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October 28, 1999


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Seamy side up

Prem Panicker

Going into the final Test of the Pepsi Series between India and New Zealand at Ahmedabad, the stakes for both sides are easily defined -- India needs a draw to square the series. New Zealand, which came to India on a high after their exploits in England, need to square the series to maintain the progress, and only a win in the third Test will give them that result.

However, there is a third aspect to this. India has for long gone without Test wins. As commentators are fond of repeating ad nauseum, winning establishes its own momentum. And with what should be an arduous tour of Australia coming up, India needs all the psychological edges it can get -- and for this reason, it will be important for the newly installed leadership of Kapil Dev and Sachin Tendulkar to go flat out for another win in this Test, rather than chart the safe course of 'What if we draw, we still won the series'.

Effectively, thus, both sides need to win this one -- and the pitch yet again promises to play a key role. Mohali produced a slow turner of reasonably even bounce, the turn negated to a large extent by the slowness off the deck. Kanpur was a vicious turner, the cracks in the over-prepared pitch and the extravaganzes of bounce making it a result-oriented pitch. Ahmedabad, which has no less than Dhiraj Parsana -- who, you need to remember, is a member of the BCCI's pitches committee and thus party to the decision to produce more seaming tracks -- playing curator, promises for the first time to showcase seam rather than spin as the leitmotif.

As of two days ago, media friends there told us that the pitch looked startlingly green for an Indian wicket. Apparently, the Indian management reacted with startled bemusement to the prospect of a greentop. This morning, I get the expected update -- much of the green has been shorn off the track.

However, word is that the track is still hard, free of cracks and likely to hold for the duration of the match. Parsana's reading is that it will help seam -- during the morning sessions in particular -- and turn a touch by the end of day two. The ball is also expected to come nicely onto bat, a factor that sets up an interesting contest because it permits the seam bowlers some life, and at the same time allows stroke-players the freedom to hit through the line with the ball coming nicely on.

It will be surprising if both teams go into the game with unchanged elevens. From a Kiwi point of view, one change is forced, and unfortunate -- Craig McMillan, with a fractured finger sustained while fielding at Kanpur, goes out of the lineup on a track that would have suited his brand of aggression. His replacement, Gary Stead, is by repute a journeyman cricketer at best, and with the Kiwi top order not really firing through this series, they need more than a workman in the middle to really take on the bowling.

An interesting option for them would be to push Parore up the order -- the Kiwi keeper is technically the soundest member of the lineup, good against both pace and spin, and if he slips into McMillan's slot, then Fleming has the option of bringing in Chris Harris into the lineup. And that could be an interesting option -- Harris is a naggingly defensive bowler, and in the first two Tests, it has become evident that Fleming's preferred strategy is to shut the Indian batsmen down, strangle the rate of scoring, play the waiting game and force mistakes arising from impatience. If that strategy continues, then Harris would be the ideal foil to Nathan Astle with the ball.

I'd also be interested to see if they persist with Wiseman -- he is an attacking off-spinner, and the Indians handled his wares with confidence even on the Kanpur minefield. Here, he could be a distinct liability against a lineup ready and all too willing to come down the track to flighted off spin.

For India, a five-bowler lineup remains mandatory. Given how well Gandhi and Ramesh seem to have settled down at the top of the order, it would be silly to separate them here (a policy I had advocated for the previous Test), the preferred option being to let them continue to play together, with a view to the Australian tour. Which means the batting lineup remains the same, with Bharadwaj at 6 and M S K Prasad at 7, followed by four bowlers.

The only question, really, is which four? One aspect is for sure -- and can in fact be the peg on which the rest of the team strategy is built on. Given that the pitch will encourage seam, Srinath will be a huge weapon. Already, in the first two Tests, he has caused loads of trouble for Mathew Bell, Mathew Horne and Stephen Fleming, despite getting relatively little help from the track. Here, he will be the bowler Tendulkar will rely on to counter the Kiwi top order.

That being the case, the idea should be to give him adequate support -- and that, to my mind, means going in with Mohanty replacing one of the spinners. Mohanty in any case would need to get the preference over Prasad -- the former is the more attacking option with the new ball, and given the Kiwi top order's obvious vulnerability to the seaming ball, the Orissa medium pacer with his ability to get the ball to move both ways off the deck, coupled with his full length and ability to swing the ball in the air with both the old ball and the new, should earn him the slot ahead of the more predictable Prasad.

Which raises the question of which spinner goes out to make way for the seamer. And for my money, that should be Harbajan. That's a hard choice, really, for the off spinner bowled very well in Kanpur, attacking constantly and using the width of the crease (a new facet of his bowling, pointing to some hard work having been put in at the nets) to add to the problems caused by flight, loop and turn.

However, if India is to go in with four bowlers, then Bharadwaj has to be used as the off spinner (sparingly, and against batsmen like Fleming and Nash, the former being a left-hander, the latter having this tendency to shuffle wildly across his crease and thus get into a tangle when it turns into him). In Kanpur, Tendulkar -- perhaps because his main bowlers were proving effective -- used Bharadwaj only for an over at a time, to allow his other bowlers to switch ends, and no off spinner can ever bowl a single over spell and expect to impress. Fact remains, though, that he does provide the off spinning option. Interestingly, coach Kapil Dev believes that Bharadwaj has the potential to bowl 20-plus overs in a Test innings -- he may be no Harbajan or even a Nikhil Chopra, but the lad does present some problems with his height, his high action, and an ability to hit the deck hard, thus getting bounce to aid his nominal turn.

This means that with Kumble bowling his flippers (the leg spinner likes bounce, and he should get plenty of that in Ahmedabad, so it will be interesting to see how he goes -- I suspect the Kiwis will, on this track, play him like a medium pacer) and, increasingly, the googly; and with Joshi turning the ball away from the right handers, pretty much all the spinning bases are covered.

For all that talk of spin, though, I suspect this match will hinge on the top three batsmen of either side, versus the seam bowlers of the opposition. If the Kiwi openers can weather Srinath's early burst, chances are they will put up a good score in the first innings. And similarly, if the Indian openers and Dravid at three stop Cairns and Nash from breaking through on a track that will aid them, then a big score is on the cards (it pays to keep in mind that if Tendulkar and Ganguly come in to the middle with runs on the board, they will find batting conditions perfect for free-ranging strokeplay).

Put it this way -- if the Kiwis can score 300 or more in their first innings, it is hard to see this Test ending in a result.

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