Festive Sydney a welcome change for India
Sydney certainly knows how to ring in the New Year. Beaches in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo reported bigger attendances for New Year's eve fireworks, but it is hard to imagine a more concentrated or more diverse throng than the nearly 1.5 million people - from over a hundred nations, of all religions and races, of all ages and shapes - who poured in to the three-kilometre stretch between Darling Harbour and the Harbour Bridge, to enjoy what must count among the most inclusive and unifying communal celebrations in the world.
The festivities, which began with jets painting messages in the sky and ended with a spectacular cascade of lights from the iconic bridge, are said to have cost A$6.5 million (US$6.64m), which may seem somewhat profligate in recessionary times, but apportion the cost over each smile the display induced and it will hardly look wasteful.
The following day, after lazy and long breakfasts at sidewalk cafés, the young and old of Sydney headed to the smart beaches. Large ferries gorged thousands out onto Manly harbour and every inch of sand on the three-kilometre stretch was taken. Melbourne might be the world's most livable city - it has better public transport, an easily comprehensible layout, cheaper food and lighter traffic, and as Melburnians would gleefully point out, better art, and even a bigger casino - but Sydney is the place to be, never mind the outrageous room rates on NYE.
For India's cricketers, Sydney is the place they'd rather be. They could have hardly waited to get out of Melbourne. They have awful memories of their last five Tests there, and in fact, in his 22-year career Sachin Tendulkar has tasted nothing but defeat there. Two of India's last three matches at the MCG must count as the most bitter, because they squandered strong positions in both to lose in four days. It must be a relief for them to escape to Sydney, where the memories are happier.
Which is an odd thing to say, considering cricket came close to apocalypse when these two teams last met here for a Test. Thankfully, the shame of 2008 now seems like a distant nightmare. Sometimes things need to hit bottom before they get better, and the only good thing to come out of that dark chapter is that everyone who had a part to play remembers it with a mixture of embarrassment, regret and contrition.
Predictably, the players were asked about it, and though you would expect nothing but diplomacy, there was a ring of sincerity too. Michael Hussey and MS Dhoni, who both played in that Test, said that the teams had moved on, and Dhoni said that, if anything, players from both teams were more aware of their behaviour now. Michael Clarke even used the word "respect" several times when asked about Harbhajan Singh.
Of course it has helped that some of the main characters from that drama aren't on this tour. Andrew Symonds and Matthew Hayden have long retired, and Harbhajan wasn't considered for the tour. And Harbhajan and Symonds are now on back-slapping terms as IPL team-mates for Mumbai Indians. The language of money can be the most persuasive, but the role of the IPL in fostering cultural understanding and goodwill cannot be underestimated.
Shane Warne's legend was further burnished for Indian fans after he led the unfancied Rajasthan Royals to a title; Shane Watson is grateful to the tournament for reviving his international career; Hussey and Doug Bollinger are loyal troopers for the Chennai Super Kings, led by Dhoni; and Ricky Ponting, though he played only one season, endeared himself the Kolkata Knight Riders players with his work ethic and generosity. Also, Indian players now understand better than before that none of the colourful language used on the field needs to be taken literally.
And of course a lot more has taken place off the field to ensure that there will be no repeat of Sydneygate. One fallout of a unipolar world is that it minimises the possibility of major conflicts. In 2008, the Indian cricket board was mighty enough to threaten the cancellation of the tour and effect a change of umpires. If anything, the commercial relationships have grown even tighter since. India and Australia have continued to play each other in some form of the game every year, they are co-promoters of the Champions League, and as the Indian economy has continued to grow, so has the dependency on the revenue generated from playing cricket with India. It isn't healthy, but it is the reality.
There have been murmurs in Australia about their team having gone soft and grown out of character in the aftermath of Sydney 2008 and the IPL. The reality, of course, is that bad behaviour has never won a match. The concept of mental disintegration was a fine psychological trick by Steve Waugh, but the truth is that his enforcers had the games to back up their chat. Matthew Hayden might have played the perfect bully on the field, but the real intimidation came from his bat.
Expect the cricket to be tough. Australia have forged a pace bowling combination that not only promises to grow to be a formidable one but, on the evidence of their Melbourne performance, is likely to present Indian batsmen with their toughest challenge in Australia since 1999. The tailenders have had a taste of the short ball, and the pitches in Sydney and Perth are expected to be considerably quicker than the Indians have encountered on the last couple of tours.
Indian batsmen have good memories of this ground. Both Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman have scored three centuries each here, and average 221.33 and 96.20 here, and both were in the all-time World XI picked by the SCG Trust on the eve of the ground's 100th Test. In 2004, when India ran up a score of 705, it moved some of the veterans in the press box to hail them as the greatest batting line-up to have visited Australia ever, and unlike at the MCG, India haven't lost their last five Tests here. But numbers can be interpreted the way you choose. For all the feel-good factor that Sydney generates for Indians, they haven't won a Test here since 1978, when they beat a second-choice team led by Bob Simpson.
A couple of days ago a mainstream Australian paper carried a headline that read "Sachin Cricket Ground", and inevitably, the pre-match chatter revolved around the 100th hundred. Tendulkar has always been loved in these parts and fans will thrilled to be part of a piece of history, but even if that doesn't happen, this special ground is assured of its own hundred tomorrow.
It would be too much to expect the cricket to match up to the fireworks and the exultant spirt that filled the night on December 31, but the truth is that the Sydney Test is always part of the New Year package. The weather's glorious, the city feels alive, as does Test cricket.
Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo