By Ashish Shukla
Melbourne: Dec 25, 2011
With the Australian cricket team struggling like never before, India will have their best chance to end a 64-year wait to upstage them in their own backyard when the two sides clash in what promises to be a pulsating four-Test series starting on Monday, December 26.
With a young and inexperienced side to lead, Michael Clarke has already conceded that it would be quite a task for his greenhorn bowlers to contain India's veteran line-up of batsmen.
But never the best of travellers despite their improving record, the Indians would be challenged by the sheer hostility of conditions that Australia is known for.
The larger grounds and the bouncing tracks would test the Indian side even though the visitors holds the edge against the most inexperienced of Australian sides.
It is India's best chance considering how Australia have struggled in the past few months and if Sachin Tendulkar manages to score that elusive 100th international hundred, it would be cause of bigger celebrations.
In fact, such has been the wait for the ton that an early lead for the two teams could become a sideshow if Tendulkar reaches his milestone in the opening Test.
Tendulkar, the game's biggest legend with 15,183 runs from 184 Tests, chases that century after an excruciating wait of seven Tests and 13 innings which even his team-mates are urging him to end now.
On the other side, Ricky Ponting, with 12,656 runs from 158 Tests, is the game's third biggest scorer ever and is arguably the best Australian batsman ever after Sir Donald Bradman.
Yet, the former Australian captain finds his head on the chopping block after failing to score a century in the last two years, a wait of 16 Tests and 30 innings when he advanced his total by only 856 runs and a mere eight half centuries.
Indeed this Test is a story of plots within plots with India chasing that elusive series win on Australian soil which hasn't happened on nine previous visits, 36 Tests and 64 years.
India's trinity of batting legends, Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid (13,094 from 160 Tests) and VVS Laxman (8,626 from 130 Tests) almost surely have their absolute last chance of scripting history in Australia as another visit by India on these shores is not scheduled before 2014.
On paper, it should be an easy task given Australia have a callow attack of James Pattinson (2 Tests), Peter Siddle (27 Tests), Ben Hilfenhaus (17 Tests) and Nathan Lyon (7 Tests).
Yet, the promise they have shown, as individuals and as a bowling group, turns them as Australia's most potent weapon in the forthcoming series.
Pattinson, Siddle and Hilfenhaus all bowl in the 140-km zone and bring diverse variety on the table. While Pattinson is extreme speed with lethal away movement, Siddle is bouncy with a back-of-length approach and Hilfenhaus is a renowned exponent of late swing. In Lyon, Australia probably have their best off-spinner in the last 30 years.
It is a bowling attack which is expected to make up for the frailty in batting which has suffered collapses of 136, 47, 192, 88 and 127 in different innings of the last 21 Tests of two years.
Australia's troubles have been laid on the doors of two of its most experienced batsmen, Ponting and Mike Hussey, though its worries with its openers is no less pronounced with Philip Hughes failing to make the most of his opportunity and Shane Watson becoming injured with an annoying regularity.
Wicketkeeper Brad Haddin is talented but his 2171 runs from 39 Tests at 36.18 average with just three hundreds don't stack up to the class of Adam Gilchrist who never failed to shore up the lower half of the batting during his astonishing 96 Tests in which he cracked 17 centuries in his decade-long career lasting till 2008.
It's a batting line-up which is palpably wary of India's swing-led attack of Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav even though the first two have got their fans anxious on their fitness.
Both Zaheer and Ishant were troubled by ankle injuries in recent times but this week has shown very encouraging signs on their prospects for the Tests. Ishant indeed hit his full straps as he bowled in the nets at the MCG on Friday.
Zaheer, in contrast, looks eager and keen even though he has bowled well within himself in lead-up to the opening Test.
Sharma announced himself on to the world stage during the 2008 tour and has since then accounted for Ricky Ponting on six occasions.
Zaheer doesn't look all that impressive on paper in Australia, having picked his wickets at 40 runs apiece and never completing a full series on two previous visits.
Yet, he is magnificent with the new and old ball and one prime reason why Australia ordered a batting camp earlier this week.
While it is critical, India's new-ball bowlers Zaheer and Sharma show prime fitness in Tests, it is equally critical that Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag fire as openers in the present trip.
The two Delhi cricketers have not hit a century in Tests this year. But Gambhir with Sehwag are India's most prolific openers ever and must see off the new ball if India's middle order is to come to its own.
The grassy MCG pitch is expected to be extremely helpful for fast bowlers in the first 30 overs after which it is likely to flatten out in batsmen's favour.
Sehwag and Gambhir thus have a critical role in the line-up. While Gambhir is yet to play a Test in Australia, Sehwag has usually flourished here scoring 833 runs from seven Tests at an average of 59.50.
A young Virat Kohli is almost certain to occupy the number six batting slot but would be looking over his shoulder at Rohit Sharma who many reckon is presently in the form of his life.
Skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni has every reason to prove that the 4-0 defeat in England this summer was an aberration in his glittering tenure as captain of India during which he has won 17 of 34 Tests.
One worry for India would be its fielding at a huge MCG, India doesn't seem to have enough strong shoulders to throw from the boundary.
Overcast conditions and a slight drizzle is expected to spice up the opening day of the Boxing Day Test and captains of the two sides would be tempted to opt to field first.
India (Probable): Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman, Virat Kohli/Rohit Sharma, Mahendra Singh Dhoni (c&wk), Ravichandran Ashwin, Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav.
Australia: David Warner, Ed Cowan, Shaun Marsh, Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke (c), Michael Hussey, Brad Haddin (wk), Peter Siddle, James Pattinson, Nathan Lyon, Ben Hilfenhaus.
Umpires: Marais Erasmus (South Africa) and Ian Gould (England).
Match referee: Ranjan Madugalle (Sri Lanka).
Time: 11.00 local (05.00 IST) (PTI)