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A rivalry in need of a second wind
Will the forthcoming Australian series in India prove as thrilling and epoch-making as the iconic 2001 one where fresh benchmarks for the sport were set? Or is it just another clash between teams in the rebuilding phase?
Paradise has been long lost. The veneer of invincibility has fallen off and they are no longer gods even on the red dirt called Indian pitches. We are talking about Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his band of men whose victories in Test series at home used to be a foregone conclusion, even a year back. But all that's part of history now. The over-ambitious TV channels, who believed even before the England series that 'Angrezo ki poongi bajaana' was child's play, have now shifted their stance. Today, their cautious promos before Michael Clarke's men come here, say, 'India's asli Test abhi baaki hain. '
For once, they have probably hit the right note. The upcoming Aussie Test series is a defining event for the future of Indian cricket, just like the series of 2001 proved to be.
The contexts are different though. 2001 happened at a time when Australia were the supreme superpowers of world cricket while Sourav Ganguly's men were the dynamic counterpunchers who knew how to challenge an overpowering batallion.
Twelve years down the line, a lot has changed in the cricketscape of both these nations. But for one Sachin Tendulkar, the greats on both sides of the fence are gone, and somewhere this is not the marquee clash of the world cricket calendar anymore.
Everyone is waking up to the fact that the India-Australia series isn't much more than a clash of two mediocre teams which are living on past glory. While India still don't know whether they actually have replacements for Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, the Aussies are groping to find the replacements for Mike Hussey and Ricky Ponting.
The Australian media, of course, is trying to put up a brave front and it's the former players who are taking the lead role. "I see shades of the young Ricky Ponting in Glenn Maxwell. " When Matthew Hayden says it, you can't help being shocked. But the burly Queenslander immediately tones it down. "He is a super athletic and this series is a lot about grooming talents like Maxwell, "Hayden brings us back to reality.
In the first practice match that the newlook Aussie outfit played, a Ranji Trophy Group C spinner from Jammu & Kashmir, Parvez Rasool, ran through them just as a knife runs through butter. So are we building a castle in the air when we are trying to build this one up as a replay of 2001?
"More than 2001, the Australian team of this series reminds me of the one we played against them in 1977-78, during the Packer era, "Karsan Ghavri, former Indian allrounder says. Ahead of that series, the likes of Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee and the other Aussie greats had hitched on to the Packer bandwagon and the Australia were left to find youngsters who could fill their slots. In came the likes of Bruce Yardley, Graeme Wood and one Jeff Thomson, who gave India a feel of the raw pace that would shake up the cricket world over the next few years. "Who knows, this Australia team might just come up with something like that...They have the wealth of talent, at least when it comes to pace bowling, "Ghavri says.
India have seen a bit of James Pattinson, who doesn't normally last four Tests, Mitchell Starc and Peter Siddle, but Jackson Bird is unknown quantity for them. When Hayden said Bird can be "a dark horse for the series", the idea that something unknown could be thrown at India became apparent.
India, on the other hand, are a predictable lot;every Indian fan knows what to expect from this team. Gautam Gambhir is gone and M Vijay is in, but it's common knowledge by now that the Tamil Nadu opener is good for a flashy 40 in international cricket, but no more. Shikhar Dhawan was picked more to prove the Indian journalists wrong, who were trying to push for the prolific Wasim Jaffer, once again done in by the last selection committee. Jaffer, with a Test average of 35, was dropped after four failures in 2008, never to be recalled. One thought justice was finally round the corner for the stylish Mumbai opener with Sandeep Patil taking charge of the selection committee, but there are other powerful lobbies in the Board which have a bigger say than a mere group of five former cricketers.
Even as Jaffer was ignored, another old pro Harbhajan Singh wasn't. With the spinning finger getting tired, he might not be the same bowler that he used to be, but Venkatapathy Raju, a member of India's 2001 winning brigade, feels it's a good choice. "Bhajji, all said and done, has the wealth of experience... But he has to forget that he is playing his 100th Test. He has to be the same bowler who bowled with a lot of freedom during that 2001 series which earned him the title of the Turbanator, "Raju, who did the containing job from the other end in that series, says.
For the spin support cast though, the series is crucial. R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha were unplayable against New Zealand, but in a couple of months' time, looked pedestrian as Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen decided to have their own private party at India's expense. The word has gone around that Ojha is not one who can run through teams while Ashwin has a bagful of variations without the stock ball - a big-turning offbreak.
"Indian spinners have to understand that Test cricket is a game of patience. These Australians, but for Shane Watson and Michael Clarke, are not known to be great players of spin, but there will be surprises. You can well expect somebody rising out of the blue and becoming a thorn in the flesh, "Raju says.
The Hyderabad left-armer is of course talking from personal experience, because he had seen the birth of the giant called Hayden during that 2001 series. Hayden, himself, is banking on Phil Hughes to become that surprise package. "He has been one of our best players of spin and knows how to fight against adversity. I would bank on him to deliver, "says Hayden.
If it's Hughes' chance to prove that he is the next big thing in the Aussie batting lineup, Virat Kohli has his task cut out for India. He was one of the biggest disappointments for India in the first three Tests against England, and a century in the fourth on a dead-pan Nagpur pitch wasn't exactly the redemption song that he was looking for.
"For the likes of Kohli, this series is really crucial. He has to take centre stage now and show that all the hype about him is not without basis. A good show against this Aussie pace battery, even on these Indian tracks, will do him a lot of good, "says Ghavri.
And then, of course, there's Tendulkar, who might just be playing his last home Test series. He is truly the last of the Mohicans for whom even the new-age Aussie attack has a lot of respect. "If you ask our pace bowlers who their most cherished scalp in world cricket would be, they will say Sachin. He would like to go on his own terms and that, too, on a winning note against us, "says Hayden, showing all respect for the Little Master.
It's up to the man himself to lead the race one final time and pass the baton to a worthy successor, whom he might find along the course of this upcoming battle.
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