The bowlers will need to get their lengths right
India finds itself at a precipice, the path behind it burnt.
Despite the distressed desolation of the last few months, hope hasn't hissed itself dry. But should India find itself on the wrong end of the third Test, which begins here at the WACA on Friday, there will be nothing left to contemplate but a scary, sheer drop.
It will be India's seventh successive defeat — and its second straight series loss — overseas. Annihilation is often cleansing, particularly if the right people are given charge of the renewal, but it can so easily spiral into chaos.
A victory, on the other hand, will be a minor act of revival: succession planning won't be put off, nor should it be, but it will begin from a positive place, a position of assurance.
India's cricketers won't be thinking such ponderous thoughts when the match begins. They'll know that this is the site of a fabled fight-back, the cathartic win of 2008, but they'll also be aware that it will be a difficult performance to reprise. They came to Perth last time with a deep sense of being wronged; they also had gained confidence from Sydney, for the batsmen, despite what happened on the final day, had found release.
The emotions aren't as clearly shaped this time. Rahul Dravid and Zaheer Khan have said that the mood in the camp, that vague guarantor of performance, is positive, that the team can take heart from the first Test. India moreover made 400 in the second innings in Sydney, its highest in an away Test since Centurion in late 2010; India had gained confidence after that particular innings to famously win in Durban, so is that a sign?
What is certain, however, is that M.S. Dhoni's team hasn't managed consistently good cricket for the length of time it makes a difference in the four Tests in England and the two Tests here in Australia. Many a session has passed where it has been two wickets short, both when batting and bowling, of winning the contest.
Substantial batting partnerships, so vital in driving a game forward and securing control, haven't materialised; as a result, positions of advantage, notably at Trent Bridge and Melbourne, have been squandered. The bowling has lacked penetration once the conditions have withdrawn their assistance; the lower-order has proven a problem.
The common thread through these defeats has been a peculiar subservience — as much to the opposition as the conditions. India hasn't managed to enforce its will, and Australia and the WACA will make this difficult again in the third Test. The home team has lost James Pattinson to injury, but it has regained Ryan Harris, an excellent, all-round seamer.
When he took six wickets (in an innings) here against England in The Ashes in 2010, Harris was part of a four-man pace attack. It's an option Michael Clarke is considering (as is Dhoni, although India is likely to stay unchanged). A lot will depend on how much grass remains on the wicket come Friday morning. The curator has promised an even layer, but he added that it was a softer, finer leaf, favouring bounce more than sideways movement.
Both captains will, however, be loath to leave out a spinner, for the over-rates will become troublesome; Ricky Ponting, who played four quicks in 2008, had to backtrack, allowing India valuable tactical space to exploit. Besides, spinners can use the breeze to get the ball to drift and drop when the seamers aren't utilising it for swing. Anil Kumble and Virender Sehwag struck vital blows last time, adding to the quicker men's efforts.
The Fremantle Doctor, who makes calls in the evening, is the most famous air-stream in world cricket, but the stiff, cooling breeze isn't the one that brings swing. It's the dry easterly, which blows in from the desert and is channelled across the ground by the shallow grass banks, that lets the bowlers use it to buffet their deliveries into swinging.
India's bowlers will need to get their lengths right, and not get carried away by the pace and bounce of the WACA wicket. The full, swinging ball and the one of in-between length are bigger threats on bouncy wickets than straight-out bouncers.
Another thing to keep in mind is that point is a catching position on such pitches; Dhoni will do well not to send the man out to deep-point at the first sight of an attacking stroke.
It's one of many things Dhoni and India will have to do right if they are to salvage the series and the Border-Gavaskar trophy — and not fall off the precipice.
The teams (from):
Australia: Michael Clarke (capt.), Ed Cowan, David Warner, Shaun Marsh, Ricky Ponting, Michael Hussey, Brad Haddin (wk), Peter Siddle, Ben Hilfenhaus, Ryan Harris, Nathan Lyon, and Mitchell Starc.
India: M.S. Dhoni (capt.), Virender Sehwag (vice-captain), Gautam Gambhir, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, V.V.S. Laxman, Virat Kohli, R. Ashwin, Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma, Wriddhiman Saha, Abhimanyu Mithun, Vinay Kumar, and Pragyan Ojha.
Umpires: Aleem Dar and Kumar Dharmasena, Third umpire: Paul Reiffel, Match referee: Ranjan Madugalle.
Hours of play (IST): 8 a.m. to 10 a.m.; 10.40 a.m. to 12.40 p.m., 1 p.m. to close.