India face uphill task in the Wild West
So here we are, in probably the most isolated city in the world, looking forward to a Test which, for a while, threatened not to happen. The simmering cauldron of Sydney has been swapped for a balmy atmosphere in Perth. Clocks have been turned back two hours and the teams are making nothing but optimistic noises. The game, which we're told is bigger than any individual, towers over the WACA.
Now that the two captains have shaken hands and made up, we can focus on the game at hand. Australia are chasing a record and India are chasing the series. Chris Rogers is set for his home debut and Anil Kumble stands on 599 Test wickets. Australia haven't lost a Test here in ten years and have been ferocious enough to win eight of their last ten on this ground (the other two ended in draws).
So much has been said about the pitch that it's a surprise there haven't been any fumes emanating from the surface. This is the Wild West and fittingly Shaun Tait, ready with a gun-sling, returns to Tests after two-and-a-half years. Adam Gilchrist is wondering how far back he needs to stand to keep to him. Considering the hype, the four slip fielders might struggle to stay within the boundary line.
Facing up to him, in all probability, will be Virender Sehwag, a cricketing version of Clint Eastwood. Local wisdom suggests this is exactly the kind of pitch he would like, one where batsmen can rock back and slash hard. Don't expect too many front-foot defences; Sehwag's brief would be to try and smoke 'em.
Sehwag has not figured in a Test for more than a year but he would have taken some confidence from his hundred in Canberra. "He is a very dangerous player," Ricky Ponting said, "but we have played against him and know what his strength and weaknesses are, we have plans to keep him under wraps."
India's line-up is set to be re-jigged and bolstered. Rahul Dravid goes back to his customary No. 3 position and VVS Laxman is likely to walk in at No. 6. Irfan Pathan, who cracked a century in his most recent Test appearance, is likely to come in at No. 8. Yet it's a mighty challenge they're up against. They will have Tait and Brett Lee pushing them back before Stuart Clark and Mitchell Johnson draw them forward. Each can vary his lengths and all will draw on past experience to use the Fremantle Doctor, a swing-friendly breeze that blows across Perth.
Australia have a new opening combination and a captain who's yet to hit his straps, though the absence of Harbhajan Singh would come as some relief. Michael Clarke has done more with the ball than bat and Gilchrist, who blitzed a 57-ball hundred on this ground last year, is yet to explode. However, taking into account their knowledge of local conditions and ability to play off the back foot, you wouldn't bet against a solid batting performance. India's raw attack, consisting of a new-ball pair that has 12 Tests between them, will have their plates full.
Despite all the portents India can take heart from one fact: they've recently pulled off surprises in bowler-friendly conditions abroad. Like in Headingley in 2002, Kingston or even Wanderers in 2006 and Nottingham last year, they have stood up and taken on the challenge.
It would require the performance of a lifetime but India have travelled far to be here and distance may finally bring about some enchantment with this tour.
India (likely) 1 Virender Sehwag, 2 Wasim Jaffer, 3 Rahul Dravid, 4 Sachin Tendulkar, 5 Sourav Ganguly, 6 VVS Laxman, 7 Mahendra Singh Dhoni (wk), 8 Irfan Pathan, 9 Anil Kumble (capt), 10 RP Singh, 11 Ishant Sharma.
Australia 1 Chris Rogers, 2 Phil Jaques, 3 Ricky Ponting (capt), 4 Michael Hussey, 5 Michael Clarke, 6 Andrew Symonds, 7 Adam Gilchrist (wk), 8 Brett Lee, 9 Mitchell Johnson, 10 Stuart Clark, 11 Shaun Tait.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is an assistant editor at Cricinfo