Melbourne: Former India opener Akash Chopra says Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag will have to make it count whenever they are set as trying conditions Down Under would make it difficult for them to get too many good starts in the Test series against Australia starting on Monday.
Chopra couldn`t score a fifty and his average was only 23.25 during India`s eventful tour of Australia in 2003-04 but the then Australian captain Steve Waugh was moved enough to say after the final Test in Sydney that the Delhi-opener was the reason why India not only drew the series 1-1 but also at times dominated the home team.
The secret of Chopra`s success, not reflected in figures, was how he invariably blunted the new-ball attack.
"The kookaburra ball is all about negotiating the first 30 overs. If you come through the spell with minimal loss, the middle order would come on to their own," reminiscences Chopra.
Blunting the new-ball was something that Chopra did with remarkable panache on that trip. In Brisbane, he batted for 40 balls for his four runs. In Adelaide, it was 67 balls for his 27 runs; at MCG, it was 48 runs from 135 balls and finally the score of 45 in Sydney came from 184 balls.
Sure enough Australians lost the plot and the Indian middle order flourished like never before. Tendulkar made 383 runs at 76.60; Laxman 494 runs at 82.33 and Dravid proved to be the deadliest of them all with 619 runs at 123.80.
"I knew most Indian openers had come and failed on those shores. Interestingly, I could hardly do much work-out before the series. I had injured my finger in the preceding series against New Zealand. But England`s Michael Vaughan was mighty successful in the season before. I asked ESPN to provide me his tapes. I also spoke to Geoffrey Boycott in Singapore on my way to Australia," says Chopra.
Whatever Chopra prepared was nothing to what he faced on the Australian pitches.
"Brisbane was very quick; MCG was a bit damp. The conditions were difficult for it seamed and swung. There were 70,000 people shouting and screaming, the atmosphere was unnerving. As I took blows on the body, it did look like a boxing match on Boxing day."
Chopra remembers the astonishingly quick Brett Lee and the mouthfuls which Australians gave to him.
"Matty Hayden was the worst. He chirped a lot. They were never short of a word. They were effective too. They all said how I was defensive. How I could never hit a shot. But I knew my instructions well.”
"I had been asked to spend as much time on the wicket as possible. I was prepared to let go as many balls outside the off-stump as I could. I also curbed my square cuts which is my bread-and-butter shot."
Indeed, Chopra`s leaves on the off-stump were breathtaking. At times the ball almost took the off-stump but if Chopra` didn`t have to play those deliveries, he didn`t play them at all.
Chopra now offers the same advice to the present two openers with whom he has played a lot of his cricket for the native state, Delhi.
"Leaving as many deliveries as possible would be the key. They must know their off-stump and curb the urge to lash out at away deliveries. The good thing is they could trust the bounce of those pitches.”
"Importantly, they must make it count. For they wouldn`t get many starts. There is no harm in accepting that a good ball is always around the corner. But if they are set, they must ensure it`s a substantial knock."
Chopra suspects the MCG pitch would be damp. Batting first on that pitch would be a real ask.
"The wicket is difficult for the first few hours. Later it turns dry and deteriorates. I remember on that tour actually a piece of the square came off during the third day at MCG."
Fortunately, Gambhir and Sehwag complement each other well. While Sehwag is prone to lash out at bowlers, Gambhir is very good with rotating the strike. For the good of India, Chopra hopes the Australians are caught up in these diverse Indian tactics.