India in Australia 2003-04 December 2, 2003

The toughest test

Sachin Tendulkar: a different ball game
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In Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, the hero of the story never ages, but a portrait of him does. All his flaws and imperfections are highlighted in the picture, while in his person he remains fresh and youthful.

A tour to Australia, in modern times, is a cricketing version of this portrait. However fine a team may appear playing other sides in other places, once it lands in Australia, all its illusions of wellbeing are shattered. Every weakness is brutally exposed, every defect mercilessly exploited, by the best team of our times in conditions that suit their cricket. Gazing into that mirror can chill the soul.

The last time India went to Australia, in 1999-2000, they came back a broken side, demoralised and lacking self-belief. Sachin Tendulkar's captaincy was dealt a hard blow - he lost it a series later - and several promising careers were derailed - remember Vijay Bharadwaj, Devang Gandhi, Hrishikesh Kanitkar and MSK Prasad? India's current tour will be no less difficult. Inexperienced bowlers, an uncertain opening combination, a question-mark over the wicketkeepers ... all the ingredients of disaster are present.

The inability of India's bowlers to take 20 wickets has often been cited as the reason for their failure to win matches overseas. Ravi Shastri and Javagal Srinath recently recommended that India play five specialist bowlers to compensate for this weakness - but what of the batting then? India's batsmen averaged 207 per innings in that 1999-2000 series, with a full complement of six specialist batsmen. A similar performance will almost certainly lead to hefty defeats, and playing one batsman fewer would hardly help.

Playing only five specialist batsmen will also necessitate makeshift openers. Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly are all certainties in the final XI - Ganguly because he is captain - and playing five specialists means either that one of them must open, or the wicketkeeper will bat at the top of the order. India cannot afford to start on the wrong foot like that.

As always, a lot will ride on Tendulkar. But while he's done well in both his tours of Australia, that is more in comparison with his team-mates than with the standards he has set for himself. Tendulkar averages 46 in Australia, ten runs below his career average. He will need to lift himself if India are to make a fist of it - and he will need support.

Laxman is the batsman best equipped to give him that support. The conditions in Australia suit Laxman - he enjoys playing on the back foot, hits the horizontal-bat shots well, and plays besides the ball with impeccable hand-eye coordination. He was in fine form in the home series against New Zealand - he was Man of the Series - and playing Australia seems to bring out the best in him. He also has a penchant for the long innings, with two first-class triple-centuries and India's highest Test score to his name. He could be the star of this tour.

Rahul Dravid: time to unveil the strokes
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But should he bat at No. 3? While Laxman is well suited to that role, the man who currently occupies it, Dravid, is India's best ever in that position. Dravid averages 54.4 in Test cricket, and 57.3 overseas, which is a remarkable figure. (His average at No. 3 is 57.2, which is equally stunning.) The only hole in his CV is his performance in Australia. He's toured here once, and failed miserably. If he can continue his inspired form of the last two years in Australia, he will take his place among the alltime greats. But is his game suited to doing that?

Sanjay Manjrekar recently said that you cannot play the waiting game in Australia - you might play out some time, but they'll get you sooner or later, and your vigil will be pointless if you don't have many runs on the board. A score of 25 in two hours achieves nothing - especially given the pace at which Australia play their cricket. Manjrekar and Dravid, in their tours of Australia, both made this mistake. But Dravid himself indicated recently that he intended to play freely during this series. He certainly has the shots - he epitomises the classical strokeplayer - and if he has the self-belief, he could do wonders for India.

It would be unwise to expect anything of India's bowlers, though - the fast bowlers are inexperienced, and these spinners have rarely done well abroad. Bruce Reid, the new bowling coach, may help them sharpen their bowling techniques, but playing in Australia requires mental strength, a quality that can only come from within. India's young fast bowlers could come of age during this tour - or they could be scarred irreparably.

And what of Australia? We take the result so much for granted that there seems no need to mention them, but this series is a great opportunity for them to blood their second string. Simon Katich, Nathan Bracken and Brad Williams are pushing for permanent places in the side, and it is stunning that players like Michael Clarke and Martin Love can't find a place in it. Playing an Indian team softened by early defeat at Brisbane - as seems inevitable - will be the perfect platform to greater things. Steve Waugh's retirement at the end of this series might symbolise, to the sentimental, the end of an era - but by no means will that bring an end to Australia's dominance in world cricket.

Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.