By Denzil Fernandes
Daijiworld Media Network
Dec 26: The traditional Boxing Day is generally celebrated just after Christmas giving gifts or presents as thanks to the needy. But on December 26th in Melbourne, Australia, immediately after the Christmas day festivities, there will be a battle of sorts as two of the hottest cricket rivals, India and Australia will put their best foot forward to stamp their dominance as the first of the four test series begins at Melbourne, Australia.
Most of the cricket loving Indians and those in the Gulf states will still be on their beds as play begins in the four test series that will take both the teams from Melbourne to Sydney, Perth and to Adelaide for the fourth test series.
In the past, the ‘Ashes’ series between England and Australia have always gained preference over any other cricket contests all over the world. However, with Team India emerging as a strong combination and with Australia hell bent on proving that they are ‘still’ a force in international cricket, the ensuing series gains plenty of prominence and attention to say the least. Right now, Team India is ranked two in World Test rankings while Australia has slid down to rank four. The forthcoming series will be interesting to see if the rankings change at the end of the Test series.
Battle scarred Australia have lost many of their stalwarts during the last couple of years and are now in the process of ‘re building’ their side. Names like the famous Waugh brothers, Warne, McGrath, Gilchrist, Hayden, Healy have all now taken their ‘retired’ slots and have gone into the background. Except for Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey, most of the members in the current Australia squad are fresh faces who are trying to prove that they are worthy of emulating the past deeds of their retired cricketers. One invariably sees a multitude of new names and as time goes by one hopes that these lads will stay put and seal a permanent place for Australia. Ponting however stays still as one of the greatest Australian batsmen ever to play for Australia.
Likewise, the touring Indian squad too is in a special kind of dilemma. Under their fabulous captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the Indians reckon that this is their best chance to win the series outside India in Australia. There is a strong reason for such a confident feeling because at least some of the current members are making what one may say as their final trip to Australia representing India. Eminent players like Tendulkar, Dravid, V.V.S. Laxman, Zaheer Khan are on a trip where they cannot do anything else than showing off their skills while ensuring that the Indians win the series comfortably. This is one final chance for India’s senior players to take up the mantle and end their career with a historic series win in Australia. This is going to be a ‘now or never’ series as far as India is concerned.
As it stands, both the sides look evenly balanced although India seems to have a wafer thin edge. Australia have former South Africa coach Mickey Arthur to guide their progress while India have gone with old fox Duncan Fletcher who will know more than a thing or two about the kangaroos.
One is yet to become familiar with the new names that are being considered to play for Australia with so many youngsters knocking on the door. Unfortunately for them, some of the players like Watson, Marsh, Mitchell are on the injury list and look like doubtful starters. At the same time, players like Warner, Phil Hughes, Dan Christian, and others are turning out a new leaf as star batters while replacing the old guard.
Former captain Ricky Ponting now playing under new captain Michael Clarke is struggling for runs and one expects him to ‘hang his boots’ by the end of the series if the runs don’t flow from his bat regularly. So many past cricketers have asked Ponting to retire gracefully before he is dropped by the selectors. But Ponting is staying put and determined to prove that he is worth many more runs for Australia. There is a dangerous feeling that if Ponting strikes India could be in great trouble. Michael Hussey too is facing the chop unless he turns around quickly and recovers to continue in the side.
Skipper Michael Clarke has to lead from the front with his batting just like Watson and Marsh if they recover from their injuries. Wicketkeeper Brad Haddin and Dan Christian are others on whom a good Aussie performance will depend. As I write this news has come that Watson will not make the team due to injuries. 29 year old Ed Cowan who scored a ton against the Indians in a warm up game has been picked to play. Cowan has been in the runs lately and could be a thorn for the Indians.
From India’s point of view, the batting department seems loaded with a galaxy of players. World’s most explosive opener Virender Sehwag is in the prime of his form and if he clicks at the top the Aussies will be in great trouble. Then there are players like Gambhir, Kohli, Dhoni, Rohit Sharma who are all young and bustling to shine. There could be trouble for India if ‘Viru’ does not fire early.
This is without mentioning the old horses in Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman who are expected to provide the solidity for the batting. Dravid is already having a bumper time with his batting and one hopes that he continues to score against Australia as well. However, with fast and bouncy wickets in Australia, the Indian batsmen will have to watch out against the new crop of bowlers from Australia who are waiting to impress. There is also the rare chance of seeing Tendulkar post his 100th hundred in Melbourne. But with all the pressure around, will he achieve that rare distinction ?
Surely, the bowling side is looking weak although pacer Zaheer Khan has returned after a long lay off due to an injury. Lanky Ishant Sharma has arrived in Australia but has struggled due to an ankle injury which is really surprising. How the lad has been picked is a mystery indeed. Although Zaheer ‘Zak’ Khan is back bowling, there are questions asked if he will survive the long tour. The other young pacers will show their keenness to trundle the cherry and may pick a few wickets here and there. More than the pacers, the spinners like Ashwin and Ojha are expected to play a major role in India’s results.
There is a delicate balance between the sides with the Aussies having an advantage with their bowling and the Indians with their strong batting line up. Surely, the Indians do not seem equipped well with their bowlers and one wonders what will happen if both Ishant Sharma and Zaheer Khan become unavailable at any time during the tour with injury. Plenty of care and attention is required to ensure that there are not too many breakdowns and injuries with the tourists. Even before Ishant has played his first match there is a rumour that a replacement is ready to fly into Australia. What a sad state of affairs as far as management of injuries is concerned. The Indian fielding may also be a bit of concern with so many seniors around on the field !
Very interestingly, India’s Harbhajan Singh and Yuvraj Singh have not been picked for the touring side just like Australia’s Andrew Symonds who spends time in ‘Big Boss’ and other activities than cricket these days. Both ‘Bhajji’ and ‘Simmo’ who were involved in the famous Monkeygate scandal in the 2008 Sydney Test between India and Australia are said to be close friends now and even playing for the same Mumbai Indians team in the Indian Premier League. (IPL)
The four match test series will mostly likely be shared by both the teams when one looks at the two sides which will be playing. As said before, the Aussies are now in the process of re building their team. Their recent defeat against New Zealand coming after 18 years in Hobart has surely disturbed their preparations. The players have gone into a boot camp in preparation against the Indians under new coach Mickey Arthur and batting coach Justin Langer. What will come out from there no one knows. In the meantime, the Indians have been trying to get back to form with great anxiety and interest. They will face some unknown and young pacers who will ignite a spark or two on the pitch.
While abroad the Indians have always been at the receiving end more often than not. Earlier in the year they were demolished by England. They have to completely forget that rout and get into new paths and start winning. Under captain cool Dhoni they have someone who can look after the players to give their best.
India and Australia have played 78 tests and Australia have won 34 while India has won 20 with one test tied and 23 tests drawn. The Indians reckon that this is going to be their best chance to tilt the scales with the host team unsettled. Earlier the kiwis too showed the brittle batting of the Aussies when they won in Hobart by skittling them although narrowly. Certainly, there is a ray of hope for Zaheer Khan and his bowlers who have to be at their best while planning a win.
Surely, the Aussies will serve the best turkey and wine to the visiting Indian team at the Christmas celebrations. That hospitality will be welcomed by the tourists but they have to prove that they are a different lot while on the cricket field. At the end of the lst test, it should be the turn of the Indians to serve champagne to their hosts by winning the Boxing Day test comfortably. That will be the spirit which will be required if the Indians intend to start their tour on a victory note. In any case, with both sides quite equally balanced a fantastic year ending Test classic is on the cards.
No wonder, then, the ‘house full’ board at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) for the first Test is already getting ready to be put up. The cricket loving Aussies like to support good cricket in the middle irrespective of who is playing. And for that one special reason, everyone can be assured of a fine show at the MCG.
Australia: Michael Clarke (captain), Ed Cowan, David Warner, Shaun Marsh, Ricky Ponting, Michael Hussey, Daniel Christian, Brad Haddin, Peter Siddle, James Pattinson, Ben Hilfenhaus, Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon.
Inda: MS Dhoni (Capt. &wk), Gautam Gambhir, Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma, Vinaykumar, R Ashwin, Umesh Yadav, Pragyan Ojha, A. Mithun, Ishant Sharma, Wriddhiman Saha and Zaheer Khan.
Live update will start at 4.30 am IST on Monday December 26.