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India eyeing a 'maiden' Down Under
It may lack the romance of the Ashes, or the fervour of an Indo-Pak 'warfare' on a cricket field but make no mistake, an India-Australia Test series is high up there in the pecking order of marquee match-ups that the International Cricket Council (ICC) never fails to flaunt as a great advertisement for the game's longest format.
You can hardly blame the guardians of the game, though. A clash between the world's most glamorous team - boasting an array of superstars like Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid - and the game's most consistent side over the last two decades, is bound to attract eyeballs. So, it will be business as usual, for the administrators off the field and the players on it, when the two cricketing superpowers renew their rivalry on Boxing Day at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
It will be war minus the shooting as Michael Clarke's 'brash brigade' goes hard at MS Dhoni's 'bravehearts' in the 'Battle for Australia' that will be fought across four cities - Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Adelaide.
Traditionally, teams travelling to Australia have always been deemed as underdogs primarily for two reasons: The Aussies have been virtually unbeatable at home, thanks to a robust system that helped create a rich talent pool, and secondly, teams take time to get used to the conditions Down Under. By the time touring sides make those adjustments, the series is usually all but over.
But times are a changing. Both England and South Africa have beaten the Aussies in their own backyard and India have come close to humbling them the last two times they have toured the country. A crumbling system that has outlived its utility, copycat administrators with an eye for 'big bucks', an uninspiring leader and a severe talent drought have all combined in varying degrees to leave the Aussies a touch vulnerable.
Two batting failures that would rate 9. 6 on cricket's disaster scale - one against South Africa away from home and the other against New Zealand at home - within a span of two months have exposed the lack of depth as well as quality in Australia's ranks and shattered the confidence of the team. There seems to be allround panic with selectors, administrators and former players all contributing to it in equal measure.
It is hard to recall the last time when an Australian side looked so disorganized before a major home series. Even during the Kerry Packer circus in the late seventies, a bunch of rookies had responded magnificently under 'war veteran' Bob Simpson, who came out of retirement in a bid to uphold Aussie pride.
All that is, of course, history. Most of the Australian players who will line up for the ceremonial picture before the start of the Boxing Day Test weren't even born when Packer turned the world of cricket upside down with his revolutionary concept that changed the way the game was administered and marketed.
Make no mistake, anyone wearing the Baggy Green will not be short on commitment. As young blood is infused into an anaemic Australian side to spark a revival, the fans will have to wait with bated breath for the transfusion to take effect. In the meantime, they would be hoping that the sweat patches on Ricky Ponting's cap get bigger, for they reflect the pride of a man who has carried Australia's batting on his capable shoulders for over a decade-and-a-half. At 37, and after 158 Tests, Australia's highest run-getter may be a touch weary, but remains their best bet to spark a batting revival against 'old foes' India, who would surely fancy their chances of registering their maiden series win Down Under.
At the receiving end of quite a few horrendous umpiring decisions in the Sydney Test on their last trip in 2007-08, that had allowed the Aussies to emerge 2-1 winners, experts, both desi and phoren, reckon this is India's best chance to create history.
Unlike in the past, India would start the series on equal terms, if not with a definite edge in the batting department where Australia are struggling at the moment. But for an injuryprone pace attack, India would have been the bookmakers' favourite. The question marks over Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma's ability to bowl at full tilt in the four-Test series is a definite cause for concern in the Indian camp. To win Test matches, a side not only has to put enough runs on the board, but also bowl out the opposition twice. Without Zaheer and Ishant firing in tandem, it's hard to see India do that even if their ageing batsmen do manage to keep the score-keepers busy.
The Aussies, too, have to contend with injuries to key bowlers. In the absence of Mitchell Johnson and Pat Cummins, it will be up to the likes of Peter Siddle, Ryan Harris, Doug Bollinger and the new kid on the block, James Pattinson, to shore up the Australian pace attack.
A cursory glance at the 2007-08 line-ups of both sides does suggest that man-for-man, India hold a definite edge over the current Australian team. The Aussies will be missing Matthew Hayden, Adam Gilchrist, Andrew Symonds and Brett Lee, who have long retired from the longer format of the game, while India will be without former skippers Anil Kumble and Sourav Ganguly (both retired) apart from the feisty Harbhajan Singh, whose absence has more to do with his poor form than with his attitude.
The absence of Symmo and Bhajji, the chief protagonists of the infamous 'Monkeygate' incident at the SCG last time around, will certainly take some fizz out of the ensuing contests. However, from a different perspective, irrespective of the amount of disrepute they collectively brought to the game through their acts of immaturity, both teams would have been better off with their considerable ability with the bat and ball, especially at a time when talent seems to be at a premium in international cricket.
The talking point of the series will be India's batting. With Ganguly taking his place in the commentary box, India's Fab Five has now been reduced to the Fab Four. Though they have rarely fired together in a match, Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman continue to defy age and critics with a heady cocktail of technique, class, courage and passion that touches the very soul of the game.
It is hard to see the Little Master missing out on his ton of tons that will undoubtedly headline the series, but Team India will be looking at its most precious player to deliver much more in Bradman's own country, to fuel its ambitions of winning the series - and remind the world that he is indeed the 'Don' of the modern era.
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