YOU can understand why Matthew Wade is scratching his head at the moment. It was only last month that everyone and their dog was criticising Wade on his keeping skills, and now he is captaining Australia in a match against an Indian Board XI. It must be nice to feel that maybe he is third in line for the captaincy!
Selectors hate giving the highest honour in the land to just anyone. Their options were Wade, Ed Cowan, Peter Siddle or Nathan Lyon, and the selectors went to Wade, which surely must give great confidence to the gloveman on this very important tour. Normally selectors don't like wicketkeepers being captain as their workloads, particularly in India, are just too demanding. Then again, the last time Australia won in India was in 2004. Adam Gilchrist was Australia's captain, replacing an injured Ricky Ponting. Gilchrist was exceptional behind the stumps, and his leadership helped Australia win the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.
So where is Wade at? He made 311 Test runs over the summer at a great average of 44 and took 22 catches. It looks like a great summer for Wade, but was it? It is funny how we grade keepers. When we look at batsmen, we just look at their runs scored. We don't look at how many times they got dropped, played and missed or were nearly run out. For bowlers, we just look at the number of wickets, bowling averages and economy rates. We don't look at how many chances were missed off their bowling.
We judge wicketkeepers too harshly. We don't think of how many catches keepers take, we look at the missed catches and stumpings first. So what is an acceptable percentage of missed chances? Wade missed a few, but overall, I thought he had a pretty good summer. But in iconic tours such as this Indian series, you mess up and your career is on the rocks. When Australia won in 2004, I cannot remember Gilchrist missing a chance. And if Australia wants to win this series, it will come down to how Wade keeps and bats. He has such an important role that he needs to stand up and show Ian Healy and others how good he is.
It will be difficult for Wade and his teammates to acclimatise to the hot, humid conditions of Chennai. Yes, this series is being played at a cooler time of the year but it will be tough nevertheless. All you do in Chennai is sweat. Fast bowlers rarely bowl more than five-over spells. You feel that your socks are constantly wet. When you are running, you feel that the sweat is pouring out through the laces of your boots. Your shirt is dripping and you just have to deal with it.
The ground at Chennai is so different to when we played in the tied Test in 1986. A lot of the large concrete stands are gone. The new stands cope better with the burning tropical sun and allow for the sea breezes that come in the afternoon. Mind you, the Buckingham canal next to the ground hasn't changed that much, nor its smell.
I am slightly worried about Australia's preparation for this series. To do well in India is as much about the state of mind as anything. Playing in India will push your body and mind to places it hasn't been before. Coupled with the overloading of tours, it will be difficult for this Australian team to adapt quickly to the heat and the pitches. For Australia to do well, it must not dwell too much on the toss. England won its last four-Test series there despite only winning one toss. The key to winning in India is to have your first-innings score over 400, not 300 as in other countries. You cannot win in India chasing big scores in the second dig. Batting on days four and five is bloody difficult as the ball reverses big time, and the spinners and bat pads are all over you.
No doubt India will be a huge favourite to take out the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. Even with all the great recent Australian teams, we have only won one series in India since 1969. A 2-1 loss would be a passable performance by Australia. Anything over that will be a bonus.
I cannot help but think, however, that if India beats us here we will be in all sorts of trouble for the Ashes tour that starts in July. The captaincy of Michael Clarke is crucial. Team harmony is so important when on the road. The players need to remain positive and have some fun. They have to deal constantly with viruses and stomach bugs. They have to know how to play with such conditions and deal with the heat. If I were Clarke, I would make one thing loud and clear. If I heard one player say, ''Gee, it's bloody hot out here,'' I would rip into them. We all know it's hot and humid, just deal with it and get to work.
In 1986 during the tied Test, we had an unsung hero in Greg Matthews. Many people might have different opinions on Matthews, but he was one hard son of a bitch. On day five of the tied Test, he called for his long-sleeve jumper on a day when temperatures rose above 43 degrees. He stood in front of the Indian team and nattered away at them, saying, ''It's not that hot, boys! We love it like this!'' He got to the Indians mentally. That is the attitude our Australians must have.
The tied Test was the starting point when Australians genuinely loved touring India. Since that game, India and Australia have formed great friendships and a great reliance. There has been some great games since.
To me, the 2001 series was probably the greatest Test cricket series of all-time. The standards of batting and bowling will never be forgotten. The captaincy, fielding and standard of play was Test cricket at its best. These magical contests always produce a new Test superstar. Will Wade put aside his demons and critics and rise to become a superstar? He couldn't ask for a better stage to do just that.
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