Lee will be the key to unsettle Indians

Written by: Allan Border
Published: Wednesday, December 24, 2003, 14:52 [IST]
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Paceman Brett Lee is back and could be the key man to ruffle Indian feathers, but for Australians Rahul Dravid's will be the crunch wicket in the clash between the two teams at Melbourne from Friday.

The pitch at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) will offer pace and bounce. It would not be fast bounce, more of a spongy bounce. It is a drop-in wicket at the MCG and it should be a pretty good wicket for both batsmen and bowlers, paceman and spin alike. It should be a very good Test wicket.

These days I chuckle when people talk about hard, bouncy Australian wickets. A few of them have certainly lost their zip. Perth is no longer the magnificent, hard bouncy track, Sydney Cricket Ground has changed it is no longer so overtly spin friendly.

Brisbane alone has the traditional pace and bounce of an Australian wicket. When the football session ends, the relay of pitch is done quickly and it does not behave to reputation.

Others too have changed in character. But it is not the changed nature of tracks, which have led India to be in a position they find themselves. I think there is a lot of relevance about Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath being missed in Australian attack.

They were two of the best bowlers combination we ever had. When you take them out at their peak, the attack obviously loses sting. Even though I am happy at the boys who have got into the side, they are not Warne and McGrath. Not yet anyway.

Indian batting has made the most of McGrath and Warne's absence. Bounce was the factor, which Australians have relied upon against Indians in the past and it was a weapon they did not have in the first two Tests.

Now Lee is back and he offers pace, bounce and aggression. He has been back in the last couple of games after recovering from his ankle surgery and stomach muscle problem.

Australians are hoping he must be holding himself back for a special Test match return in the MCG. One of the things Lee would need to do is to quickly get past the openers and bring the Indian middle-order in for an early trial. In the past, opening was an area where India struggled in Australia. Now Aakash Chopra and Virender Sehwag have given them a good start in both the Tests.

Chopra is a steady, no-nonsense cricketer who does the job expected of an orthodox opener, take the shine off the new ball. Sehwag bats briskly in a style more suited to One-day cricket. As a Test opener, I have a question mark on him. I think he looks a better middle-order batsman.

I guess Australians would need to attack Chopra more. They have bowled to him wide of the off-stump and the young opener has been very happy to let the balls go.

They need to make him play more, get a few short-pitched deliveries aimed at him early and set different fields for him. He has shown a great concentration and negotiated the new ball well.

The way to go against Dravid and VVS Laxman is to hold the chances they offer before they blossom into a major partnership. Both the batsmen were let off the hook in the two innings in Adelaide. Laxman gives his chances as he is a flashy, wristy player and could make mistake outside the off-stump. But yes, the strategy can come at a price for Laxman is such a brilliant stroke-maker when he gets a chance to free his arms.

Dravid's nickname is "The Wall" and I guess it is well earned for that is what he looks like. He is the crunch wicket for Australia as he holds the innings together. The in-form batsman is a major stumbling block for the Aussies. He does not get impatient and has the ability to weather a long storm.

Two key players for the two sides, Steve Waugh and Sachin Tendulkar, are due for major scores. There have been multiple pressures on Waugh as he has walked out to bat, thinking perhaps it is last innings, last match at this venue. This could put pressure on a cricketer. But Steve has been a hard task-master, he puts high expectations on himself and would love to have a major say in the two remaining games.

He likes pressure, he would quite enjoy being in this position. He knows if he can win from here, it would be a major feather in his cap. He would enjoy this challenge.

As for Tendulkar, he has always lived in the glare of the public and negotiated high expectations throughout his brilliant career. He is well used to it, as well as to smashing hundreds at a regular rate. He has not got going because of the errors he has made along with the decision in the first Test, which was questionable. But this is not a new situation for him and we all know how he rides over such moments.

I watched the three-day game between Indians and Australia 'A' and I must say Sourav Ganguly let the game drift in Hobart. Australia 'A' did all the running and Indians had a chance to declare the innings at tea on the second day rather than just do some meaningless batting.

If Ganguly wants the Indian team to be number one in the world, he has to undertake certain responsibility for the game globally. It means playing with certain passion even in the lead-up games. Australia would do that all the time. He has to take up responsibility, play positive and think about making a game of cricket all the time. That is what the game wants.

That is what a game should always be a contest. The last few days have been stormy for Australian cricket. John Buchanan's famous letter must have stung Australians into some soul-searching.

The letter should never have been leaked but now that it is in public domain, the cricketers must be asking themselves if there is merit in they giving preference to commercial deal and other external factors rather than focusing on a game of cricket. If they are honest, the criticism from the coach should stir them, more so since they have not been in this position before and at stake is their widely recognised dominance.

The last few days also give lie to the popular perception that Australian media is very supportive of their team. If you look at comments on players, Buchanan's leak and columns by cricketers, it doesn't seem so. The amount of flak the Australian team has received is over-reaction. Indians played well and won and occasionally even a champion side can get it wrong. The Indians have laid a challenge to the Australians and it is now up to them to respond.


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