India and Australia are no strangers to last-minute changes in sides ahead of big matches. But never before has so much drama unfurled within a couple of days that predicting the outcome of a game or even how the sides match up can be a cardinal sin.
Only on Sunday India and Australia played out a hard-fought draw in the third Test at the Kotla.
But concealed within, as the next four days unfolded, were the retirement of India’s captain, the following ban of its prolific opener, the inclusion of a rookie opener as replacement, the change of guard at India’s helm, and Australia’s continuing struggle to take 20 Indian wickets.
The game is rightly called one of glorious uncertainties. But save Kumble’s farewell, there is nothing glorious about each of these. Add to it a brand new stadium, where the teams couldn’t even practice, and it makes for a perfect illusion. India need to realise this for a series-clinching win, while Australia’s quest is to keep the Border-Gavaskar Trophy at home.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni has begun his stint as full-time Indian captain by signalling Murali Vijay to pad up for his Test debut. The instinctive captain seems to have sent a message that India will not just be trying to secure the series with a draw on their mind, but are going all out to force a 2-0 result.
His counterpart from Australia, however, is in an unfamiliar position of trailing in a Test series. Lack of challenge over the years has put Ricky Ponting in a situation which he called “the biggest test for all of us”.
True that they faced similar times during the Ashes in 2005, but they had the old hands to shrug off the loss as a minor blemish and continued their demolition on all sides.
But there is a message hidden in Ponting’s admission. The Australian team might not be able to brush this loss aside, especially with South Africa set to visit Down Under this summer. The bowling attack has given them sufficient headaches over the past month to liken it to migraine.
Their spearhead Brett Lee has managed to take two wickets in an innings only once, while Stuart Clark, albeit keeping his ‘metronome’ status intact, has only two wickets from three games.
A reasonable performance from Cameron White and Shane Watson means only Mitchell Johnson has done something of note. India, on the other hand seem to have been spoilt for choices. With every replacement, India have reminded Australia of their bench strength.
And unlike Nagpur 2004, the tale of the pitch doesn’t include as severe a twist. Ironic to the extent that that Australian victory on a green-top then sowed the seed for Sourav Ganguly’s exit from captaincy, and a lifeless flat surface awaits Dhoni to usher in a new era.
But glorious certainties too raise their head amid inglorious uncertainties. A victory would cap off what began under Anil Kumble. VVS Laxman’s 100th Test match warrants special mention with the form book pointing to him.
Harbhajan Singh’s 300th Test wicket would be less of a milestone than taking over from Kumble as the flag-bearer of India’s spin fortunes.
And runs from his bat, especially at Nagpur, will be a fitting farewell for Sourav Ganguly.