A series which holds so much promise

S. Ram Mahesh

Breakthroughs from the Indian seamers are vital

Melbourne: The need for a Test series that showcases the game at its tense, shape-shifting best, assembling its finest sons and investing in them the power to spark evocative moments, can not be overstated.

Not that such a series hasn’t come about in recent times. A few months ago, India and England played a series of luminous, entertaining cricket. The revival of high-quality swing bowling provided its primary narrative.

Hard-fought though it was — and historic too, for India won its first series in England since 1986 — the three-Test contest seemed to lack in scale. Perhaps, the space for a fourth Test (since five are now a luxury afforded, it would appear, only to the Ashes) would have elevated the series to greatness. Which is why the coming series between India and Australia, scheduled to begin here at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Wednesday, holds so much promise.

To put it in perspective, it must be said that these are hype-driven times, when the merely good masquerades as the great. Bob Simpson’s contention in Sportstar that the standard of world cricket is at a 50-year low cut to the bone. But, two of the three defining series of the last decade have been fought over the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.

Dominant force

So, what chance does India have this time around? The numbers offer little succour. They confirm Australia’s reputation as both cricket’s most dominant force and it’s the most severe tour: since losing 2-1 to the West Indies in 1992-93, Australia hasn’t surrendered a series at home. In this period the side has won 62 of 84 Tests, losing eight.

The record grows more forbidding if the horizon is advanced to 2000. Australia has dropped just two Tests since then, one of them a dead rubber to England.

The other loss, however, is instructive: it was to India, in what has been canonised as Adelaide 2003, a rare instance of a contemporary touring team taking the lead in a Test series down under.

India did it then through a fightback from the current captain Anil Kumble, epic knocks from the heroes at Kolkata, Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman, an unexpectedly lethal bout of swing bowling from Ajit Agarkar, and a calm chase that had Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar and V.V.S. Laxman supporting the indefatigable Dravid.

Batting lineup

Most of the characters are still part of the cast. The batting, considered one of the best touring lineups of all time by the distinguished cricket historian and writer David Frith, has had an interesting time of it since.

Pilloried by critics, who, not unjustly, pointed to a decline in skill with advancing age, the batting renewed itself in England after the Lord’s Test.

A lot rests on how capably Dravid, Tendulkar, Ganguly and Laxman still the questions raised by pace and bounce, the two most ruthless interrogators of a slowing body. Even more rests on India’s fast-medium bowlers.

In England, Zaheer Khan and R.P. Singh were immense, swinging the ball both ways at pace, using the left-armer’s angle from over and around the wicket.

But, can they coax the Kookaburra, with its modest seam, to swing as prodigiously as the Duke? Indeed, will the conditions barring the Freemantle Doctor, the stiff cooling breeze in Perth, facilitate swing? And failing which can they find other means of taking wickets?

Breakthroughs from the seamers are vital. As the recent series against Sri Lanka showed, even the greatest of spinners struggle to shift Australian batsmen when set on their home tracks. Moreover, Australia’s most vehement statement of intent in recent times has come from their batsmen.

Touring sides have conceded 50 runs per wicket since 2000, these runs being looted at 3.81 runs an over. It’s tough playing catch-up when you’re 600 behind in two days.

Perhaps more rests on India’s bowlers than even they know. It falls on them to ensure that cricket’s first principle — a balance of power between bat and ball — is adhered to. If they succeed, we will have had a series for the gods.

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