Over the last decade, Australia and India have set up Test cricket’s most absorbing rivalry. Every champion needs a counterpoint: legacies, defined referentially, draw from the dynamic between world-beater and contender. India, thanks to its natural style of calm, aggressive cricket, its distinctive ability to play at the level of the opposition, and the confluence of some of the finest cricketers in the contemporary game, fulfilled this role of contender. To the joy of tens of millions of cricket fans, it established itself as the only team in this era to consistently challenge — and not infrequently master — Australia both home and away. In fact, since the turn of the millennium India has transformed itself into an all-round cricketing power capable of winning in varying conditions anywhere. It is against this background that reclaiming the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, after a period of four years, assumes special significance. The 2-0 victory over Australia signals a role reversal. The king hasn’t abdicated yet but the heir to the throne appears to have stripped him of his aura.
The difference between the sides over four Tests was the fast bowling. Australia travelled to India with a seam-bowling attack that had seemingly moved on from Glenn McGrath. But confronted by difficult conditions, Australia’s bowling was exposed for its lack of skill, control, and imagination. The absence of a front-line spinner — before Jason Krejza’s expensive but potent fourth Test debut — hurt the visitors badly. Great sides have versatile and balanced attacks that can take wickets differently in differing conditions. The penury of Australia’s bowling line-up contrasted with its batting riches. India, on the other hand, has the makings of a first-rate bowling unit. The fact that India’s transition will pertain largely to batting — even accounting for the need to fill Anil Kumble’s giant shoes — puts the side in a better position than Australia. Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma showed their mastery of reverse swing and, although they struggled on occasion under batting-friendly conditions, they struck defining blows. More perhaps was expected of Harbhajan Singh but he was able to strike vital blows when it mattered. Amit Mishra’s leg-spin holds out promise although the 25-year-old will need to adapt as the cricket world is exposed to his deception. The Indian selectors deserve special praise for being unfailingly objective in their decisions and for getting the balance right. Finally, India was the more resilient and iron-willed of the sides. This became clear during the last three sessions of the final Test, when Ponting lost the plot and India rallied from a vulnerable position to put Australia out of the match. As much as anything else, this mental toughness suggests a shift in the axis of power.