India go into the third Test against Australia in Perth down 2-0 in the four-match series. (AFP)
Australia have India by the throat and look poised to go for the jugular. The green-top pitch laid out in Perth for the third Test beginning Friday is aimed at providing the hosts the sharp edge they are looking for.
Down 2-0 in the four-match series, India would be desperate to put up an inspired performance and even pull one back. A favourable result would help skipper MS Dhoni and his men end the series of six consecutive away Test losses, which began in England.
Traditionally, Perth’s WACA pitch is the bounciest and Australia are toying with the idea of unleashing four seamers on the battered Indians.
However, a similar four-pronged pace attack had spectacularly boomeranged on Australia on this pitch in the 2007-08 series against India. After the Monkeygate-marrred Sydney Test, India had ambushed the Aussies at Perth by 72 runs.
Indian batsmen will be breathing a bit easy because their tormentor-in-chief in this series, James Pattinson, will not play in the third Test due to injury. The impressive speedster claimed 11 wickets in the first two Tests. More importantly, he regularly got the better of Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid.
But India should be wary, very much so because Australia might bring in the experienced Ryan Harris and the promising left-arm pacer Michell Starc, who could get a look in, in place of the struggling Nathan Lyon.
India have their share of selection worries too, but not of the injury-induced variety. Poor performance is the problem facing the team think-tank. There is a clamour for giving Rohit Sharma his Test debut. To accommodate him, the axe may fall on Virat Kohli.
Talk has also abounded of dropping VVS Laxman. That, however, would be a big mistake. His body of work against the Aussies is legendary. Moreover, after looking out of sorts for three-quarters of the Melbourne and Sydney Tests, he scored 66 in the second innings in Sydney. That knock will not have escaped Australian notice.
In the first two Tests, India's batsmen failed to play long innings and the bowlers impressed in patches. On the other hand, the Aussies scored at will and hunted down India as a pack.
The Indian batsmen have to pull up their socks and give their bowlers a score they can defend.
Tendulkar has looked comfortable in both the Tests but failed to get his elusive 100th century. The top order has disappointed — Virender Sehwag managing 67, 7, 30, 4; Gautam Gambhir 3, 13, 0, 83; Kohli 11, 0, 23, 9; Laxman 2, 1, 2, 66; Dravid 68, 10, 5, 29; and Dhoni 6, 23, 57, 2 in the four innings.
Interestingly, tail-ender R Ashwin with an aggregate score of 143 so far is the second highest run-getter for India behind Tendulkar, who has 226.
Indians, touted to be vulnerable to short-pitched bowling, have succumbed in this series to the ball pitched up. Peter Siddle, Ben Hilfenhaus and rookie Pattinson have mercilessly probed away just back of a length and made the tourists play a rash of fatal shots off the front foot.
The WACA curator, Cameron Sutherland, has ominously declared that the venue is back to its bounciest best. If that is the case, Indian pacers hold key to the team's fortunes. Zaheer Khan would be playing his first Test at the WACA and the other two seamers Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav have to bowl around him. After leaking runs by the tons in Sydney, getting back at the Aussies as a unit will be their priority. India would do well to resist the temptation of playing with an all-pace attack, giving up on spin.
After two victories, Australia's tail is up. After masterclass centuries at the SCG, Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey are no longer in the perform-or-perish bleak house. What's more, skipper Michael Clarke's unbeaten 329 in the last dig gives the Aussie batting line-up a healthy glow. The out-of-form Shaun Marsh, battling a gastric illness and a form slump, will be keen on playing at his home ground. But he might have to concede the one-drop spot to Ponting, who at his imperious best is a terror for rivals.
The bowling department too looks ruddy. If the hosts pick Harris, he will join Siddle as their hit-the-deck bowler; and Hilfenaus, as he seemingly can on any surface, will do the swinging honours.
Under siege, India are courting controversies — some provoked, and at least one snide. Middle-finger flicks by Kohli in the Sydney Test and Ishant during the team's go-karting outing in Perth have not earned the team any brownie points. Insinuations in the Australian media of disharmony in the Indian team, rubbished by Dhoni and Dravid, have struck discordant notes.
To stay alive in this Test series, India need to fight back. The rise of Team India in recent past had much to do with their ability to claw back after slow starts. To effect another stirring catch-up on foreign soil, beginning in Perth, India have to play as much with their heads as their hearts.