x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Last chance for India's big four to land a punch Down Under

Dileep Premachandran: People think of the final Test in Sydney as the one that got away, but the players will tell you how the mess they made that Boxing Day changed everything.

Virender Sehwag bats in the nets during the team's training at the MCG.
Virender Sehwag bats in the nets during the team's training at the MCG.

India have no fond memories of Boxing Day Tests in Melbourne. Both their victories in the city came before the match became a fixture in the calendar. Since then, they have lost four of five, each of them comprehensively.

Those results can be attributed to a combination of misfortune and their own frailties. They should certainly have won in 1985/86, when they allowed Allan Border to add 77 for the final wicket with Dave Gilbert. Needing 126 for victory, they then dawdled to 59 for 2 before tea, only to see rain wash away their best chance of series success in Australia.

Eight years ago, they had no one to blame but themselves. Having won after conceding 556 in Adelaide, India were poised to run away with the series an hour after tea in front of a boisterous crowd of 62,000.

Brett Lee had been menacingly quick early on, but Virender Sehwag and the more sedate Aakash Chopra added 141 regardless. At 278 for 1, with visions of a triumphant farewell series fast receding, Steve Waugh was reduced to trusting his own creaky bowling.

With Sehwag in irrepressible touch, Rahul Dravid was on the verge of another accomplished half-century when he flicked Waugh straight to the man at square leg.

By stumps, they had subsided to 329 for 4, and the following morning, they lost their last six wickets for 16.

People think of the final Test in Sydney as the one that got away, but the players will tell you how the mess they made of the final hour on Boxing Day changed everything.

Four of those batsmen - Sehwag, Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman - will be back in the fray tomorrow, knowing that their last chance to win in Australia is also their best chance.

The squad may lack an Anil Kumble or a Sourav Ganguly, but they're up against an opponent nowhere near the quality of the sides that Waugh and Ricky Ponting led.

Australian players, past and present, have offered their views on how the conditions won't suit the Indian batsmen. But when you're not Muhammad Ali, loose talk is usually a screen for fear, and MS Dhoni certainly won't be paying any heed to that.

The tour of England earlier in the year may have been a miserable one, with a poorly prepared side no match for a team at the top of their game. But conditions in Australia are a world apart from those found in the English summer, and much more to the liking of Indian batsmen.

Each of India's big four has tasted much success under the Southern Cross.

Sehwag and Tendulkar average nearly 60 there, while Laxman's figure is 54. Dravid's average dropped to 48.60 after a relatively poor series last time - he still made a pivotal 93 in Perth, India's only win of the tour - but between them, they have made 13 hundreds.

Ishant Sharma's fitness - he has delayed surgery on an ankle problem - is a big concern ahead of this series, especially with Zaheer Khan yet to play an international after the injury woes that restricted his English tour to 13 overs.

If both are ready, then the exciting and pacy Umesh Yadav could be used in short and sharp spells. If either drops out, then his effectiveness may well be compromised.

For a generation of cricketers that have craved and been denied success in Australia and South Africa, this is one last opportunity to set the record straight. Much of the pre-series brouhaha surrounds Tendulkar's possible 100th hundred, but there are weightier matters at stake.

Australia's young and promising pace attack will look to hit India hard, and early. But if the experienced batting core can absorb that early impact and strike back, it could be a long hard summer for Michael Clarke and his team.