A modern rivalry looks to new heroes
The India v Australia rivalry, all heat, dust, noise and light is a terrific thing. What is often forgotten is that it is a very modern marvel, sort of like the mobile phone. While technological innovation is not its parent, the intensity and frequency of India v Australia does not stem from any rich, historical tradition, like the Ashes or India v Pakistan.
India v Australia in loop arose from administrative foresight. Until the institution of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy in 1996-97, India and Australia had played 50 Tests in 47 years. Since then, including the forthcoming series it will be 36 Tests in 17 years.
Once Jolimont wised up to the fact that TV rights earnings around Indian cricket were about to send cash registers into overdrive, India and Australia formed a friendship which, even if hardly beautiful on a few occasions, has remained most fruitful.
For that though, a generation of cricketers must be thanked. They happened, in curious synchronicity, to be among the greatest cricketers produced by either country. Chart toppers in the record books, significant figures in their nation's cricketing history, cavaliers and round heads, wizards and workmen, aristocrats and rogues. Who created, out of an economic prophesy, a 21st century sporting rivalry that has transfixed millions.
When Michael Clarke and MS Dhoni walk out to toss on Friday in Chennai, they know that their dressing rooms are now titan-less. A smattering of figures remain on either side but without the combined force of the entire cast, the teams stand weakened.
Yet, this is neither tragedy nor disaster, merely cricket's natural order moving on its natural course. It is why this '13 series (ouch, not the most fortuitous of numbers) contains two sub-plots: a tussle between teams in transition and the attempt by a new generation to renew and re-energise the rivalry.
While India and Australia will essentially be running into each other over the next few weeks, as teams they cannot be considered to be on the same plane. Australia would like to think they are on their way up and India must show the world that at least they have solid footing on their own ground. Winning will be the only proof for India. The only doomsday for Australia would be a complete wipe-out. Like we said, not on the same plane.
Of these two "teams in transition," one has had a recent series record that reads 0-4, 2-0, 0-4, 2-0, 1-2, ten defeats in 17 Tests. In their last five series, the other's record reads, 1-1, 4-0, 2-0, 0-1, 3-0, two defeats in 15 Tests. One of the two is transitioning fine, the other suffering from frequent palpitations.
Two days before the Chennai Test, Australia threw down all their cards, naming their eleven and talking about attacking India's under-pressure spinners. India's wagons were tightly circled but even Sunil Gavaskar was jokingly heard at the Pataudi Memorial lecture calling for some extra slices of luck for the Indians. "As they need it a bit more than the Australians do. The Australians have been winning while the Indians have not."
Along with luck, the least India need is a calamity-proof plan because in terms of the experience and quality at their disposal at the moment, Australia are far from an all-bases-covered England. India's plans against England included not offering them any spinners in practice matches and calling for a fizzing turner in Mumbai. It was the kind of message whose messengers ask to be shot.
Some common sense against Australia. The first two practice matches had spinners causing a minor flutter through the Australian ranks, even though their best batsman and its team's central figure, captain Clarke, played no part in either.
What works in India's favour is the fact that the series is being played in the latter half of the home season, where the wickets are far more tired and worn than they were when England came touring.
The return of Harbhajan Singh into this series is totemic. He has been, for a while now, India v Australia on two legs. His selection though has been made in the hope that along with him, his prime form will return too.
In an Indian dressing room environment of excess 'cool' even in repeated defeat, it must be remembered Harbhajan can be the most obvious heat-generator in the series. Yet, Australia's new batsmen carry no baggage vis-a-vis Harbhajan and understand that the first two Tests is the most chance he is going to get. If playing three spinners on the go does not work in Chennai or Hyderabad, one will surely have to be jettisoned in time for Mohali.
Harbhajan will need a stack of wickets to stick around, particularly given that the Indian selectors are constantly under instructions to pursue a 'youth policy' (the reason behind ignoring Wasim Jaffer from the two Tests).
As much as the role of the Indian spinners has been spotlighted, the response of India's batsmen to Australia's medium pacers will tell us more. The use of swing with pure pace even on knee-nuzzler Indian wickets hurries and rattles batsmen, particularly the less assured. The last four-man pace attack to win a Test series in India was South Africa 2000: with a combination of Donald, Pollock, Kallis with Cronje/Klusener/Hayward and Nicky Boje in support.
As Siddle, Pattinson, Starc and Henriques try to bear up to the load of bowling in India, they will reveal much about India's batting too.
It is not about finding out whether Virender Sehwag and his new glasses have it in them to put in a few more years opening for India (it would be nice to know, though). Or whether Sachin Tendulkar can produce an innings of final remembrance in what could well be his last Test series in India.
Seasons in the not so distant future are not going to contain Tendulkar and Sehwag. The series against Australia will prove as to whether they will contain the names that crowd the playing eleven today. Like Cheteshwar Pujara's capability to play spin is not in doubt, but his instinctive and beloved pull shot against the quick men will get another working over. The answer that will be sought from Virat Kohli is not about his ability to play the flamboyant drives over extra cover, but whether he is capable of reining himself in.
On the Australian side, they are energised by David Warner opening the innings, but Phil Hughes, slotted in the No. 3, averages under 37 after 20 Tests. Ed Cowan enjoyed a decent turn out in the three-day match versus India-A, but is still on the look-out for a career-defining series. What the rivalry needs - and indeed is ideally set up for - is a fresh new name to drive it.
At its epic height, India versus Australia has always ended up representative of 'all or nothing' for both sides. This time things appear slightly more even-tempered. But maybe this is merely before the first ball is bowled.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo