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By Suresh Menon
Will the loss to New Zealand in the Hobart Test make Australia a more dangerous side when they take on India a fortnight from now, or will it drag the team further down the corridor of uncertainty they have been inhabiting in recent weeks and months? Will it mean the end of Ricky Ponting’s career or will he now keep his place in order to lend experience to the shaky middle order?
Sport is strange that way. A loss can either inspire or deflate a team. Champion teams tend to be motivated by defeat, but Australia haven’t been champions for some time now, and it will be interesting to see how the team reacts; or indeed how the selectors do. Starting with a clean slate has been effective in the past. A week before the Boxing Day Test, Ponting turns 37. Both Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid are a couple of years older, but the Indians have been scoring runs by the bucket, and continue to be the pillars of the batting. There is no pressure on them.
The last time India travelled, they were knocked over by England in every match; it wasn’t a great England side, but India struggled once Zaheer Khan pulled out with injury in the first Test, and discovered that nothing succeeds like failure.
Thanks to the recent victories against England and the West Indies at home (the former admittedly in a one-day series), the smile is back on the face of the Indian tiger. But tigers at home, lambs abroad – the story of Indian cricket for many years, has come back to haunt them.
Not since 1977-78 when a full Indian team was expected to thrash an Aussie outfit weakened by the Packer series has there been so much hope in the Indian camp. Three and a half decades ago, India lost the first two Tests very narrowly and won the next two with thumping margins before losing the decider. It was a rag tag Australian outfit led by Bobby Simpson who had been recalled a decade after retiring from the game. History clearly is not in India’s favour.
Even when the team was anointed No. 1 in the world, there was a nagging incompleteness: India had never won a series in Australia. Over a decade and a half, India have been ensuring that their performance matched their ranking as possibly the country’s best team of all time. There was the series win in Pakistan and victories in England and the West Indies. The World Cup was finally attracted to their showcase, but Australia remains an important frontier, even if not quite the final one since there have been no series wins in South Africa either.
The current team might have some of the same batsmen (though older and possibly slower), but neither of the spinning giants, Anil Kumble or Harbhajan Singh, and there is the question mark over Zaheer’s fitness. Twice before he has pulled out of a series in Australia with injury problems; his presence is crucial not only for who he is but for the guidance he will provide to the young medium pacers in the team.
The seaming Hobart track might have exaggerated the bowling skills of either team (and put in perspective the incredible, unbeaten century by opening batsman David Warner), but how would Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav have bowled in similar circumstances? If nothing else, the Hobart result – and New Zealand were winning a Test for the first time in Australia in 26 years – has opened up the possibilities in the India series.
The question is, which team will it inspire more: Australia or India?