Nov 6-Nov 10, 2008
Start time 9.30am (0400 GMT)
The Border-Gavaskar Trophy heads for a climax with much more at stake than the bragging rights in cricket’s most enthralling current rivalry. The events of the next five days in Nagpur will be watched with keen interest not just in Mumbai and Melbourne but in London and Lahore and across the cricket world. Apart from a flurry of celebrations and farewells, there are two key questions: Do Australia have the mettle to perform under this intense pressure? And will India’s new captain, now in a permanent role, apply his usual attacking instincts when a draw will give him the series?
Australia have been restrained so far but now is the time to let loose all inhibitions because there is only one way they can take the trophy back with them. Those who have seen them play catch-up ever since Bangalore feel more than just the trophy may slip out of their hands: their supremacy is clearly on the line.
But the cricket, and the contest, hasn’t been of the highest quality and intensity. Only the Bangalore draw has so far lived up to what we have come to expect of India-Australia clashes. While Bangalore was tantalising, Mohali was too one-sided, and Delhi was dead once India started dropping catches on the fourth day.
The Kotla pitch didn’t help matters, and the pitch at the new stadium in Nagpur is an unknown quantity. That shifts the focus to India’s approach going into the final match with a one-match lead. On the last two occasions they led 1-0, they looked to defend the lead, and not double it. At The Oval in 2007, not only did India not enforce the follow-on but also took their time in setting a target. In Bangalore, against Pakistan in 2007-08, the declaration came too late on a crumbling final-day pitch.
India have enough distractions they need to stay clear of: this is Sourav Ganguly’s last Test, VVS Laxman’s 100th, and Gautam Gambhir, the leading run-scorer in the series, has been ruled out for the match. It’s not even been three days since India’s most successful bowler, and the first-choice captain for the series, Anil Kumble, retired. As a result, Mahendra Singh Dhoni will perhaps for the first time attend the team meeting as Test captain. On the last two occasions he captained – winning both times – he came to know of Kumble’s absence only on the morning of the match. It will be interesting how he changes from being a stop-gap captain to a full-time one.
Australia, too, enter new territory as they go into the last match knowing the best possible result will amount only to a drawn series. Since the 1999 series, when they drew against West Indies by winning the last Test in Antigua, this is only their second such experience. In the 2005 Ashes, England held on to a tense draw, and their 2-1 lead, at The Oval.
This is also a series during which Australia are coming face to face with the limitations that the retirements last year left them with. Apart from Mohali, their batsmen have stood up well enough to make sure they don’t lose despite a blunt-looking bowling attack. Especially heartening will be Matthew Hayden’s return to form during the Delhi Test. Three out of their top five have managed a century each, and Shane Watson has been handy at No.6. But if Australia are to draw this series on a pitch that will most likely be to India’s liking, their bowlers will have to turn up, individually and collectively as a unit. Twenty wickets will not be easy for this attack, and therein lies Australia’s test of character. The winds of change are very much in swing, and this Australian team wouldn’t want to be blown away.
Form guide (last 5 Tests)
Watch out for
It’s time the real Brett Lee stood up. He has taken seven wickets at 57.71, and has not even managed to keep the run-flow down. This has been a severe dent to the reputation he came with: that of being the best pace bowler in the world.
With two of the Fab Five gone, the focus now sits on Rahul Dravid, who has looked good almost every time he has come to bat in this series, but his best effort remains 51 he scored in Bangalore. In his last 10 Tests, he has averaged 29.50, with only one century – on a flat Chennai pitch against South Africa.
Sourav Ganguly couldn’t have planned it better. He will play his last Test in Nagpur, the site of his supposed beginning of end. While he has scored a century already, and is No. 5 on the run-getters’ list, don’t rule out yet another parting shot.
Harbhajan Singh makes a comeback to the side after an injured toe kept him out in Delhi. This is an important match for him: from now on he will be India’s leading spinner, and not for a one-off Test. He will like that he starts his new innings against Australia. Harbhajan is also just one short of the 300-wickets mark.
The difference between Australia in Mohali and Australia in Delhi was Matthew Hayden. More than the runs he scored, his return to form had an uplifting effect on the rest of the batsmen. What’s more, one could sense he had just started.
M Vijay, the Tamil Nadu opener, who had a successful Ranji season last year and scored a double-century in the season-opener this year, has left that match mid-way to get his Test cap. Dhoni said in his pre-match conference that Vijay will open the innings. Harbhajan, too, makes a comeback, to take Kumble’s place. India won’t be fiddling around with the rest of the combination.
India 1 M Vijay, 2 Virender Sehwag, 3 Rahul Dravid, 4 Sachin Tendulkar, 5 Sourav Ganguly, 6 VVS Laxman, 7 Mahendra Singh Dhoni (capt./wk), 8 Harbhajan Singh, 9 Zaheer Khan, 10 Amit Mishra, 11 Ishant Sharma.
Jason Krejza could make his debut, but the important question, in case he comes into the side, is whose place does he take? Although the three fast bowlers haven’t put Australia in winning situations, it could be difficult to drop any of them. Mitchell Johnson has been their leading wicket-taker, Brett Lee improved considerably in Delhi, and Stuart Clark has been the only one to have kept the runs in check. If Krejza does debut, Cameron White will be the most likely casualty, but then again with only five specialist batsmen in the side they would like the cushion White provides at No. 8.
Australia (from) 1 Matthew Hayden, 2 Simon Katich, 3 Ricky Ponting (capt.), 4 Michael Clarke, 5 Michael Hussey, 6 Shane Watson, 7 Brad Haddin (wk), 8 Cameron White, 9 Brett Lee, 10 Mitchell Johnson, 11 Stuart Clark, Jason Krejza.
Pitch & conditions
The 22 most important yards are a big unknown in this Test. This will the first first-class match for the new VCA Stadium in Nagpur. According to Ricky Ponting, the pitch is “rock hard like concrete and there’s no grass on it”.
“With no history to the wicket, we don’t know if it’s going to bounce, or stay low, or what it’s going to do. One thing I know is that it is going to spin, it’s so bare. Hopefully we win the toss,” Ponting said.
Stats & Trivia
- This will be the 80th Test that the Fab Four play together, and the last because Ganguly will retire after the match. He will have played 113 matches alongside Dravid, 102 with Tendulkar, and 86 with Laxman.
- Australian bowlers have managed 38 wickets in the three Tests so far, at an average of 53.61.
- Out of the 84 wickets taken by bowlers in the series so far, 51 have been taken by the pace bowlers. Johnson, with 12 wickets, has been the leading wicket-taker, followed by Ishant Sharma and Zaheer Khan with 11 and 10 respectively.
“This match is so important because we’ve played well in the series, played well from the very first game. That’s why this game is so important. We need to stick to the basics, and do what we have been doing from the first game. I don’t think there’s any added pressure or responsibility on the side.”
Dhoni reckons India are not under extra pressure in a match that could win them the Border-Gavaskar Trophy
“This is probably as big a Test match as a lot of us have played. Being 1-0 down with a match to play is a position that a lot of us haven’t been in before. We pride ourselves on playing well in big games, and this is certainly a big game for us. There is a great opportunity for us to stand up, and play better cricket than we’ve played in the first three Test matches.”
Ponting chalks down the challenge in black and white