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Sidharth Monga in Chandigarh
September 29, 2010
Ten seasons ago, with cricket still smarting from the match-fixing blows, India and Australia created magic over three unforgettable Tests. Along with the 2005 Ashes, that series has without doubt been the best Test series in a long, long time. Since then, every arrival of the Australians in India gives Indians an excuse to reminisce about that heady series. It is an indulgence, but the memories of that series alone are enough to create anticipation every time Australia come calling.
Ten seasons later, not much has changed. Match-fixing has changed its name to spot-fixing. Hardly any high-profile series goes by without controversy - look no further than the IPL, India in Sri Lanka, Pakistan in England, or even the ICC Test rankings. Cricket can definitely do with a high-quality Test series free of controversy. The controversies have so far stayed away, but the buzz that an India-Australia series should bring is building only slowly. Having been in Chandigarh for the last week or so, it just doesn't feel like an India-Australia series is around the corner.
The reasons are various. Perhaps what has happened in England has disillusioned some. Perhaps the Champions League Twenty20 kept some involved - not least four first-choice players who landed two days before the start of the series. There is, of course, the small matter of the mess masquerading as the Commonwealth Games that is hogging all sorts of headlines in India. The Ashes are an obvious distraction back in Australia.
For some, India and Australia are playing each other too often - Australia have been here for some series or other for each of the last three years. The cricketing world is already limited, and these two powerful boards' manipulation of schedules to exploit the financial opportunities in the two countries doesn't help much either. More importantly, two Tests hardly a series make. Even earlier this year, the two-Test series against South Africa ended as soon as we had started to smack our lips with India's rousing comeback after South Africa's dominant start.
Most importantly, perhaps, India loves it when a team comes here looking to complete its world supremacy, a sort of final frontier. The phrase rings a bell, doesn't it? Australia are no longer that team, the team to beat. This is the first time since that 2000-01 tour that they have come here as one of the pack. Nathan Hauritz is almost in awe when he talks of the Indian batting. Michael Clarke is talking up Harbhajan Singh, even his batting. Mitchell Johnson ruins the effect of the short-ball threat when, in the same sentence, he says Virender Sehwag can reach 50 by the time you look up at the scoreboard.
Earlier this year, when Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel arrived as arguably the best new-ball pair in the world (well, that was before Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif came together), there was so much anticipation that you wanted India to bat first and get on with the contest between them and Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir. That kind of excitement has so far been missing in the build-up to this series.
Like India's recent tour of Sri Lanka, this one promises to be a contest between two heavy-scoring batting line-ups. Sachin Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting alone have more than 25,000 Test runs between them, and 87 centuries. Two of India's main bowlers are coming out of injuries, two of Australia's main ones have never played a Test in India before. India's lead spinner has averaged 46 over the last 12 months; Australia's is not expected to run through sides either. A lot about this series is pointing to a battle of attrition.
Perhaps it's not such a bad thing to let the actual cricket benefit from low expectations. Australia may not be the best Test team in the world, but they are still a really good one. Good enough to challenge any team anywhere. They have the advantage of having gathered here early, and having put in more than a week of training. India arrived disjointedly, and have only now started functioning as a unit. If Australia feel their preparations have been disrupted by the Champions League, India's captain was in South Africa too.
Perhaps once the first Test starts on Friday morning, the cynicism will go away. When Johnson bowls the bouncers to Sehwag. When Harbhajan goes at Ponting again. When Doug Bollinger shouts at his captain from the boundary, asking for another spell. When VVS Laxman comes out to face his favourite opponents. When Gambhir and Shane Watson come face to face again. Who knows a new star might be on the horizon? Even in 2000-01, Harbhajan and Matthew Hayden were largely unknowns. Here's to the new rivalries, the new Harbhajans and Haydens.
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