A lot will depend on Sachin Tendulkar, who will be hoping — like the rest of his countrymen — that he finally scores his 100th international century in the Boxing Day Test © Getty Images
A lot will depend on Sachin Tendulkar, who will be hoping — like the rest of his countrymen — that he finally scores his 100th international century in the Boxing Day Test © Getty Images

 

By Madan Mohan

 

There used to be a series called Boxing Day knockouts on the TV channel Star Cricket.  It featured highlights of the Boxing Day Test matches played at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). Most of them were matches won by Australia. MCG is a daunting coliseum, and merely playing in this grand arena can be an intimidating prospect for opposition. Things have not been very different for India.

 

The question may be a tad irrelevant considering India has only won two Test matches in Australia in the last 20 years – once at Adelaide in 2003 and later at Perth in 2008. But even as India have fought harder and gradually become more competitive in Australia during this period, the Boxing Day fixture has continued to deliver a knockout blow to their hopes of a first series win in Australia.

 

In the 1999-00 series, India had got off to a good start with the ball in the first Test at Adelaide before falling apart. But Australia crushed any Indian hopes of a resistance at Melbourne, notching a 180-run win. Sachin Tendulkar’s lonely century symbolised that era of Indian cricket in the eyes of fans and was the only silver lining.  The defeat crushed India’s morale and they slid to an innings defeat and a 3-0 whitewash at Sydney.

 

In the 2003-04 series, India had pulled off an unlikely win at Adelaide and arrived at Melbourne with their confidence high. A bit too high, perhaps. In a bizarre batting display, India crashed from 278 for two to 366 all out on a batting beauty. The Ricky Ponting and Matthew Hayden show resumed thereafter as Australia earned a massive first innings lead.  India failed to make amends in the second innings either, leaving no more than 95 to win for Australia. They got there with nine wickets to spare. India could not force a win at Sydney and watched their best chance to win a series in Australia slip by.

 

Poor preparation in the run-up to the series cost India dearly in their 2007-08 campaign which was kicked-off at Melbourne this time around.  Australia got first use of a sluggish pitch and gradually ground India out of the match. Poor batting once again left India lagging far behind as Australia won by 337 runs. Australia were facing the first pangs of transition as they were without Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Justin Langer and Damien Martyn. But India could not make up for their poor start to the series and lost 1-2.

 

India’s woes at Melbourne are a bit perplexing. It is generally not a fast and bouncy pitch, though England made the most of overcast conditions last year and skittled Australia to win the Ashes. The ball could keep low and call upon patient graft from the batsmen. Bowlers rely on exploiting the low bounce and bowling tight, wicket to wicket lines. These are all things that ought to favour India’s strengths and yet they have endured crushing defeats in their last three matches at this ground.

 

Maybe that is part of the problem. Maybe Melbourne is marked out in backroom plans as one of the grounds where they could gain an upper hand. Certainly, in the 2003 fixture, the approach of India’s batsmen was almost too positive. The pitch was true and offered value for shots but there was the odd delivery that misbehaved a bit. The Indian batsmen seemed to invariably succumb to these very deliveries and failed to convert starts. Three middle- order batsmen got starts in the 2nd innings and none of them, namely, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and Tendulkar, went on to compile a century. It was eventually the difference between a fighting draw and a crushing defeat.

 

I alluded to England’s win at this venue last year. South Africa, too, won at Melbourne in the 2008-09 series. Both teams won their respective series as well. Thus, the importance of a winning start at Melbourne for India cannot be underestimated. This may be the weakest Australian team they have faced in Australia in a long time. Thus, they are once again offered a chance to make history.

 

But to do that, India would have to defy history at this venue. They could draw inspiration from their 222-run win here in 1977 to know they have done it before and can very conquer Fortress Melbourne. 

 

(Madan Mohan, a 25-year old CA from Mumbai, is passionate about writing, music and cricket. Writing on cricket is like the icing on the cake)