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Great expectations

The expectations are so high that many of us are already bracing to be disappointed

Amit Varma
The expectations are so high that many of us are already bracing to be disappointed. How can this series live up to the last two between India and Australia, both classics, with evenly matched teams playing cricket of the highest quality? In fact, the last two Test series that India have played, against Australia and Pakistan, featured fabulous cricket. Can lightning strike thrice?
The answer to that question rests with India. The Australians play consistently outstanding cricket, series after series, at home and away - that is why they are one of the greatest teams of all time. They did not, in fact, play much above themselves in those two series against India - it was India that turned those into such wonderful contests by playing out of their skins.
Sourav Ganguly's men have, in the past, risen to the big occasion after a disappointing lead-up to it. They reached the final of last year's World Cup after being thrashed in New Zealand; they went to the verge of a series victory in Australia after a lacklustre show against New Zealand at home. They come into this series after a bad run in one-day tournaments. Can they lift themselves again? Or will Australia win their first series in India in 35 years?
Examining Australia - outstanding bowlers, under-rated batsmen

Glenn McGrath leads a potent pace quartet © Getty Images
This is the best bowling attack Australia have ever brought to India. Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Brett Lee and Michael Kasprowicz are a formidable pace quartet, though at least one of them will be on the bench, with Shane Warne at the fittest - and perhaps the most motivated - he has been coming to India. When else in the last decade has a fit McGrath been uncertain of a place in the final XI, as he is now? Rumours before the warm-up game indicated that Gillespie and Kasprowicz were certainties for the Bangalore Test, with McGrath and Lee vying for the third spot. McGrath was sharper in the warm-up game at Mumbai, though, and seems to have wrapped that up.
The spin back-up is weak - or at least the specialist component of it is. Nathan Hauritz, with a first-class bowling average of 44, and Cameron White, with 34, might be investments for the future, but don't expect them to get a Test here. If Warne needs spin back-up, it will probably come from the part-timers in the team, with the left-arm spin of Michael Clarke, Darren Lehmann and Simon Katich, the last a wrist-spinner, likely to be deployed frequently, especially at Nagpur, where a result is unlikely, and the burden of the Australian specialist bowlers will need sharing.
Australia's batsmen lack star power compared to their last trip here, but not ability. The Waugh brothers were wonderful brands, with formidable reputations, but the less experienced batsmen in this middle order are no lame ducks. Katich, Lehmann and Clarke are all superb players of spin. Katich played Anil Kumble with ease at Sydney earlier this year, where his exquisite 77 not out, after 125 in the first innings, helped Australia save the Test and the series. Lehmann handled the Sri Lankan spinners, including Muttiah Muralitharan, quite comfortably earlier this year on their own turf. As for Clarke, the way he uses his feet against the spinners is a treat for the eyes, and his will be the most overdue Test debut of the year.
And then, of course, there are the repeat visitors from last time. Matthew Hayden, who made 549 runs in the 2001 series - more even than VVS Laxman - is at the peak of his powers, and looks to dominate the bowlers from the outset. Justin Langer averaged just 32 in that series, but looked comfortable throughout at the crease. He has a Test average of 45, and 19 centuries to his name. Adam Gilchrist will be keen to prove that his century at Mumbai the last time around was not an aberration, but that his subsequent failures were. Damien Martyn was a tourist the last time around, but has since become a linchpin of the Australian middle order, and one of the prettiest batsmen to watch.
Australia aren't here to be pretty, of course. They're here to win, and they have the weapons to do so. Can India match them?
Examining India - class is permanent ... but dammit, form is necessary
How will India's woeful one-day form this year affect their performance in the Test series? They will feel self-doubt, of course, and like confidence, that can perpetuate itself. If Australia come hard at them in the first Test, and take a win, India's fortunes could spiral downwards in the rest of the series. Sachin Tendulkar's injury looks set to keep him out of action for a while, and Virender Sehwag and Yuvraj Singh have been pilloried in the press for their poor one-day form.

Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman: the backbone of the Indian batting © Getty Images
But Test cricket, unlike one-dayers, allows batsmen to play themselves into form. Batsmen like Rahul Dravid and Laxman will not have the pressure of a limited-overs deadline when they walk out to the middle, and will be able to play themslves in. The longer they'll play, the more confidence they will gain, and the more Australia will start to worry. Their 300-plus partnerships at Kolkata and Adelaide were the pivotal points of the last two series, and with Dravid certain to bat at No. 3 and Laxman, in Tendulkar's absence, likely to bat at No. 4, they will again be India's key batsmen. It was heartening for India, also, that Sehwag and Yuvraj got centuries in the practice game at Bangalore. Bowlers seal victories in Test matches, but batsmen set them up, and India have the batsmen to do the job.
Their bowling is a worry, though. How long before Zaheer Khan breaks down again? How fit is Ashish Nehra, really? One of the matchwinning bowlers of the series against Pakistan, L Balaji, is absent due to injury, and the other, Irfan Pathan, is the strike bowler of a side he wasn't even a part of a year ago. Ajit Agarkar, a matchwinner at Adelaide last year, is still inconsistent, more potential and hope than performance and trust. But India are unlikely to need more than two of them in any Test - Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh are virtually certain to be India's strike bowlers through the series.
Kumble was India's biggest matchwinner in the 1990s, and Harbhajan was an irresistible force the last time Australia toured India. The two of them have rarely bowled at their best together, but they will seldom be more motivated to do so. If any of the pitches are dustbowls, they will be difficult to overcome, but even otherwise, they will be hard to resist. The defining battle of this series may well between India's attacking spinners and Australia's counter-attacking batsmen.
Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India. He writes the blog, 23 Yards, for this site.