A close encounter on the cards
As Sourav Ganguly and Adam Gilchrist exchanged pleasantries after the unveiling of the TVS Cup, with the incongruous Star Wars theme blaring in the background, it was difficult to escape the impression that the intensity and gamesmanship might come down a notch in the absence of Stephen Rodger Waugh. But while you might see a little less lip out in the middle, it's impossible to overstate how much this rivalry now means to both sides.
Despite Gilchrist cleverly negating ideas of final frontiers and crossings, the fact is that any team with legitimate aspirations to be ranked on par with Clive Lloyd's West Indians and Don Bradman's Australians has to win against India in India. Only two teams have managed that since Mike Gatting came and had a few too many prawns in 1984-85. They are Imran Khan's Pakistan, who edged a thriller at this very ground in 1986-87, and Hansie Cronje's South Africans, who crushed India at Mumbai and Bangalore in 1999-2000, only to have the veneer of greatness scratched away by the match-fixing scandal that followed.
India haven't enjoyed playing at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in recent times, with two defeats and a draw in three matches played since 1998. Michael Kasprowicz, who will be a key performer tomorrow, stopped the in-form Sachin Tendulkar in his tracks that March during a magnificent spell of 5 for 28, and two years later, it was the innocuous left-arm spin of Nicky Boje that sent India hurtling to defeat in Mohammad Azharuddin's 99th and final Test.
Australia will enjoy the temperate weather, and despite John Buchanan's initial alarm on seeing the playing surface, they shouldn't be too put out by the pitch. As hard and flat as a concrete slab, with every blade of grass hacked away, you could mistake it for the Atacama in the heat of summer. But, having been rolled to extreme flatness, it's unlikely to crumble until at least the fourth afternoon.
There has been much talk of how the pitch will abet the efforts of Anil Kumble, who needs just three more wickets for 400, and Harbhajan Singh, but it seems extremely foolish to ignore the legend that is Shane Warne. Neither captain was asked a question about Warne, and such a slight could be just the inspiration that the man nicknamed Hollywood needs to script a blockbuster.
Lest it be forgotten, Rahul Dravid's pedigree was questioned by some after his first innings failure at Brisbane last December, largely owing to the fact that his previous tour of Australia had produced just 93 runs in three Tests. Like Dravid, Warne has too much in his locker to keep failing in conditions that will suit him.
Yesterday, Warne was quoted as saying that Brian Lara was the third-best batsman in the world, after Sachin Tendulkar and daylight. And the absence of India's little big man could be a big factor in the outcome of this match, and the series. India will not only miss Tendulkar's batting, but also the legspin that accounted for crucial top-order wickets in the famous victories at Kolkata and Adelaide. More importantly, they will miss Tendulkar the icon, whose presence on the teamsheet demoralises the opposition, and Tendulkar the team-man, whose arm around the shoulder can galvanise a Harbhajan or a Zaheer Khan.
By contrast, Australia have few worries. Michael Clarke will make his long-awaited debut, despite the stray whisper that Shane Watson might have a role to play. And Brett Lee, a familiar presence in Indian advertising campaigns, will surely be off-camera, with Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Kasprowicz providing a formidable pace array for Gilchrist to employ. Though Kasprowicz joked yesterday about how he was prepared for five days of back-breaking effort, there's no doubt that the abrasive surface will delight bowlers who are adept at reverse-swinging a scuffed-up ball.
India will need both Zaheer and Irfan Pathan to operate at maximum potential against a line-up that appears far more balanced than the one that played in 2001. Simon Katich, Darren Lehmann, Damien Martyn and Clarke all play the turning ball with assurance, while Matthew Hayden - unless he can be undone by some early movement - presents a mighty initial barrier for India to cross.
Australia will undoubtedly target Dravid and VVS Laxman - 965 runs in his last six Tests against Australia - who have been the linchpins of the batting effort even when Tendulkar was in the side. Virender Sehwag's recent form hasn't been great, and there's a perception among the Australians that both Ganguly and Yuvraj Singh have weaknesses, against genuine pace and spin respectively, that can be worked on.
Ganguly's stunning century at the Gabba last year made a mockery of such plans, and it's vital that he leads from the front again with expectations having been raised to fever-pitch by the 1-1 draw in that series. Australia will undoubtedly play smarter cricket this time round, conscious of how a gung-ho approach cost them at Kolkata in 2001, as Gilchrist and gang attempt to go where no Australian team has gone since that controversial tour of 1969-70.
It might not quite be Star Wars with Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting missing, but the watching world can certainly expect a Close Encounter of the Test-match kind.
India (likely) 1 Aakash Chopra, 2 Virender Sehwag, 3 Rahul Dravid, 4 VVS Laxman, 5 Sourav Ganguly (capt), 6 Yuvraj Singh, 7 Parthiv Patel (wk), 8 Harbhajan Singh, 9 Irfan Pathan, 10 Zaheer Khan, 11 Anil Kumble.
Australia (likely) 1 Justin Langer, 2 Matthew Hayden, 3 Simon Katich, 4 Damien Martyn, 5 Darren Lehmann, 6 Michael Clarke, 7 Adam Gilchrist (capt, wk), 8 Shane Warne, 9 Jason Gillespie, 10 Michael Kasprowicz, 11 Glenn McGrath.