Some weeks ago, or may be it is months – I am not sure given that I have done very little that is non-phonological during these queerly dark ages as far as entertainment is concerned – Peter Roebuck wrote how the upcoming India-Australia test series may be a faint encore of the type of cricket these two nations have produced over the last decade. Given that Roebuck has the predilection, like yours truly often does, to get such things wrong, I hope and wish he is wrong again. Nonetheless, there is more than a grain of lingering truth in the journalist’s words.
The two test series that kicks off next Saturday is not about a contest between the top-ranked test team in the world and a resilient outfit that can still be world beaters although for the sake of appearances it looks like that. Rather, it will be a time-filling dress rehearsal between one team which got the saddle of being the best by the inexplicability of default statistical logic and another which prepares to take on in its own backyard arguably the strongest England team to have visited those shores in years. That way, there is more for Australia to take out of this short series. For India, it will probably be a question of: “Will Harbhajan Singh once again regain something like his lost form against the Aussies who bring out the best in him?” “Will Laxman again be very, very special?” “Will Tendulkar leave Ponting even farther in terms of hundreds?” “Will India continue their stay at number one for a little while before the bubble collapses one night?”
Personally, this series still induces just enough excitement for me as I am one of them rare breed of test cricket lovers who have been outnumbered, outstripped and outflanked by the followers of the game’s youngest sibling – namely T20 cricket. Also, the prospect of seeing Rahul Dravid bat again in a home series, especially after his deplorable outings in Sri Lanka where he “found new ways of getting out”, is more than just a consoling thought. Add the fact that Zaheer Khan, my favourite Indian bowler among those playing now by a distance, and Gautam Gambhir are back in the team, the side promises to be a balanced one that can retain the Border-Gavaskar trophy the Indians took in 2008 after a 2-0 triumph, one of the rare one-sided series these two teams have played out in the last eleven years. (Cheteshwar Pujara’s selection is another enthralling prospect and although he may not make the eleven with Raina in silken touch, there is one guy who may splice the Indian middle order in the years to come).
For the Australians, the rookie and the veteran alike, there is a point to prove. Ponting himself would want to do more than just that. Undoubtedly, one of the run machines of the decade and the greatest players of the modern era, Ponting’s sub-twenty-five average in India does not quite become of a player of his class. As a captain, who has been widely criticised as having ridden on the back of a great team without exceptional leadership skills, Ponting has to conquer the final frontier too, one which Steve Waugh failed to do despite his most intense bids and one which the Australians did way back in 2004 under Adam Gilchrist as injury kept Ponting out of the two matches that Australia won to take an unassailable lead. Michael Clarke expects big things from his captain and I hope he is right for the sake of Australian cricket. Clarke himself is a transformed batsman in test cricket these days, if his Ashes exploits last year are any indication, and with the likes of Hussey, Katich and Watson he would like to forge a strong batting combine to help his captain in the conquest. Although Australians are thin in the bowling department, with Mitchell Johnson, arguably their spearhead, wavering between Herculean and pedestrian, one can expect them to raise their game against a tough opposition when the stakes go up.
After all is said and done, the outcome will still be hard to predict not despite but because both teams are far from playing their best cricket. In terms of consistency and ruthlessness, England followed by South Africa has been playing the best cricket in all forms of the game for some months now. Under those circumstances, the focus of an India-Australia series can for a change be on the actual cricket and not on whether one team is the undisputed the leader and the other a rightful successor. Right now, both teams are miles away from the Holy Grail. The cricket between them, however, may be as exciting as it has been at Kolkata, Adelaide, Nagpur, Sydney, Perth and Mohali over the decade because it is always a challenging task to play India in India and it is always daft to write off any Australian team.
So as spend the week eating into the workload left for my submission, I will also wait for the umpire at the popping crease to call play. And just for the fun of it, I would say it is likely to be 1-0 India.