Australia in India 2012-13 February 21, 2013

A modern rivalry looks to new heroes

Both teams are in transition, but while Australia have a solid recent record, India need a series win to confirm they can compete against top sides

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Christopher on February 22, 2013, 9:17 GMT

    __PK - Cronje and Klusener may not have been that quick but Hayward was rapid. And why does Harbhajan constantly get selected? It's as if he's still living off 2001 when the Aussies come into town, Ojha is being sorely missed today.

  • Graham on February 22, 2013, 9:09 GMT

    Sharda Ugra; Have you watched cricket where any pace bowlers have played? Starc was at 148 k/hr in Australia, Pattinson and Siddle regularly over 140 k/hr. When England toured did you refer to Jimmy Anderson as slow medium and is B Kumar and I SHarma described as military medium. Please advise what do you consider fast bowling?

  • Paul on February 22, 2013, 8:39 GMT

    Well spotted, redneck. Made even worse two sentences later by calling Kallis and Cronje/Klusener/Hayward half of a "pace" attack. I suppose he could have meant "military medium pace."

  • X on February 22, 2013, 2:33 GMT

    This tour is unlikely to build the "modern rivalry", since it will be largely invisible in one of the countries concerned---thanks to the incredible greed (and incompetence) of the BCCI. The most popular way to follow the games, radio, has no coverage, and television is only covered on cable, which most people don't have. Add to this the fact that the BCCI has also effectively starved Australian media of still images by trying to monopolise that sector as well and this series might as well not be happening as far as most Australians are concerned.

  • U on February 22, 2013, 1:58 GMT

    Hoping for an exciting and close series. As an Indian fan hope India win, but also looking to see good performances from youngsters from both sides. Broader hope as a cricket fan is that fast bowlers on both sides can sustain their health and remain injury free. Would be great if Pattinson, Yadav etc. have longer careers. would be a shame to see them cut down on pace or miss matches due to injuries. The world needs exciting fast bowlers.

  • Chandrasekhar on February 22, 2013, 1:01 GMT

    I do not see how India can win the series, I will be more than happy if they can draw level against Aussies. Think of it, we do not have proper opening pair, no n0.6 or no.7 and our 3,4, and 5 are not consistent - clearly we cannot put big scores required on SC pitches. We have not put a big score in the last 3-4 years except against much weaker teams, so it should not be surprising. More worrying is our bowling, to say that we are weak bowling side is an understatement, we are not even club level - our spinners are out bowled by Panesars and Tredwells on our home pitches and we simply do not have fast bowlers, irrespective of what our selectors think. The only positive is that we can only improve from here...

  • Jahanzeb on February 22, 2013, 0:42 GMT

    Its so funny, Indians love to call themselves rivals of Australia. :D and then get swept away clean every 3-4 years. India has not beaten Australia, England, South Africa for decades, while visiting. Even New Zealand. There is virtually no difference between India and Sri Lanka's performance in test cricket over last 20 years.

  • hayden on February 22, 2013, 0:32 GMT

    who are you calling medium pace? is this an article about sri lanka? only henriques fits that description. starc and pattinson bowl consistently over 140 and siddle hovers between 120-140. a bit rich coming from and indian a nation that can barley find 2 decent bowlers who can bowl over 130!!!

  • karthik on February 22, 2013, 0:30 GMT

    I can see why Dhoni has problems with talented players especially if they are batsmen.Tiwary,Rayudu,Rahane have all so far been victims who haven't even allowed to debut.While worthless ones Vijay,Jadeja,Raina continue getting matches even if they are not suited for tests.

  • Alex on February 21, 2013, 22:58 GMT

    The article describes Australia's quicks as 'medium pacers' i know seamers in India are usually medium pace, but i don't think you can say Siddle, Starc and Pattinson who have all bowled over 150kph in the last year are medium pace.

    @Front-Foot-Lunge, the India side which lost 4-0 in England in 2011 was a much weaker and more disinterested team than the one which also lost 4-0 in Aus later the same year. Remember RP Singh playing, Zaheer's injury, Sehwag's injury, Amit Mishra attempting to bowl? How about Suresh Raina somehow playing a test match? No, funny how you don't mention that!