An intense battle on the cards

An intense battle on the cards

Cricket: India-Australia Test series: The game will be back in focus when Dhonis men take on Australia from today

An intense battle on the cards

Over the years, India-Australia contests have assumed greater proportions, at various stages rivalling Indo-Pak clashes and the Ashes battles in terms of popularity and intensity.

An intense -- but not necessarily ugly -- battle is what is the need of the hour to put the spotlight back on cricket, and the two-Test series between two of the most fascinating teams in the world promises to do just that.

India are the holders of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy they won at home after beating Australia 2-0 in 2008, the series that saw Mahendra Singh Dhoni being anointed the Test skipper also. In the two years since, following Anil Kumble’s retirement, Dhoni has hasn’t lost a Test series either at home or away. It’s an enviable record, but the Jharkhandi will be hard-pressed to maintain that streak.

It was here at the Punjab Cricket Association ground, where India haven’t lost a Test in close to 16 years, that the hosts won the first of two Tests last time around on the back some superb swing bowling, both reverse and conventional, by Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma. As Dhoni and company begin their campaign to defend the title at the same ground, the aura that surrounded the Indian bowlers in the last series is largely invisible.

Zaheer, missing from Friday’s practice, is playing his first Test after recuperating from injury as is S Sreesanth, while the other paceman in the squad, Ishant, is a pale shadow of his brilliant past though he did shine in patches in Sri Lanka.

Another big cause for worry for Dhoni is the potential absence of Harbhajan Singh, suffering from a calf injury. The off-spinner has been bowling long spells in the nets, but Dhoni remained non-committal about his availability. In this scenario, India will have to rely on leggie Amit Mishra and left-arm spinner Pragyan Ojha, who have been decent without being spectacular in the chances they have got so far, to shoulder the spin attack. How this weakened and inexperienced attack fares against Australian batsmen will play a key role in shaping India’s fortunes, though if Harbhajan is ruled out, India might play three seamers and just the one spinner in Ojha.

This scenario certainly puts extra pressure on the famed Indian batting line-up, but they have been around for long with proven credentials to pull the team through this challenge. Virender Sehwag, Australia’s proclaimed number one target, will be the most important factor in pushing the visitors on to the backfoot. But with the in-form Sachin Tendulkar and Aussie-tormentor VVS Laxman to follow along with Rahul Dravid, Gautam Gambhir, Suresh Raina and Dhoni, the visitors’ attack has an uphill task.

However, one heartening fact for Ponting is that he has in his ranks a couple of bowlers who have the experience of playing Tests in India, unlike in the last series. With Mitchell Johnson and Nathan Hauritz in his armoury now, the Aussie skipper is hoping to have the better of the exchanges against the Indian batsmen.

Talking of exchanges, Ponting himself has a poor record when it comes to Tests in India.
He has scored an abysmal 438 from 12 matches, close to half of those runs coming in the last series. The same goes for Dravid.
The right-hander’s recent performance hasn’t matched the tall standards he has set for himself and more so against Australia, a side he once tormented by piling up heap of runs. Ever since the epochal 2004 series, Australia have had the measure of the Bangalorean, who has managed a mere 547 runs in the last 24 innings. Certainly, time for redemption then.
     
Teams (from):
India: MS Dhoni (capt), Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman, Suresh Raina, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma, Pragyan Ojha, Amit Mishra, Cheteshwar Pujara, M Vijay, S Sreesanth.

Australia: Ricky Ponting (capt), Shane Watson, Simon Katich, Michael Clarke, Michael Hussey, Marcus North, Tim Paine, Mitchell Johnson, Nathan Hauritz, Ben Hilfenhaus, Doug Bollinger, Peter George, Mitchell Starc, Phillip Hughes, Steven Smith.  
  
Umpires: Billy Bowden (New Zealand) and Ian Gould (England). Third umpire: Sanjay Hazare. Match referee: Chris Broad (England).

Hours of play: 0930-1130 hours, 1210-1410 hours and 1430 hours to end of play.

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