Can India overcome the first-Test ghost?
On three of their last four tours, they have lost the first Tests, all rain-affected games. The weather in Melbourne doesn't promise anything different.
The MCG, along with Eden Gardens - the biggest cricketing theatre in the world, is not a place for those who get confused easily. The ground is a maze of similar-looking receptions, escalators, elevators, glass doors that open on their own and have a mind of their own, parking lots and stands. To go to the nets you have to go two floors underground, walk a lot to your right (or even longer left if you are really confused), and then climb back up. Groundsmen who have been working here for years still lose their way. If you leave trail marks here, the ground is so regulated they will have been removed by the time you start looking for your way back 10 minutes later.
However, it's inside the stadium, on the turf, that you need clearest of heads. Harsha Bhogle, commentator and writer, talks of the experience of walking next to the pitch and looking up at the Great Southern Stand. You feel like an ant, he says, when you imagine the ground full. A full house is expected: according to estimates, as many as 80,000 are likely to turn up on Boxing Day. Eighty-thousand voices instructing you; 80,000 pairs of eyes judging every move of yours. For the Indian players, despite the Indian population here, this is the closest thing to being at the receiving end of the Eden Gardens phenomenon, where many a side has frozen in front of similarly huge crowds.
This is also the first Test of the series, and if they were given a choice India would happily start every series with the second Test. On three of their last four tours, they have lost the first Test. The exception was in the West Indies. And the three losses came in rain-affected matches. There are spells of rain around here, interspersed with brilliant sunshine. Boxing Day is likely to receive rain too, although not enough to overly disrupt play.
These slow starts put pressure on the resilience that has been the hallmark of this team. On two of those three occasions, India have managed to come back. It reached a point where people started taking first-Test losses as par for the course. On the third occasion, though, England kept coming at them hour after hour, and rearranged all the good figures painstakingly garnered over the last three years. India had an overseas record of 4-2 under MS Dhoni before England. Now it doesn't make for flattering reading. Slow starts are an affliction every Indian player acknowledges.
Dhoni says the best way is to prepare as well as you can, clear your mind, and trust your instincts when you walk out. "We have to make sure we start off well, but again no pressure," Dhoni said before the Test. "We will again try to keep it as simple as possible because we all know we have taken care of the preparation, which is the most important thing. And once you turn up on the field you want to play according to what your instinct says."
It seems they have got the preparation part right this time. Five days of organised cricket, and various others of nets. During their lead-up, Zaheer Khan has turned up looking lean and fit, Ishant Sharma has come back from an injury scare, and the batsmen have all got decent time in the middle and in the nets. In fact, Dhoni says if this doesn't prepare them, it is unlikely a month will.
On Christmas Day, when the rest of Melbourne seemed to be in a happy blissful slumber, across the serene Yarra Park, down two floors and then back up, the Indians looked to put finishing touches on before the big day. Sachin Tendulkar went to the indoor nets and batted for hours with the bowling machine even as people talked about the 100th hundred. Rahul Dravid, having arrived even as Australia finished their light session in the indoor nets, batted for longer than usual in the nets, both against throwdowns and the bowlers.
Today was also the day when the bowlers got to face bouncers. Zaheer, who usually doesn't come to the nets on the eve of the match, showed up, but only to bat. He asked Trevor Penney, the fielding coach, to throw down bouncers at him. Dravid instructed Penney to bowl three bouncers and then the full one. Ishant got some too. Quick, short, at the throat. Dhoni often mentions the runs the tail has fetched over the last two years.
Outside, the MCG remained silent, except for the hollering from those of the players who played a game of football before starting the cricket training. They wouldn't have visualised a packed house while playing football. It is impossible not to look up and get awed or inspired by the coliseum. Two hours later, three in case of Dravid, they walked out one by one, thanking the net bowlers - Pakistan-born Worcestershire player Imran Arif who spends English winters playing club cricket in Victoria among them - thanking the coaches, content they had studied all they could before the exam.
The rain arrived as soon as they finished. All went away for their Christmas lunches. The MCG became eerily quiet. Thunderstorms followed for the rest of the evening. Melbourne had welcomed India with glorious days with sunsets as late as 9pm. But the clouds opened up, reminiscent of eves of their first Tests in Sri Lanka and South Africa. Rain and India's first Tests are not good bedfellows; if they are to get rid of the first-Test ghost, they'll have to do it the hard way.