Kumble the key for India as hardened rivals square up

Upon a pitch as cracked as the face of an ancient actress, the two strongest teams around meet to settle their long-standing differences.

Upon a pitch as cracked as the face of an ancient actress, the two strongest teams around meet to settle their long-standing differences. Recent series between Australia and India have been epics. India took the Border-Gavaskar trophy in a thrilling home series played in 2001 and last winter held it with the most redoubtable batting seen in Australia for decades.

Respect has developed between the nations and Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag and VVS Laxman have become as popular Down Under as the local champions. Certainly, Australia will not take these opponents for granted when they begin their four-Test series of the sub-Continent at Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore on Thursday.

Both sides have suffered a serious loss in the period of preparation. Incapacitated by tennis elbow, Tendulkar has been unable to practise for six weeks and is unlikely to play any part. Since his game is founded upon checked drives of formidable power and timing, he might not in any case be as effective with a lighter bat. Curiously, his bowling will be missed because he took crucial wickets in his country's stunning victories in Adelaide and Calcutta. Of course he is India's sportsman, not just the batsman, of the last 25 years.

Tendulkar's absence is balanced by Australia's loss of Ricky Ponting, whose broken thumb is expected to mend in time for the third of the four Tests. Since marrying, the Tasmanian has matured into an impressive batsman and leader. Whereas Steve Waugh was a strategist, his successor is a tactician forever trying to keep his grip on the game. Ponting will not repeat his predecessor's mistake of forgetting about the match in order to exact revenge on Ganguly, the indulgence that started the slide at Eden Gardens, when the Indians followed on and declared on 657 for 7, a match-winning total.

Ponting fared even worse than Adam Gilchrist in his last series in these parts. Between them these batsmen reached double figures once in 10 attempts. Since, both have set about mastering the skill of starting an innings on a turning track. Every Australian batsman has consulted Matthew Hayden, whose career was launched in these parts after he saw a laughing club guffawing every morning outside his hotel and promptly decided to attack the spinners. The Queenslander scored 579 runs in three Tests.

India and Australia will field teams reflecting their cultures. Gilchrist's side contains fast bowlers and belligerent batsmen. Australia are undertaking a generational change expressed in the enforced retirements of the Waugh twins and the dropping of Stuart MacGill, whose hard-breaking spin might have been useful in Bangalore. No one fades away in the Australian side. Michael Clarke, a fleet-footed batsman who runs between wickets like The Don, is expected to take Ponting's place and others will soon follow. Australia need to rebuild and may risk the Ashes in that endeavour.

Sourav Ganguly's outfit includes sinuous spinners and batsmen whose games are as richly embroidered as the local palaces. Dravid and Laxman have been out of sorts but will be stirred by their magnificent performances against these same opponents not so long ago. Sehwag and Yuvraj Singh scored centuries here in a hastily arranged match played a week ago in that curious period when Indian cricket lacked a chairman, a television contract and a selection committee. Jagmohan Dalmiya, president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, has finally sorted that all out.

Among the bowlers, Shane Warne needs six scalps to become the highest wicket-taker in Test cricket. Local papers report that he enjoys visiting India but eats mainly spaghetti bolognaise, a dish described in the Deccan Herald as "an Italian delicacy".

Anil Kumble is three short of 400 and may be more dangerous than Warne on a pitch that might take days to disintegrate.

Australia arrive as a fresh team bent upon conquest. India have been transformed under Ganguly and despite a bad run in one-day cricket will be hard to beat. Ganguly is a better captain than suggested by Nasser Hussain but his side is sustained by a handful of players, and that gives Australia an edge.

Regardless of the result, if the series is half as good as its predecessors it will be compelling.

INDIA squad: S C Ganguly (capt), V Sehwag, A Chopra, R Dravid, S R Tendulkar, V V S Laxman, Yuvraj Singh, Mohammad Kaif, P A Patel, A Kumble, Harbhajan Singh, Z Khan, I K Pathan, A B Agarkar, M Kartik.

AUSTRALIA squad: R T Ponting (capt), M J Clarke, A C Gilchrist, J N Gillespie, M L Hayden, N M Hauritz, B J Hodge, M S Kasprowicz, S M Katich, J L Langer, B Lee, D S Lehmann, D R Martyn, G D McGrath, S K Warne, S R Watson, C L White.

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