There was a time when the very mention of Perth used to unnerve the batsmen — even the Australians when they had to face the fearsome West Indies pace men. However, the Western Australian Cricket Association (WACA) ground, like many others in the world, has lost some of its viciousness in recent years.
The Indians will have their first taste of WACA on this tour Friday when they take on England in a virtual semi-final of the ODI tri-series. Thanks to rain washing out their game against Australia in Sydney, India got a life-saving two points. All they now need is to beat England, who have five points from three matches. India lost to Australia and England in their first two games.
If the Indians had lost to the Australians Monday they would have been on calculators the entire Friday calculating the run-rate or the number of overs required to bowl England out.
More than the tri-series, the Indians will be happy to get a feel of the WACA as they will be playing two World Cup Games there – against the United Arab Emirates Feb 28 and then the West Indies March 6.
More than the pitch at WACA, the Indians are more worried about getting eleven fit men in time for the World Cup. They can’t be going in as defending champions with two of their key players – if not three – nursing injuries.
Ravindra Jadeja has not played any cricket for over two months and Ishant Sharma for three weeks. Both would have played in Sydney and so should be there Friday. Rohit Sharma’s hamstring is on the mend, but the think-tank would not like to risk him either Friday or in Sunday’s final if India make it.
There can’t be a luckier guy than Shikhar Dhawan. The opener from Delhi is perforce getting chance after chance because there is no reserve batsman in the squad — Ambati Rayudu already being slotted at No.3 in the batting order for Rohit.
As if these vexed problems are not enough, the team management is undecided where the team’s best batsman Virat Kohli should bat — No.3 or No.4. The argument for him batting at No.4 is that he could hold the wobbly middle-order, but then the failure of the top order in the first two games has meant that he had to walk in at a precarious position with two-down for almost nothing.
A similar situation had arisen ahead of the 2007 World Cup when Sachin Tendulkar had to, much against his wishes, bat at No.4 with Virender Sehwag, Sourav Ganguly and Robin Uthappa occupying the top three slots. India exited in the first stage itself.
This shifting of Tendulkar “in the interest of the team” was one of the reasons leading to a rift between Tendulkar and coach Greg Chappell. After that Tendulkar was restored to the opening slot, saying that the team’s best batsman should get to play the maximum overs.
If that’s the case, Kohli should open the innings and he will get to bat 50 overs, unless someone pipes up to say that would unsettle the entire batting!
As for the WACA pitch, the Indians can take heart from history. On the 2008 tour, India won the Test by 72 runs, the pace of Rudra Pratap Singh, Ishant Sharma and Irfan Pathan proving good enough to rattle the Australians. And the batsmen stood up to the pace and swing of Brett Lee, Mitchell Johnson, Shaun Tait and two-in-one Andrew Symonds.
As way back as 1980 when the Perth pitch held some terrors for the batsmen, the Indians beat New Zealand by five runs in the World Series Cricket (WSC), playing Kapil Dev, Manoj Prabhakar, Javagal Srinath and Subroto Banerjee plus Ravi Shastri.
Again in the 1991 WSC, ahead of the World Cup, India tied with the West Indies in a low-scoring game at WACA, both teams struggling to get to 126. Roger Binny took four wickets and had the support of Kapil Dev, Karsan Ghavri and Sandip Patil to bowl seam up with Dilip Doshi to assist with his left-arm spin.
Two days later, India walloped Australia by 107 runs at the same venue, Ravi Shastri, the team director now, claiming five wickets for 15 runs — so he should know a bit about the Perth wicket.
India may not have the luxury of going in with five or even six bowlers today like they did a couple of times in the past. In one classic game at the Gabba in 2000, Pakistan had Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Shoaib Akhtar, Abdul Razzaq, Saqlain Mushtaq and Shahid Afridi while India fielded Srinath, Venkatesh Prasad, Ajit Agarkar, Ganguly, and Robin Singh to share the new ball and Anil Kumble to tighten things with spin. If needed, skipper Tendulkar could also have turned his arm over.
In that series, Pakistan’s firepower proved too much for India at the Gabba, Hobart and Perth. India could only beat them at Adelaide where Kumble was at his best.
The era of bits-and-pieces players coming to the party are over with the new field restrictions when the mainline bowlers themselves are unable to bowl six tight deliveries without a four-ball. The days of Gangulys, Prabhakars and Agarkars doubling up are over, specialists will have to do well if the team has to win.
And WACA pitch is not what it used to be.
(Veturi Srivatsa is a senior journalist. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at [email protected]).