Australia all set for MCG dominance
Take a walk in Melbourne's Central Business District and the theme is simple: big. There's the impressive Rod Laver Arena, the imposing Crown Casino, rows of skyscrapers, and the enormous MCG. Nobody needs any directions for the G, as it's referred to here, just get near the vicinity and look for the massive light towers. G is for gigantic.
Come Boxing Day and close to 70,000 are expected to fill the arena, a ground where Australia haven't lost since 1998 - that too in a nail-biter against England. The last time they drew here was against South Africa in 1997. The previous eight Tests have all ended in Australian victories. The chances of another Australian win? Huge.
The last few years have seen India evolve into a fine Test side but this will be their biggest test of all. A maiden Test win in South Africa was bookended by historic series wins in West Indies and England but they will need to pull rabbits, parrots and kangaroos out of the same hat to have a chance here. They've come with a weakened pace attack and a batting line-up four years older than 2003. The nature of the challenge ahead of them? Massive.
Ricky Ponting didn't want to reveal the team composition but suggested a return to Test cricket for Brad Hogg, the chinaman bowler whose last Test was more than four years ago. He will back up Stuart Clark, a mean seam bowler in the Glenn McGrath mould, and left-armer Mitchell Johnson, who has tasted success against India in the one-day format. The pacey Shaun Tait may miss out but all could change if the pitch is damp on the first morning.
"He is a guy that can break a game open in a matter of couple of overs," Ponting said of Tait. "What we lost in McGrath and Warne we gained in a few other guys doing different roles."
India are likely to go in with a similar combination: three seamers complementing Anil Kumble, though there could be a toss-up between Ishant Sharma and offspinner Harbhajan Singh. Ponting didn't think Ishant would play but a five-wicket haul in the recent Bangalore Test against Pakistan could see him win a spot as the third seamer. Zaheer Khan and RP Singh, architects of the Indian win in England, will be expected to take the new ball. It has been confirmed, meanwhile, that Rahul Dravid will open the batting along with Wasim Jaffer, with Yuvraj Singh bolstering the line-up at No.6.
Tony Ware, the head groundsman, thinks the pitch will be flat but feels bowling first may be the way to go. Ponting didn't rule out the possibility. "Through this year, in domestic cricket, the pitch has been very flat. But this has got more moisture in it than any of the first days of other games. So, it's going to be a tricky decision. It's probably going to be bowler-friendly from the looks of it. It's going to be pretty slow and seam around."
What has he usually preferred at this ground? "I don't win that many tosses so I can't tell."
India's best batsman on current form is expected to walk in at No.5. It will be Sourav Ganguly's 100th Test. As a captain he's thrived against Australia but his batting heroics are largely confined to his sublime hundred in Brisbane last time around. Ponting offered a note of caution: "I've been lucky to play a hundred Test matches. I was quite nervous going in, and I put a bit more pressure on myself going in. I'm sure Sourav will be feeling a bit anxious and a bit nervous as well."
Ganguly won't mind being nervous initially if he achieved what Ponting managed: a unique feat of scoring a hundred in each innings of his 100thTest. The scale of celebrations that will follow that feat? Big, really big.
Australia - 1 Phil Jaques, 2 Matthew Hayden, 3 Ricky Ponting (capt), 4 Mike Hussey, 5 Michael Clarke, 6 Andrew Symonds, 7 Adam Gilchrist (wk), 8 Brett Lee, 9 Mitchell Johnson, 10 Stuart Clark, 11 Brad Hogg
India - 1 Wasim Jaffer, 2 Rahul Dravid, 3 VVS Laxman, 4 Sachin Tendulkar, 5 Sourav Ganguly, 6 Yuvraj Singh, 7 MS Dhoni (wk), 8 Anil Kumble (capt), 9 Zaheer Khan, 10 RP Singh, 11 Ishant Sharma/Harbhajan Singh
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is an assistant editor at Cricinfo