As England wound up their preparations and exited the practice area, clouds began to gather over the WACA ground – wispy and distant to start with, graduating to angry and dark by the time the Indians finished their fielding drills and took possession of the nets. As R Ashwin, Axar Patel, Stuart Binny and Virat Kohli, the first set of batsmen, took their positions, thunder crackled from one direction, streaks of lightning lit up the sky in the other. Ominous signs? Or darkest before dawn? Take your pick.
It’s about time India saw the crack of dawn on a tour that has brought them occasional joy, but not a single victory. All the disappointment of the past nine weeks will disappear in a jiffy if India can put it past England in a must-win final league clash of the triangular series on Friday (January 30) and secure their place in Sunday’s title round against unconquered Australia.
That’s what this tri-series has now come down to, following the washout at the SCG on Monday. England’s commanding victory over India at the Gabba thus comprehensively nullified, it all boils down to the semifinal showdown on Friday – which is the immediate picture. The larger picture is the one that occupies the mind frame of the respective team managements. England are pretty clued in on what their first World Cup XI will be.
India are slightly less so, their cause not helped by untimely injuries to key players and the loss of form of certain other individuals that, should they rediscover their touch, can play such a decisive, incisive part in their title defence.
Almost by default, Shikhar Dhawan gets another opportunity to resurrect a disastrous tour. With the World Cup looming, Rohit Sharma has been ruled out for a third successive game to rest his sore hamstring. Rohit played full part in the nets on Friday after going through fitness drills on Thursday even as the rest of the team cooled off in the hotel. If this was a must-win game in the World Cup, for instance, Rohit would have been a shoo-in to play. If at all you can put numbers on degrees of fitness, Rohit, we are told, is about 85% fit; the decision not to field him in this game too is purely precautionary, to totally rule out a relapse, which could be disastrous from the point of view of a batting line-up desperately seeking the runs that allowed it to have a golden surge in ODI cricket for all of last year. Dhawan knows he is fortunate to get another shot. India have just the one extra reserve batsman in Ambati Rayudu, so even the option of giving the beleaguered opener a break to get away from cricket is not available to MS Dhoni. Then again, you don’t score runs sitting on the sidelines. Dhawan’s technique – or his technical shortcomings, to be more accurate – have been exposed badly by both Australia and England. Friday will be another massive test. Of whether he has been able to tighten up his game and, more crucially, of his strength of character and his desire to battle his way through a difficult period. The think-tank is solidly behind Dhawan, trying to keep his morale up despite his string of poor scores in the firm conviction that it is only a matter of time before the left-hand batsman turns things around. Sadly, time is running out for Dhawan.
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