From hardship to hunger for success
There was a time when an Australian tour of India was a rarity, a brief shower after seasons of drought. After Richie Benaud and Neil Harvey triumphed in India at the end of the Eisenhower era, it was another decade before their successors made a successful journey back across the Indian Ocean. Messrs Lawry, Chappell, McKenzie and Mallett won a hard-fought series, but it had its share of controversies, especially off the field, where Doug Walters was accused by India's reds of having a quarrel with the Vietcong.
Another 10 years would pass before a side without stars - who were busy being part of Kerry Packer's revolutionary caravan - came over and were easily beaten.
The likes of Greg Chappell and Dennis Lillee never played a Test in India, and it was quite an achievement when their unheralded successors came over in 1986 and drew a three-match series that included a memorable tie on the Coromandel coast.
By then, touring India had become less of a hardship and more of an adventure. The 1969 tourists once jeered their own manager after he thanked their hosts in Guwahati and hoped to be back soon. By the time Allan Border's men crisscrossed the subcontinent to win the World Cup in 1987, the players were more used to the unique rhythms of subcontinent life, less prone to lose focus over heat, dust or an upset tummy. It still took another decade for the Test side to return, though, and a heavy defeat in the Nayan Mongia Test of 1996 showed how much remained to be done if Australia were to become masters of all they surveyed.
These days, any talk of India and Australia tends to end up with a discussion of the epic 2001 series, but if anything, it was the crushing defeat in 1998 that forced Australia to rethink their India strategies. Thrashed in Chennai despite having taken a first-innings lead, and hammered out of sight in Kolkata - Sachin Tendulkar had scores of 155 not out, 79 and 177 in the series - it took an exceptional spell of swing bowling from Michael Kasprowicz in Bangalore to lend the scoreline some respectability. For an Australian team that had slowly and methodically ticked all the boxes on the road to greatness, it was a devastating blow, even if the absence through injury of Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie was a mitigating factor.
They had won three successive Ashes series in England, while the Waugh twins' defiance at Sabina Park had finally ended two decades of West Indian hegemony in 1995. More importantly, they had seen off the challenge of South Africa, with Steve Waugh and Greg Blewett imperious at the Wanderers, and Mark Waugh playing an innings for the ages in Port Elizabeth in 1997.
A few months after India, they would go to Pakistan and win there too. The set was complete, or nearly so. India remained unconquered, the final frontier for a side that Mark Taylor and Waugh led to greatness after the years of revival and consolidation under Border.
It's easy to forget how close they came to ending the jinx in 2001. A dazzling counterattack from Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden saw them romp home in Mumbai, and despite the dramatic defeat in Kolkata, it appeared to be business as usual in Chennai once Hayden found his range and started to hammer away like a blacksmith on an anvil.
At 340 for 3, it was Australia's Test to lose. Then Steve Waugh bizarrely handled the ball off Harbhajan Singh and the game changed. With the crowd suddenly rediscovering its voice, Australia were bowled out for 391 and India's batsmen, confidence sky-high after Kolkata, pushed forward ruthlessly. It was still a tense finish, though, with an unbelievable Mark Waugh catch to dismiss Laxman inducing an almighty stutter before Harbhajan, hero of the Indian Lazarus act with 32 wickets, steering one behind point for the winning runs.
McGrath, who lost kilos to dehydration on that final afternoon, and Gillespie bowled magnificently. They would have their retribution three years later, in a series where fortunes ebbed and flowed. Beaten easily in Bangalore, India were frustrated by rain on the final day in Chennai. There's no guarantee that they would have chased down a tricky target, but with Sehwag in resplendent form, it was the cricket lover who was the loser once the heavens opened.
Then came Nagpur and greenwicketitis. History records that it was India's heaviest defeat, by 342 runs, but six years on we still have no answers to why a pitch was prepared that so blatantly favoured the opposition's strengths. Gillespie, then bowling like the best in the world rather than the knackered Ashes misfit of the following year, took nine and India's unbeaten home record against Australia was history.
The controversy didn't end there. If Nagpur played into the pacemen's hands, the pitch at the Wankhede was so loaded in favour of spin that even Michael Clarke took 6 for 9. Australia should have won easily, but lost their nerve while chasing a miniscule target, as they had at both The Oval and Sydney nearly a decade earlier.
Given the excitement and drama of the three previous series, the one played in 2008 was a damp squib. Once India escaped with a draw in Bangalore, courtesy a doughty rearguard from Harbhajan and Zaheer Khan, it was pretty much one-way traffic. Delhi produced a high-scoring draw, but either side of it, India won handily in Mohali and Nagpur. That Brett Lee managed just eight wickets and that Cameron White, an object of some derision in the Indian changing room, was the only Australian slow bowler to feature in all four games, said plenty about Australia's travails, and whinges about Indian tactics in Nagpur, justified or not, spoke of a team that couldn't wait to head home.
Two years on, Australian cricket is still in a transitional phase. The bowling is far short of the standards set in the McGrath-Warne era, and a batting line-up with the inconsistent Marcus North at No. 6 no longer intimidates as it once did. Ricky Ponting appears to have left his best years behind him - mind you, people said the same of Tendulkar before his Indian summer - while the retirements of Hayden and Gilchrist have robbed the side of two of the biggest game-changers of the modern era.
What Australian cricket's relative decline has also done is allow India a glimpse at its own future. Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman won't be around forever, while Anil Kumble has already gone. Yuvraj Singh already appears to have been filed under the could've-been-a-contender category, while none of the young bowlers has strung together even two seasons of consistent achievement.
With neither side possessing imposing bowling strength, this should be a series dominated by the bat. For Australia, much as in 1986, this is a time to build up and look to the future. For India, this and the forthcoming series against New Zealand and South Africa are a chance to consolidate the No. 1 ranking before the inevitable period of decline that spares no team.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo