Australia's real great barrier

World's best have failed in India for 35 years - and may do so yet again. Stephen Brenkley reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online

When Australia last won a Test series in India the Nawab of Pataudi Jnr was still a prince and Bill Lawry was still a stodgily proficient opening batsman. Lawry's side won a troubled rubber 3-1, though there were other reasons for the Nawab being stripped of his title.

In the years afterwards, Pataudi, who was a dashing international batsman despite losing his right eye, became known as Mansur Ali Khan. Lawry became a one-eyed television commentator, and his endearingly hysterical partisanship must have bordered on con- vulsions in the 35 years and five series that Australia have failed to repeat his success.

The attempt to bridge the gap is one of the appeals of the four-match series which begins in Bangalore on Wednesday, but there is considerably more to it than that. The contest for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy (would the Pataudi-Lawry Trophy not have been more apposite?) is the Test series of the year by the length of a Calcutta traffic jam.

While due respect must be accorded to all that England have achieved, all roads in this year of international cricket have led to only one place (which was never the ICC Champions Trophy). The nature of the rivalry between Australia and India has changed utterly since Lawry's team clinched their victory in Madras over Christmas 1969. Australia have taken almost all before them under a succession of captains, and India have emerged as a potent side at last capable of allying discipline to rich talent.

If this series needed any additional promotion it was handed it by India's performance in Australia last year. They took a 1-0 lead, and although they were pegged back they were galvanised. To draw 1-1 away with the best side in the world, according to some the best side there has ever been, was some result. It is unfortunate that the forthcoming series is available on television in the UK only on the subscription channel Sony TV Asia after a late legal wrangle over broadcast rights in India. Sky have no plans to show the matches after Rupert Murdoch's Asian channel, Star Sports, lost out.

Going into this series both teams have been afflicted by injuries to star players, but there are stars everywhere you look. Ricky Ponting, Australia's captain, who is only four matches into his Test tenure, has been ruled out of the first two matches by a thumb injury he sustained in the defeat by England in the Champions Trophy. Sachin Tendulkar has been picked in an India squad of 15, but his severe case of tennis elbow may not have eased sufficiently.

Before he was thumbstruck, Ponting assessed Australia's chances of defying recent history and was more upbeat than he might have been. "It's one of the biggest series I've played in," he said. "India's batting, especially in those conditions, is awesome, but the bowling is still a bit suspect if you can get on top of their spinners.

"Anil Kumble will play a big part at home, and although Harbhajan Singh is fit again I don't think he will have the impact he had last time. If we can bat well we will be right in the series. We made runs last time and we made a lot in Sri Lanka in similar sort of conditions and probably against a better spinner. We've actually done well on the subcontinent the past two or three years."

Ponting is always amenable and says a lot while being careful not to say very much at all, but there was a hint that he doth protest too much. The last visit, nearly four years ago, was epic. Australia, 1-0 up, forced India to follow on in the Second Test, and lost by 171 runs. In the decider, India sneaked nervously home by two wickets. Harbhajan took 29 wickets in the final two matches.

And not all Australia's batsmen did well. Ponting himself made 17 runs in five innings; and after making 122 in his first visit to the crease, Adam Gilchrist added two more in his next four. Australia are contemplating batting Gilchrist in Ponting's place at three. Gilchrist is a great cricketer, but since he is already wicketkeeper and replacement captain that might be a task too far.

The depth and quality of both sides' batting suggests that neither loss would be insurmountable but India would probably manage the better. Part of the reason is that Tendulkar, for all his breathtaking talent, is neither the best batsman in the world nor the Test Player of the Year. Rahul Dravid is.

"We've focused a lot on our Test cricket and got better at it," said Dravid. "This will be tough, but I only hope we have the quality of cricket we had last time, when both sides played so positively. I think our performances in Australia last winter surprised them more than anything else, and a lot of people around the world. It was a sign for us."

Dravid has made four Test double hundreds in his last 15 matches and supplies India with a fortitude that has not always come naturally to them. Ponting said somewhat controversially that he would prefer to have Matthew Hayden batting for him than Dravid, but it is Dravid he will have to bowl out twice. Not to mention the magnificent V V S Laxman.

"Last time we didn't have Brett Lee, and he will get wickets in Indian conditions because he can get reverse swing and he's really quick and they don't like that," Ponting said. "Then there's Shane Warne. Without making excuses, the last couple of tours he has been on he hasn't been fit. This time he should be 100 per cent."

The harsh statistical fact is that Warne, the best leg-spinner of all, has had a miserable time against India. His 20 wickets in six matches there have cost 52 runs each. He has something to prove. As for Lee, well, India have unearthed a fast bowler of their own, the exciting 20-year-old left-arm swing bowler Irfan Pathan.

It is tough to call, but if one independent judge is to be believed, Australia have no chance. Brian Lara said they would not win a match and that India's batsmen would dominate.

India should prevail, just. They will be led by Sourav Ganguly with his customary wonderful hauteur. Some things have not changed in 35 years. The Nawab of Pataudi was a prince, Sourav conducts himself as if he is one.

Great expectations: Four series the world could not wait to see

1953, England v Australia

England won 1-0

England had not won the Ashes since 1933, spanning six series, but the feeling was irresistible that their time had come. "Such was the fierce public interest that wars, politics, murders and scandals made way on the front pages for cricket," wrote Alec Bedser, who took 39 wickets. England had to resist heroically - embodied by Trevor Bailey and Willie Watson's epic Lord's rearguard - but at The Oval Denis Compton hit the winning four, and the Ashes were back after 18 years and 362 days.

1992, West Indies v South Africa

West Indies won 1-0

South Africa had been excluded from international cricket for 22 years and had never played West Indies. This one-off Test was a new beginning, long awaited far beyond cricket's narrow world. Nobody gave South Africa's debutants a prayer against the undisputed world champions, but after Andrew Hudson's 163 and Allan Donald's menacing bowling they reached 123 for 2, requiring only another 78 runs for victory. They were swept aside by Ambrose and Walsh, losing their last eight wickets for 25 runs.

1995, West Indies v Australia

Australia won 2-1

The gap had been narrowing for years, and now at last Australia were confident that they could close it. The series matched all expectations as fortunes swayed and bowlers dominated. There was high controversy: Steve Waugh's juggled catch off Brian Lara that was later seen to have been grounded; Waugh's eyeballing of Ambrose. There was spectacular cricket: Ambrose's match return of 9 for 65 in the Third Test; Waugh's 200 in the decisive fourth. After 15 years and 29 series, West Indies were beaten.

2004, Pakistan v India

India won 2-1

Once more, the idea of the contest actually taking place was as significant as the cricket. In the event, the cricket was mouth-watering. After a 14-year hiatus caused by government friction the sides might have been wary. Far from it. India's batting was resplendent in Tests one and three, Pakistan drew level in the second with two centuries of their own. Ultimately, India created time for their bowlers, new boy Irfan Pathan and old boy Anil Kumble, to do their work.