India vs Australia! It is a contest that since 2001 has achieved marquee status in international cricket. Before that it was a series that attracted considerable attention in the two countries but little interest elsewhere.
Now, whatever the places the two teams might occupy in the ICC rankings the events on the field are followed all over the cricketing world. Not only do the two teams possess some of the leading stars in the game today but the competition is so fierce and intense that the off field activities are also well chronicled.
Too much however should not be made of the controversies and the seamy incidents. It would be better to concentrate on the happenings on the field and in this aspect the cricket produced has ranked with the best in world cricket since the beginning of the new millennium.
There are two distinct phases when it comes to Australia’s tours of India. In the fifties and sixties when Indian cricket was either still in its formative years or when they were treated as "poor cousins" of international cricket along with New Zealand and Pakistan Australia romped home in three of the four contests while drawing the other.
Since the seventies when Indian cricket’s status has considerably improved the Aussies have generally been at the receiving end in this country whatever their overwhelming superiority at home. The difference is clearly driven home by figures for while Australia have a 26-5 win/loss advantage Down Under in India the hosts are in front 15-12.
Moreover eight of the 12 Aussie victories were notched up in the fifties and sixties. Since then visiting Australian teams have found wins hard to come by in India and that is why after repeated reverses Steve Waugh termed the 2001 series as the final frontier. By this time Australia were the No 1 team in the game and had won everywhere with only their record in India being a blot on their CV.
It is now part of history how Waugh despite having a formidable team at his disposal was not able to cross the final frontier - and after the Australians had won the first Test in the three-match series. That was 16 victories on the trot for the Aussies - a world record - but that is where it stayed for against expectations India won the second Test at the Eden Gardens after the visitors had dominated the first three days.
The unforgettable events over the last two days are now part of cricketing folklore. The 376-run fifth wicket partnership between VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid which saw the pair bat right through the fourth day, the former notching up the highest individual score by an Indian in Test cricket, and the finishing touches applied by Harbhajan Singh that saw India turn the tables to register arguably the greatest triumph at home, has been so well chronicled that even a person with little interest in cricket is aware of it.
Now the hunter had become the hunted and in another memorable contest a week later this time at Chepauk India registered a two-wicket victory to emerge triumphant in a series that marked a turning point in India’s cricketing history.
The general upsurge in the fortunes culminating in the No 1 ranking for the first time towards the end of the decade is largely traced to the 2001 series and few would argue against this view.
Australia did cross the final frontier on their next trip in 2004 winning their first series in India for 35 years. Since then however they have been at the receiving end with India winning the contests in 2008 and 2010 by 2-0 margins. Australia in fact has not won even one of the last seven Tests in this country, with India winning five while two have been drawn.
So what can be expected of the four-Test series that commences at Chepauk on Friday? Both teams are not at full strength thanks to injuries and recent retirements. The two contestants are also in a transitional phase with the rebuilding process on in real earnest. To that extent the standard of cricket might not match the earlier contests.
But one supposes the competitive spirit will still be fierce and intense and hopefully without the controversies that have sullied the matches somewhat in recent times. On the plus point there are still a number of world class players on both sides and the series is likely to revolve around a battle between the Indian batsmen and the Aussie pace battery while the Aussie batsmen will have their work cut out as they try and negotiate the Indian spinners going by what one has seen in the pre-tour games.
Past record and present form are two very important criteria when it comes to analyzing an impending contest. On the former, India should start favourites but on the latter, it is clear that the home team will be on the back foot after having just lost their first Test series at home since 2004. Australia will be encouraged by England’s performance as they launch their campaign while India will have to tread warily against opponents who are always dangerous when cornered or underestimated.