| Sourav Ganguly inspects the pitch on the eve of the final Test against Australia in Sydney. (AP)
Sydney, Jan.1: On the eve of the showdown of this season, Steve Waugh expressed the hope that, in time, the Border-Gavaskar Trophy will be “as special as the Ashes”. He was speaking at his last pre-Test media conference.
“Given the competition in the last two series, the Australia versus India rivalry definitely has the potential to be the next Ashes.... Actually, the platform is ready,” the Australian captain declared, adding in much the same breath that India would remain a “strong force” for years.
A big chunk of the credit for this turnaround should go to the captain, Sourav Ganguly. Reacting to Steve’s comments, he told The Telegraph: “It’s a confirmation of just how competitive we have been.... It’s a recognition of our progress...”
The current series, for example, is tied 1-1 and the SCG is hosting the decider from tomorrow.
By Steve’s own admission, his players are “on edge” as only a win will bring the trophy back to the Cricket Australia HQ in Melbourne. “However, coming off a great (nine-wicket) victory at the MCG, we’re ready,” he insisted.
The occasion allowed Steve to reflect on an amazing 18 years at the highest level. “I didn’t know whether I would figure in the next Test, so there’s no question of having imagined I would be around for so long in my debut appearance (against India) itself,” he maintained.
Conceding that he struggled in the initial years (“I got my first hundred in the 27th Test”), Steve suggested newcomers should not be burdened with expectations.
“Players require time to settle down.... The exceptions are there, but can be counted...”
Picking his remarkable recovery from a hamstring injury during the 2001 Ashes series in England as a highlight, Steve continued: “Working with the physio for 10 hours a day for 19 days at a stretch.... That took some work and I returned to score a hundred at The Oval.... It remains special...”
In his opinion, both captains and coaches have a shelf life. “Stephen Fleming is an exception, but I think five years is the limit.... Having said that, Ricky Ponting has the potential to lead for 10.... Of course, we will have to wait and see.”
Aware that whatever he says will be given weightage because of the stature he enjoys, Steve argued that the laws be amended to do away with runners and scrap leg-byes. Obviously, he feels strongly about both.
After saluting Steve and noting that he still has much to offer Australian cricket, Sourav tore into the perception bit. “Yes, there was a perception before this series began, but performance counts, not anybody’s perception.”
He added: “One has to be ambitious, otherwise there’s no point playing.... If we aren’t confident and ambitious, if our mindset isn’t what it ought to be, we’ll lose this decider. But, then, we aren’t here for that.”
Asked just what had gone into the moulding of such a competitive team, Sourav replied: “The quality of players.... Picking the right guys and persisting with them.... Also, evolving a better work ethic.... It’s a combination of factors, really.”
The proverbial acid test, though, is at the distinctive and romantic SCG.
Incidentally, even as the Australians are in a bind over which quick to omit if Jason Gillespie is to be accommodated, the Indians have decided to make two changes — one forced — in the XI which lost at the MCG.
While injured Zaheer Khan is making way for Irfan Pathan, either Murali Kartik/Lakshmipathy Balaji will replace Ashish Nehra. If the wicket is dry, then Kartik is going to play his first Test in over three years. Otherwise, Balaji will be making a quick comeback.
Given the “complications” involved, as a source put it, the five bowlers option got shelved.