Australia v India, 3rd Test, Perth, 4th day January 19, 2008

A great rivalry revived

It would be ridiculous to suggest that a new world order is upon us but one thing has been re-established at Perth: Australia v India is the Test rivalry of the decade



India achieved their win through teamwork and not individual brilliance © AFP
 

Australia must wonder why they always run into India when in full flow. The same opponents had halted them in 2001 by conjuring a miracle in Kolkata; now they have done one better by overwhelming them at the bastion of Australian supremacy. Perth didn't quite live up to the hype, but it was still the paciest, bounciest track the Indians have experienced this summer and it is likely to remain so.

More significantly, though, after a blip in Melbourne, a great rivalry has been restored to health. Just over four years ago India had taken a Test off Australia in Adelaide and now they have done it again. It would be ridiculous to suggest that a new world order is upon us but one thing has been re-established: Australia v India is the Test rivalry of the decade. England popped up spectacularly in 2005 but only India have been able to match, fight and beat Australia over a sustained period.

Since India's disastrous tour in 1991-92, the teams have met 21 times in Test cricket; the numbers now stand at 10-8 in Australia's favour. In the corresponding period Australia's record stands at 27-9 against England, 12-2 against Pakistan, 15-4 against South Africa and 9-1 against Sri Lanka. And India were the last team to humble Australia in a home Test.

Till 2001, contests between India and Australia followed a familiar pattern: India were hopeless in Australia and Australia could never beat India in India. Steve Waugh's team, though it lost that great series, actually started the change - Australia were two wicket-taking balls away from winning the series - and Sourav Ganguly's Indians continued it during a magnificently competitive series in 2003-04.

There was a real danger of this series ending as a washout. A less resilient side would have been shattered by the heartbreaking last-minute loss at Sydney, and the other distractions it brought. India are fortunate to have a man of Anil Kumble's resolve and calm, and a bunch of steely senior players in the dressing room. Instead of licking their wounds when they retreated to Canberra after the stand-off, they renewed their spirit to fight on and found the calm to be able to do so. Kumble spoke after the win about the special bond within the team and this is as united a team as India have ever been.

Kumble had no hesitation in ranking this win the greatest of his career and he is hardly off the mark. The good thing about this Indian side is that the wins have been getting better and better. Adelaide in 2003 was special because no one had given them a chance of competing against Australia before the series and, more so, because they were 85 for 4 in the first innings chasing 556. Like Kolkata, it had a touch of the miraculous to it. And of course, Australia had contributed to their defeat by some reckless batting.

Not so here. This was a Test in which India looked Australia in the eye from the first session and never blinked. Apart from batting and bowling better than their opponents, they even caught more safely. Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid showed what difference technique can make by batting through a challenging period when Brett Lee and Stuart Clark were at their best on the first day; when they failed in the second innings VVS Laxman stood up. Virender Sehwag's two wickets in successive overs hastened India's win but his contribution with the bat was equally vital. He got India off to quick starts in both innings and in fact had looked to have regained his form in the second innings. Mahendra Singh Dhoni is still far from his booming best but this is his first tour of Australia and his restrained 38 in the second innings saved India from a collapse.

 
 
This was a Test India dominated pretty much throughout. Apart from batting and bowling better than their opponents, they caught more safely
 

But the bowlers won India the match and, staggeringly, they outbowled their rivals. Even more staggeringly the bowling line-up, had injury not intervened, would have read Zaheer Khan, Sreesanth and Munaf Patel. Rarely has the gap between expectation and delivery been so huge in a positive sense. Even though Perth was expected to deliver pace and bounce, the Indians always knew they had to do it with swing and, irrespective of what the pitch did, they were prepared to throw it up.

Teamwork has been a feature of India's recent wins and, as in Trent Bridge and Delhi, there were no singular performances here. Wasim Jaffer and Sourav Ganguly were the only failures of the match, and even Jaffer played his part in the first innings. It's a sign of strength and a healthy departure from the not-so-distant past when they were over-reliant on individual brilliance.

The result in Perth was also a victory for world cricket and there were few Australian journalists in the press box who were not alive to the fact; they were even prepared to rejoice over it. Australia's dominance has been boring and unhealthy and, even though this is not a sign of a decline, to see them challenged itself is uplifting.

The Australian season began in misery with Sri Lanka belying their promise. Now, Test cricket is alive again. The trophy has been won but there is a series that can be shared. Adelaide is a salivating prospect.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo

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