The winter is getting chilly and the typical Indian cricket season has finally set in. Ranji matches all over the country are underway. Some new names have arrived; some old ones are showing signs of crossing their expiry dates. The archetypal flavour of cricket has arrived (though there is no such thing for the current generation, it’s for the old timers to feel).
Amidst this backdrop, the preparation for the much-anticipated India’s tour of Australia has also started. It’s been almost three years since India embarked on probably the hardest of all tours -- the eventful 2008 Down Under tour.
Everything was there to make the series a memorable one. It was marked by breach of trust by the host captain, threat of pulling out of the tour by the tourists, on field sledging, off-field allegations and counter allegations.
India showed tremendous fighting qualities against a team which was still the superior force in world cricket. Not only on the cricket field, but off it as well the demeanor of the Indian team was professional. The then Indian skipper Anil Kumble’s handling of the ‘Sydneygate’ is an example of that.
Things have really changed ever since. Australia are not the same force that they used to be. Ponting is not anymore at the helm of Australian affairs. A new captain has taken over. Once they were the invincible team, now Australia have lost the aura, the never-say-die attitude, the courage and the brutality they were once known for. A few years back, the Australian pace attack used to bundle out oppositions for embarrassingly low scores. Now they themselves get shot out for 47!
The 2008 series had marked the downfall of Australian cricket and the beginning of a new era for Indian cricket.
For India, there is no Anil Kumble or Harbhajan Singh who tormented the Australians in their heydays. Dhoni has now grown from strength to strength as a captain, taking the team to the pinnacle in Tests and ODIs. Though England snatched the No. 1 tag from India, Dhoni & Co. have again started the march towards the top with a thumping series win against the touring West Indies side.
There is hardly any doubt that this Australian Test side is the weakest since the early nineties. The ageing stars are out of form, the new talents have not done anything to cement their places in the team. The bowling lacks talents such as McGrath and Warne.
Pat Cummings might have set fire on the cricket field in his debut series against South Africa, but the bowling attack is really callow and insipid. The most experienced Mitchell Johnson is finding it hard to bowl well consistently in Tests. Peter Siddle and Ryan Harris don’t have the talent to match the aura of their distinguished predecessors.
Having searched frantically for a quality spinner after Warne’s retirement for almost four years, Australia have finally got off-spinner Nathan Lyon. His career took off impressively in Sri Lanka a couple of months back. No doubt he has the talent and can be one of the bests in the business. But getting success against a touring Indian team will be very difficult. Sachin, Sehwag, Laxman, Dravid, Gambhir -- everyone holds a PhD in tackling spin bowling.
Australia’s batting line-up is also the most fragile in 20 years. Runs have somehow eluded star batsmen Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey. Wicketkeeper-batsman Brad Haddin’s batting is not generating any confidence. No one knows why Phil Hughes is in the team. He is ill-equipped to handle pace and bounce, a horrendous draw-back for an opener. The new guys in the team- Usman Khwaja, Shaun Marsh have talent. But it’s still early days for both of them.
With a strong batting line-up which has names such as world’s highest and second highest run scorers in Tests -- Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, India’s batting is really strong. The opening pair of Sehwag and Gambhir is one of the all time best. Laxman’s lazy elegance is hard to match and he is probably the most attractive batsmen the game has ever seen. Virat Kohli has done enough during his nascent international career that we can safely call him the next big superstar of Indian cricket. Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane are waiting in the wings for their chances to succeed in Tests. In Dhoni, India have the best wicketkeeper-batsman and the best captain.
The only worry for India is their bowling. India with Zaheer Khan are a completely different outfit from India minus Zaheer. Zak has to be fully fit to shoulder the responsibility of being the leader of the inexperienced attack. With him in the team, it takes a lot of load off Ishant Sharma, who is still struggling to eke out a sizeable number of wickets. Umesh Yadav has looked good in the one Test he played against the Windies. Varun Aaron had also done well on the lifeless Wankhede track. Both have the kind of pace which can trouble the best of batsmen. But one match is not enough to judge. It’s anybody’s guess how they would adjust to the conditions Down Under.
It’s same for the two spinners in the team. They bowled really well in the three Tests they played. And in term of performances they are currently the best spinners in India. But questions remain…can they deliver on the pace-friendly Perth and Gabba tracks?
Overall, it is the best chance for India to win their first-ever Test series Down Under.