Clash of the Titans - Part 1
Has Ricky Ponting saved the best for last?
The cavernous Melbourne Cricket Ground will dredge up mixed emotions in both camps. Until recently, it was the one venue where Australia appeared most vulnerable, with 40 wins and 34 defeats in their first 77 games there. But since then, in an era when they have boldly charted new waters in one-day cricket, Australia have reeled off 15 victories in 18 matches at the MCG.
India's Melbourne experience has followed a distinctly different route. Having won four of their first five one-day games there, they have now lost four on the trot and you have to go back to January 31, 1986 - when Sunil Gavaskar and Dilip Vengsarkar were the batting heroes - for their last triumph.
It's impossible to separate the two teams in the batting stakes, though each will look to their marquee names to deliver more than they have thus far. In the league matches, you had Adam Gilchrist and VVS Laxman matching each other stroke for stroke, though Laxman reeled off three centuries to Gilchrist's one. Both teams have also depended on middle-order effervescence in the shape of Andrew Symonds and Yuvraj Singh, the only Indian batsman to play Australia's quick bowlers with confidence on a bouncy WACA pitch.
Neither team distinguished itself overly with the ball, not helped by pitches made for batsmen's pleasure. India can boast two of the highest wicket-takers in the tournament - Irfan Pathan has 14, and Ajit Agarkar 11 from just five matches - but neither has shown an inclination to be as economical as Scrooge.
For Australia, Brett Lee - savaged for 83 runs in Brisbane - appears back to something like his rapid-fire best, while Jason Gillespie has struggled to live up to his billing as the world's premier fast bowler. Symonds, with his innocuous offspin has taken more wickets (10) than either Lee (8) or Gillespie (6), but all of them have been eclipsed by the exceptional Brad Williams, who can point to 12 wickets at 16.66 and a superb economy rate of 4.12.
A welcome return for Michael Kasprowicz, an honest toiler
His 48 wickets in the Pura Cup last season, and stellar displays for Glamorgan in the county championship, didn't sway the selection panel, who persisted instead with those woefully out of form. The way he bowled against India when given a chance in the TVS Cup should have told them all they needed to know, but they still overlooked him. This call-up, however late, might just spare their blushes.
The selectorial eyes will also be keenly trained on Damien Martyn - so out of sorts this season - and Simon Katich, competitors for a seat on the plane to Sri Lanka, with Darren Lehmann almost certain to be an automatic choice. Michael Clarke will also be under scrutiny, with the Hussey brothers forcing themselves into the picture through sheer weight of runs.
As for India, they would do well to experiment with their bowling attack. L Balaji has been the most unflappable of their pace bowlers, and would be an ideal foil for Agarkar. At the moment, Pathan doesn't have the raw pace, or the composure, to take on Gilchrist in full flight, and his enthusiasm and aggression would be best served as first change, Lee's role not so long ago when Australia sensibly decided to keep the new ball with Glenn McGrath.
A summer when runs have rained down should see many more scored on Friday, with the likes of Matthew Hayden and Sachin Tendulkar overdue a big score. India should welcome back their slow-bowling talisman, Anil Kumble, if he is fit in time, but even that might not be enough against an Australian side that have won 14 of 23 finals at the "G", including four on the bounce.
Australia (likely) 1 Adam Gilchrist (wk), 2 Matthew Hayden, 3 Ricky Ponting (capt), 4 Damien Martyn, 5 Andrew Symonds, 6 Michael Clarke, 7 Simon Katich, 8 Brett Lee, 9 Jason Gillespie, 10 Brad Williams, 11 Michael Kasprowicz.
India (likely) 1 Sachin Tendulkar, 2 Virender Sehwag, 3 VVS Laxman, 4 Rahul Dravid (wk), 5 Sourav Ganguly (capt), 6 Yuvraj Singh, 7 Rohan Gavaskar, 8 Ajit Agarkar, 9 Irfan Pathan, 10 Anil Kumble, 11 L Balaji.