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Can India keep the fire blazing?

Two down, two to go. MS Dhoni and his men are undoubtedly pleased with how the first two games in the series have gone, while the Australians must be despondent. The fact that they lost the second Test by a wider margin than they did the first would be disappointing to Michael Clarke and his men, but they have only themselves to blame.

Australian captain Michael Clarke has a lot of thinking to do.

Australian captain Michael Clarke has a lot of thinking to do.

After fielding a bowling unit that was inadequate to the task in Chennai, they depleted it even further in Hyderabad. Mitchell Starc and Nathan Lyon were removed, and Xavier Doherty, widely reported as inferior to Lyon, and all-rounder Glenn Maxwell — who only the very optimistic expected to be troublesome to the opposition batsmen — were added.

Starc was ineffective in the first Test, but he is probably the best swing bowler in their ranks. And as Bhuvneshwar Kumar showed, a good swing bowler could make merry in such settings. It was reasonably believed that the spin of Doherty would be added to that of Lyon going into the second Test, thus it was surprising that the tourists excluded their principal slow bowler when the time came.

Lyon conceded far too many runs in Chennai, but there were moments, such as when he spun a delivery between Tendulkar’s bat and pad to strike his stumps, that caused the batsmen some worry. It was a mistake to have left him out. Maxwell, the all-rounder whose second vocation is off-spin, collected five wickets in the game, most likely because the Indian batsmen were hunting runs in a hurry.

Nobody should have then been surprised, except perhaps the Aussie tour selectors, that the visitors’ loss at Hyderabad was by a larger margin than it was at Chennai. Walloped by eight wickets while employing four specialist bowlers in the first Test, it was not wise to enter the second with one fewer. A lesson that should have dawned on them as early as the second day, when Cheteshwar Pujara and Murali Vijay bided their time early on and then took full toll as the bowling wilted. This inadequacy will have to be addressed if they are to fare better in the other games.

Yet, with two games to go, and hard-nosed as they are, the visitors would certainly be looking to be in with a chance to tie the series by the time the last Test rolls around. And the news coming out of Mohali might have given them some hope. Word coming from the Punjab Cricket Association Stadium is that the groundsmen have prepared a “competitive” pitch:

The wicket at the PCA ground here will not be of the same character (as it was in Chennai and Hyderabad). The pitch here will be good for both sides. It will not bring out a one-sided result as has happened in the first two matches. We would like to have real good cricket here. (PCA Secretary M P Pandove)

Last time both sides met at the same venue, in October 2010, India won by one wicket, but 25 of 39 wickets were knocked down by pace, and if it turns out that fast bowlers play a similarly influential role this time, then the visitors will definitely be in with a shot.

They might therefore return to where they started, with three pacers and Nathan Lyon, and it might be a good idea for Mitchell Johnson, who captured five wickets in the first innings in the 2010 Mohali Test, to play his first Test on tour.

Australia has only themselves to blame.

Australia has only themselves to blame.

Also in Australia’s favour is the fact that captain Michael Clarke has scrapped his stubbornness (on this issue at least) and has decided to move up the order. Australia’s best batsman by some distance, coming in at four or three even, should give him more of a say in the direction of his side’s innings. Especially since he is so skilled in quelling spin; and spin has been India’s weapon of choice, sometimes even from the very start of the innings.

Virender Sehwag has been dropped for the last two Tests and long-standing opening partner Gautam Gambhir had already lost his spot, and so, India will brandish a totally new combination at the top of the order. But it should make little difference, as the opener has not done much with the bat and his slip catching has not been stellar. Also, Murali Vijay showed in Hyderabad that he is an accomplished and elegant player who is well up to the task. Still, India will be hoping this is not the last they see of Sehwag as a Test batsman, because there is probably nobody more capable of demoralizing bowlers than the swashbuckler from Delhi.

As both teams get ready for the third Test, India will try to keep the fire ablaze, while the Australians understand they will surrender the series if they don’t find a way to win. With the pitch promising more assistance to seamers, they will also understand that Mohali is the best chance they have of achieving victory.

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