do". He has been talking about it to all the bowlers and if Srinath, Prasad and Agarkar can bowl a full length and get the ball to swing, India might surprise some.

The Australians respect the bowling they are up against. "They have three class bowlers in Srinath, Prasad and Kumble," Waugh said adding that he thinks Srinath is among the top five in the fast bowler's league. "He is underrated but he bowled really quick against us at Calcutta. We know what he is capable of".

The Indians have tended to resemble the Torrens over the years; attractive, even enticing, but laidback. They need to stir a few waves on the way. They must believe they can even if the overwhelming view points the other way.

Harsha Bhogle

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