“Take that back, mate, don't even mention those words,” said Michael Clarke, a touch truculently. “I'm the wrong man to say those words to. There's no such thing, as far as I am concerned, as a dead rubber.”
The Australian captain was speaking to the press after his side had clinically wrapped up the Test series 3-0 in Perth. He was at pains to emphasise that there would be no let up. “Anything less than 4-0 will be a disappointment to all of us,” he had added.
For India, Clarke's statement was merely the latest illustration of Australia's all-consuming intensity. When they boarded their flight to Melbourne in December, the Indians will have anticipated a close-fought series — they mightn't have believed the hype that it was their best chance of winning India's maiden series in Australia, but as rational men, the least they will have settled for from the engagement was a contest.
It's a measure of Australia's mastery over India — after a tight first Test — that on the eve of the fourth Test, which will be staged here at the Adelaide Oval from Tuesday, the touring party is still searching for answers. They might be marginally less difficult to find here, the very place Vijay Hazare stroked a century in each innings against Lindwall and Miller nearly six decades before Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman played their epics in a famous win.
Australia besides has won only one in the last four Tests here; it lost the most recent by an innings to England. Adelaide's also a venue that often ensures a five-day match.
“It's probably as close to Indian conditions as you're going to get in Australia,” said Clarke. “I think reverse swing will play a huge part in this Test, it always does. The ground is in great nick, so the outfield will keep the ball newer than I have seen in the past but as the day goes on, especially in this heat, you will see a lot of reverse swing.”
Thus far in the series, the narrative has consisted of Australia's largely inexperienced seamers dictating terms to India's great batsmen. They have built pressure with exceptional control and they have attacked with the fuller length, which allows the ball its best chance to move. Their lines, often directed at the fifth stump, have demanded that India's batsmen reach for the ball; with reverse swing, the lines will have to straighten to attack the stumps, which will be an opportunity for the batsmen to access the on-side.
The collective batting failure has cost India the three Tests (and the four in England). Virender Sehwag, who'll lead India in the absence of the banned M.S. Dhoni, put it down to kismet. “Earlier every batsman scored runs, top order and middle order, and maybe now everybody's time is not good. Unfortunately, it's not happening,” he said.
The first session, particularly the first hour, is crucial for seamers, for any help they might have from the wicket is usually to be found in this time. Thereafter, the track flattens out before taking spin on days four and five, with the bounce becoming less consistent.
Sehwag summed up what he thought of the conditions in his inimitable style. “I think Adelaide wicket is [one on which] everybody wants to bat first, but if you look at the stats, then whoever bats second generally wins, so even I'll look to bat first.”
What he meant, presumably, was that he'd trust his instincts — not statistics. The conditions have demanded that Australia drop Mitchell Starc for Nathan Lyon. India announced its twelve, which includes the six batsmen, Wriddhiman Saha as wicket-keeper, the three seamers, and R. Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha. Sehwag said he would decide on whether to play a second spinner after seeing how dry the pitch is.
Sehwag, who has led India to two wins and a draw in his previous three Tests as captain, denied he'd be under extra pressure. “I think I have to show some patience against the bowling attack because if I show some patience maybe I'll get some balls to hit for boundaries,” he said, before adding that the attack was one of the best he has faced.
“They are not giving easy balls to hit boundaries and they are playing with your patience. I think this is the best bowling attack I've ever seen, because generally when I played in the past, you know, I'll get couple of balls in the early overs to hit the boundary,” he said.
But Sehwag backed India's batting to finally come good in this Test.
“Everybody is very excited when they come to Adelaide because the wicket is good to bat on and we have great memories of the game we won when we came in 2003-04. We have lost the series, but we are playing for pride; we are focussed on improving our performance.”
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, and Nathan Lyon. Reserve: Mitchell Starc.
India: Virender Sehwag (capt.), Gautam Gambhir, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, V.V.S. Laxman, Virat Kohli, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), R. Ashwin, Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, and Pragyan Ojha. Reserves: Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma, Abhimanyu Mithun, and Vinay Kumar.
Umpires: Aleem Dar and Kumar Dharmasena; Third umpire: Simon Fry; Match referee: Ranjan Madugalle
Hours of play (IST): 5.30 a.m. to 7.30 a.m.; 8.10 a.m. to 10.10 a.m.; 10.30 a.m. to close.
Keywords: India's tour of Australia