Preparing for Australia 101

India's success in the 2003-4 tour was all about preparation, mental toughness and strong technique

Much emphasis has been laid on the process of preparation lately — especially after the England debacle. What is preparation? How does one prepare? These questions popped up many times during post-result analysis. While I believe preparation to be a personal prerogative, some key aspects ought to be included in the larger blueprint.

Your writer in action in a tour game against Australia A in December 2003. (AFP Photo)With India’s tour to Australia only a fortnight away, it has become imperative to answer these questions. In a three-part series, I will share with you the finer points of my preparation and the experience of the 2003-04 tour. The attempt is to provide you, the reader, with the essential perspective and insight necessary to view the game better.

In August 2003, when I had recently recuperated from a knee surgery, I got a call from Virender Sehwag and Ashish Nehra enquiring the status of my fitness. John Wright had asked them to make that call and also prepare me to be called for the India camp slated to start soon.

At the camp in Bangalore, my physical fitness and cricketing skills were tested thoroughly. Though the camp ended with the Challenger Trophy, I was rarely given the opportunity to bat against the white ball under lights leading into the tournament.

For me it was always about facing the red cherry in white flannels. I was picked for India Blue but the team management thought it was wise not to play me in the limited overs tournament — good thinking. I realized I was in the loop — thankfully — but was struggling to decode their bigger plan.

WRIGHT’S PEARLS OF WISDOM

I was subsequently picked for the Board President’s XI and India A teams to play against the touring New Zealanders. I scored in both side games and found myself heading towards Ahmedabad for my Test debut against the Kiwis. It was a dream coming true.

While I viewed this opportunity to be my litmus test, the think tank had other plans. That the New Zealand series was just preparation for Australia dawned upon me much later — such was the approach. A test here or there didn’t matter, what did was the plan to conquer Australia. Today, if Ajinkya Rahane has been roped in as the third opener and Rohit Sharma for No.6 slot, they too should have been given a match here or there as preparation and exposure for the potentially hostile Australian bowling. Unfortunately, they would now go into the series under-cooked.

Well, as for me, for every risky shot I played during those two-Test match series, I got an earful from Wright. While he wanted me to do well on debut, his eyes were firmly set on India’s success in Australia and my role in making that possible. He would tell me to stay away from cutting or pulling, for it would be difficult to keep the ball down on bouncy Australian wickets. His many such advices kept coming my way during the course of the Test series. Finally, I was given a few weeks to prepare on my own —above all, mentally — before we left for Australia.

Unfortunately, I’d broken my finger during the Test series and the weeks between the last Test against New Zealand and our first tour game against Victoria were spent resting the finger. I was advised not to bat because holding the handle prevented my fracture from healing. This was best time to gather information about the surfaces in Australia and also to know a thing or two about their bowling.

INSPIRED BY VAUGHAN

I requested ESPN to provide video recordings of Michael Vaughan’s outstanding batting during England’s Ashes tour. He’d scored over 500 runs fiercely dominating the Australian attack.
Watching him bat made me ignore Wright’s lessons — “see off the new ball/play safe”. But I was soon reminded of them as we set foot on the Australian soil.

Vaughan’s splendid batting may not have influenced the way I batted on that tour. My role was clearly cut-out, but the knowledge that the Australian bowlers can be taken to task calmed a few nerves for sure. I had grown up watching them make mincemeat of our batsmen, and so this was indeed a welcome change. Just before taking that flight from Chennai to Adelaide via Kuala Lumpur, I also made a call to Sir Geoffrey Boycott and took a few pearls of wisdom on ways to bat on hard/bouncy Australian pitches.

Even though, I may not have got a good number of hours in the nets before embarking on a memorable journey, I did try my best in making the most of the time and prepare mentally. Since hindsight is a wonderful gift, I can now safely look back at my pre-tour preparation and say that playing and succeeding in Australia is as much about mental toughness as it is about having the right technique.

(This was the first of three columns on Aakash's experiences on the Australian tour of 2003-4.)

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