Sunday, October 12, 2008

Predicting Australia's strategy on the 5th day

I had a chat with blogger friend Homer a while ago on the fourth day's proceedings. He thinks Australia are playing for a draw.

I do not think that is the correct assessment. I would say that, unlike other Australian teams from the past 10 years that tried to force results with both bat & ball (even from positions of disadvantage), these guys have gone back a step and decided that bat will save the match and set it up for ball to win it. Automatically that cuts down chances of a result as slower scoring rates mean less time to get the opposition out. However as I see it, the Aussies are backing themselves to bowl out India on the final day. And if that is possible in their book, why not reduce risk of losing the game at the same time by batting longer in the second essay?

Of course they would still have liked to set India in excess of 400 with nearly 5 sessions to go. But the Indian tailend resistance, combined with the absence of one Shane Warne and one Adam Gilchrist (that time Australia got 44 more first innings runs batting a session lesser than in 2008 on the back of Gilly's near-run-a-ball 104) , have denied them the luxury of having the best of both worlds. They will not risk losing for a result - at least not in this crucial 1st Test - and have designed their plans at Bangalore around that. It may be a retrograde step and give India space to escape with a draw, but I will still be pleasantly surprised if India manage that.

Now the reason why Australia feel they can bowl out India in the second innings even in the limited time remaining:

India have a few performances in the past 3 years that will encourage even teams much lesser than Australia to think that Indiare are more than likely to succumb if asked to secure a draw by batting over 2 sessions on final day. Leaving out the Sydney Test (which we could have surely saved had umpiring been better) we have done horrendously on the 5th days of 'live' Tests. Thank heavens that the current one is not the final Test of the series, which makes the filtered results even worse.

In the recent past the Indian batsmen, barring Sehwag & Sourav, have excelled in becoming sitting ducks on the fifth day by allowing the scoring rates to dip way below 3 very early in the final 3 sessions. That will again be the death trap that Australia will lay in the first 25 overs of the Indian innings tomorrow. They will try to remove Sehwag and then revert back to just restricting India for the 1st 2 hours. The 2nd burst of attack will come much later, after the drinks break in post-lunch session.

India will need to score at least 85 or 90-odd in those 25 overs without losing too many wickets. If India get stuck up in the first 25 overs, even retention of wickets will not matter in the end and they will certainly be in a soup. Getting stuck automatically means that the asking rate (for a win) goes beyond 5 with more than 40-45 overs remaining. An India win out of the equation rather early, Oz can then start manning up fielders around the bat that much earlier and prise out wickets.

Greg Chappell was around and has noticed the unbelievable transformation of Indian batting tigers to stagnant sloths on the final day in quite a few Test matches. If he missed Bangalore 2004 vs Aus and Bangalore 2005 vs Pak, he was with the team when India messed up Mumbai 2006 vs Eng. Then India repeated the story in Kingsmead 2006 & Capetown 2007, both against SA. The last occasion was not even a 4th innings, but the match was handed over to South Africa on a platter by an inexplicable withdrawal into shell by Dravid-Sachin in the 3rd innings leading to subsequent (and inevitable) dismissal of all middle order giants barring a positive Sourav.

It was almost the same story at Lord's 2007 vs Eng but rain came to India's rescue.

Rain and MS Dhoni, to be precise. Dhoni tried to be positive in that innings without being cavalier. In each of those above-referred innings of capitulation there has been at least one Indian batsman (even a lower order one) who has seen through the problem and tried to be positive. This batsman was the best player in the ruins mostly due to his right approach to the situation at hand, but lack of support from others had generally undermined his efforts and led to a loss. Kumble at Bangalore 2005 stands out in memory, as does Sachin at Mumbai 2006, Sourav-Dhoni at Kingsmead 2006 and Sourav at Capetown 2007.

During his stint as Indian cricket coach, Greg Chappell had identified the malady of the 4th innings immediately. He made an attempt to address it in Nagpur 2004 vs Eng, a match that saw India lag behind England all along, by sending out Irfan Pathan at number 4 on the final day. Ahead of Sachin. Agenda: playing a cameo quick innings. There was a controversy on that promotion and it was not necessarily a solution to the problem. I still think that promotion, and Irfan's quick 35, was a 'bluff' to prevent the strike rate dipping too early than an actual attempt to carve out an unlikely win. But it certainly did prevent England from manning up close-in positions till the final session (i.e. too late) and the game was 'successfully' drawn. However, the familar problems returned later in the series at Mumbai to cost India a series win.

As we can see in the instances above, India have been caught repeating the familiar "crumbling to own methods" act at the business end of Test matches in recent years, twice at this venue. We have seen no indication of any lessons being learnt by the middle order batsmen. They are still without glares while crossing the highway called "5th day" across to safety of a draw and the headlights of a car called "Rivals' stifling strategy" can still catch them unawares in middle of the road. Greg Chappell and Ponting will the last people to let go of this opportunity to throw back the hosts' old ghosts on their faces and try to eke out a 1st Test win that will hugely impact the outcome of the series.

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