Excitement is building up for a mega-battle, writes RITAM MITRA
Sixty-four years have passed since India toured Australia for the first time. That tour resulted in a 4-0 drubbing for the visitors, including 3 innings defeats. In the 8 tours that followed, India’s best result has been a pair of 1-1 draws in 2003/04 and 1980/81, as well as a 0-0 draw in 1985/86. Now, for the first time, India will come to Australiaas favourites, and will look to finally conquer their demons down under, in what may be likened to the Mahabharata’s epic battle – a veritable Kurukshetra! It’s finally upon us – the most anticipated contest of the year: India v Australia, 2011/12.
Creating cricketing history
There have been 9 series in all, and India has won none of them. Some of the contests have been memorable, however:
Although India have twice drawn away Test series against Australia, many Indian fans will consider their best attempt to have been the 1977/78 tour. The first two matches led to agonisingly close defeats of 16 runs and 2 wickets – however, the Indians, led extremely well by Bishan Bedi, bounced back bravely to post two huge wins – 222 runs in Melbourne, and an innings victory at the spin-friendly SCG. The final match at Adelaide resulted in a devastating 47 run loss, even though India managed to post an enormous 445 in their chase of 493. This series will be remembered for Sunil Gavaskar’s unprecedented and unrepeated feats – in four second-innings efforts on the tour, India’s greatest-ever opening batsman managed to make no less than three centuries.
This tour is often remembered for Tendulkar’s phenomenal tons atSydney and, more famously, at Perth on a lightning fast deck. His 148* in Sydney was brilliant, but it came in a high-scoring draw. The aggressive hundred at Perth is, for many, their favourite Tendulkar century, purely because it was so against the grain; Indialost the match by 300 runs, and no other Indian crossed 45. However, these memories hide the bigger picture – India was embarrassed at 4-0, including 3 huge margins of 10 wickets, 8 wickets and the 300 run loss at Perth. The hangover was even worse,India suffering 3 huge defeats in the 99/00 tour.
The last match of this series was Steve Waugh’s last match, and it was India’s best batting performance in Australia. After a draw inBrisbane, India took an early lead with a remarkable comeback inAdelaide, where they conceded 556 in the first innings (due mainly to a Ponting double-century). 4-85 down, who else but Dravid and Laxman could combine to rescue India and take them to 523. Dravid backed up his 233 with an unbeaten 72 in the second innings, andAustralia’s memories of Kolkata were given a quick touch-up.Australia came roaring back in Melbourne, even though Sehwag made a blistering 195 – Ponting scored a consecutive double-hundred, in what remains his highest test score of 257. The final test at the SCG saw Tendulkar continue his love affair with the ground, with an unbeaten 241*. Laxman tormented the Australian bowlers yet again with 178, as India amassed their then-highest total of all time, 705/7. The match meandered into a draw, however, and Indiaagain went home without the trophy.
This tour will be forever remembered as one of the most heated and controversial in history. There were threats to abandon the tour, tension in the field that trickled into the press conferences, and above all else a very bad taste in the mouth at the end of the tour. In the midst of all the allegations flying left right and centre, was some fantastic cricket.
The 337-run loss in Melbourne was an aberration in what was an otherwise competitive tour. A series of umpiring howlers cost Indiathe Sydney Test, where on the fourth day they looked like the only team who could win the match. Michael Clarke’s 3 wickets in five balls stole the match from India with just 9 minutes to spare in the last hour of play. This overshadowed an otherwise stellar performance by the Indians, including yet another Sachin special at the SCG – 154 unbeaten runs that gave his career a much-needed jumpstart.
A famous win in Perth followed; it was in Perth that Ishant Sharma bowled that spell to Ricky Ponting. Perth was also, it is often forgotten, the scene at which Irfan Pathan and Virender Sehwag were recalled to the Indian side. Both had instant impact, with Pathan being named man-of-the-match and Sehwag going on to make a big ton in the dead rubber at Adelaide.
In the past decade, the best contest in the game has been between India and Australia. This does not purely stem back to the fateful 2007/08 tour, which is now remembered for all the wrong reasons. Indeed, the famous victory at Eden Gardens in 2001 perhaps best epitomises the battles these two sides have fought out in the past decade; the teams have been fiercely competitive, the crowds have been vociferous and of course, the cricket itself has been of the highest quality.
There are many reasons why this contest has come to be considered the pinnacle of Test cricket. Inherent in both Australia and India is a strong cricket culture, and accordingly, this matchup pits those who grew up playing backyard cricket against those who played gallicricket. It puts the world’s most vaunted batting line up of the decade, the mighty Indian middle order, against a side whose mental strength is unrivalled; Australia’s fielders are some of the most committed in the world, and the bowlers are always aggressive.
Both sides play to their strengths at home, which make them both such formidable hosts. When India hosts, the Aussies face trial by tweakers, with India rarely ever fielding less than two spinners at home. Australian batsmen have had nightmares of Bhagwath Chandrasekhar, Anil Kumble and, perhaps to a lesser extent these days, Harbhajan Singh. When India come Down Under, however, they are usually subject to a stern pace examination and over the years, Australian quicks have done severe damage; Mike Whitney, Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee are some obvious examples.
In a nutshell, these two nations never bring the same things to the table. Where one side may enjoy a distinct advantage in the batting averages, the other will make up for by saving 20 runs in the field. The main feature is always a contest between bat and ball, but inherently surrounding this is a number of mini-scripts. Although some of the biggest heroes have left the scene over recent years, there are still several contests to watch out for.
Experience versus inexperience
Four years ago, when Dravid, Tendulkar, Ganguly and Laxman toured here together, it was assumed that it would be the last time they visited these shores, both as a group and individually. Then came Tendulkar’s remarkable resurgence, followed by Dravid’s herculean feats in England, which have since continued in the West Indies. VVS Laxman has never really been out of form, having consistently scored vital match-winning half centuries. As such, it is only Ganguly who has since disappeared from India’s middle order – perhaps one of the best in history – in the last decade.
Meanwhile, Australia have undergone a huge number of changes in the bowling department. Four years ago, Brett Lee was the spearhead of the attack, supported by Stuart Clark, Mitchell Johnson, Andrew Symonds, Brad Hogg, and Shaun Tait in Perth. Only Johnson remains in contention for selection from this group, and even his spot seems extremely uncertain.
What it boils down to then, is a battle between generations. Australia will field an attack compiled from the following players: Patrick Cummins, Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle, Doug Bollinger, Mitchell Johnson, James Pattinson, Nathan Lyon and Trent Copeland, with the possibility of Shane Watson for support. These 10 players have played barely 100 Tests between them. Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman have played 460 matches between them. Add to this Gambhir, Sehwag and Dhoni, and the Australians soon find themselves bowling at 650 Tests’ worth of experience.
Battle of the quicks
Assuming full fitness, India could, for the first time in recent memory, come to Australia with the more settled attack. Australia would themselves concede that India hold all the trumps when it comes to the spin department, with Harbhajan Singh currently struggling to find a place in the side due to the exploits of left-arm tweaker Pragyan Ojha, and the somewhat mystery package of Ravichandran Ashwin. Nathan Lyon, meanwhile, has by no means cemented his place in the side.
The fast-bowlers, however, have less separating them. Ishant Sharma and Zaheer Khan are a potent combination, but the latter carries with him heavy baggage: Zaheer’s fitness will be under intense scrutiny from day one of the tour. Umesh Yadav showed promise against the West Indies, and with the uncapped Varun Aaron waiting in the wings along with the steady Praveen Kumar, India will be feeling quietly confident of taking 20 wickets in a match.
What Australia’s quicks lack in experience, however, they make up for in raw pace, youthfulness, and of course having their home advantage. However much he “bowls to the left, bowls to the right”, as observed by the English Barmy Army, Johnson can still be more than a handful; at the end of the day, he bowls fast, slings the ball from an awkward height and is a left-armer. Meanwhile, Harris and Cummins can both swing the ball at pace, and together with Bollinger, Siddle, Pattinson and Copeland there is an abundance of variety and a lot of options for the new selectors.
Neither side can truly boast a clear advantage here, and thus it will be an aspect of the series to closely monitor.
The openers of the two sides have striking similarities between them. Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir are probably the best opening pair in world cricket today; they score at an alarming pace and understand each other well. However, Hughes and Watson are not far behind, being a similarly aggressive left-hand/right-hand duo. Due to injuries, they haven’t had the chance to play together often, but in full flight they pose a real threat to the Indian seamers.
India holds a slight edge here, mostly due to the fact that both openers have high-score mentalities. Gambhir has 9 hundreds and 17 fifties, with a high score of 206. Sehwag is notorious for punishing bowlers further once he crosses his century; he has 22 tons and 29 fifties, with two triple centuries to his name.
Meanwhile, Watson has been guilty of throwing away countless starts. He has converted just 2 of his 18 half-centuries into hundreds, with a high score of only 126. He cannot be considered a makeshift opener anymore, given how many matches he has now played up the top; it is high time he started doing his job as an opener and anchoring the innings for sustained periods. Hughes enjoyed a sparkling start to his Test career in South Africa, becoming the youngest player to score twin tons in a Test; however, things have gone mostly downhill since then. His average has dropped below 40, but at just 23 years of age, 3 centuries and 3 half-centuries is not a bad tally.
Many test teams around the world have now realised that an aggressive opening pair can put early pressure on the opposition; Sehwag is perhaps the first in his breed, but Watson, Dilshan, and previously Gayle, have all followed suit. A fast start from the openers may be what it takes to swing the match either team’s way.
The young guns
Australia’s crop of young cricketers is truly promising, and they will be relied upon in the big moments. Will Patrick Cummins be able to bowl to a tight field for sustained periods against Indian batsmen who live to score runs? How will Usman Khawaja or Shaun Marsh fare in their first stern tests as Australian top-order batsmen? Can Nathan Lyon make any impact on batsmen who grew up facing primarily spin?
India’s reliance on their youngsters is less so. The top 5 are all seasoned campaigners, while the spinners have plied their trade in several ODIs, even if their Test experience is minimal. The number 6 slot will be filled by either Yuvraj, Raina, or Kohli. The latter two have yet to fully cement their spots in the Test side – They are definitely talented enough, but will they be able to stand up to the mental pressure of touring Australia? Varun Aaron and Umesh Yadav may find it difficult to gain a place in the starting XI if Praveen, Ishant and Zaheer are all fit – and so it all comes down to how the Australian youngsters fare against far more experienced opposition
Care to predict?
It is an extremely tough task to make any predictions regarding this series. India come down as favourites, but it is not by chance that no Australian side has ever conceded defeat to India at home. The Aussies will be fighting tooth and nail to ensure their unbeaten record continues, and MS Dhoni will face his sternest test yet as captain. Everything he touches has turned to gold, and he has already led India to victory over Australia in some very tense matches; it will be a completely different experience for him in Australian conditions.
The history between the two sides is so vast and colourful, it is not surprising that they were against each other in one of only tied Tests in over 2000 matches of Test cricket. Indeed, it might well come down to a single run or wicket that determines this series. Fans of the game, whether Indian, Australian or neutral, will be hoping that this summer, they can concentrate on the cricket. These two sides can certainly produce their fair share of drama on the cricket field; let’s just hope it stays out there. Who’s your money on?
“As much as he has proved that age is no barrier through his purple patch in the last couple of years, it is tough to imagine Australian crowds will have the chance to see Sachin bat after this summer.”
* India have never won a Test series in Australia, from 9 attempts.
* India currently hold the Border Gavaskar Trophy, having beatenAustralia 2-0 at home last year.
* In the B-G trophy to date, Australia has won 10 matches, India has won 12, and there have been 6 draws.
* Sachin Tendulkar has scored 1629 runs against Australia inAustralia, with 5 centuries and an average of 62.65. The next-highest current player, of any nationality, is VVS Laxman with 1198 runs at 57.04, followed by Rahul Dravid with 1000 runs exactly.
* Even though so many current Indians feature in the top batting charts in Australia, the top two current Indian bowlers are RP Singh (13 wickets) and Irfan Pathan (12 wickets), who barely scrape the top 150 wicket takers in Australia. Kapil Dev is India’s all-time best, with 51 victims.
* Ricky Ponting has scored 1349 runs against India on his home soil, at an average of 79.35. No other Australian batsman has crossed 900 runs against India at home.
* Sachin Tendulkar has three man-of-the-match awards in Australia, and one man-of-the-series award. Of the five man-of-the-series awards that have been presented, the only Australian to win one is Craig McDermott. Rahul Dravid was the recipient in 2003/04.
* In the past year, Michael Hussey and Rahul Dravid are the only players from either side to score 1000 runs, averaging 60.72 and 51.80 respectively. In the same period, Ponting’s average is 20.46, Raina has averaged 22.86 and Sehwag, 25.61.
* Going by their last playing XIs, India have amassed 51,809 runs as a team. Australia’s last playing XI make a total of 30,092
* The Dravid/Laxman alliance has forged 884 runs between them inAustralia, with a highest partnership of 303. They average 73.66 whenever they come together at the crease Down Under. The next most prolific pair is Dravid/Tendulkar, with 632 runs at 63.20. Clarke and Ponting are Australia’s best, with 239 runs together, at an astonishing average of 119.50.