AFTER duly polishing off the West Indies without too much ado, Australia is now set for a challenge of a different sort - a trip to India, three Tests and five one-dayers, and a chance to end a 31-year drought of series victories. The last time Australia won there was in 1969-70 when Bill Lawry's team won a five-match series 3-1. It probably is a coincidence that England recently won a series against the West Indies after a gap of just that many years!
Debates about the composition of the Australian team may continue, especially over the exclusion of Stuart MacGill and the absence of Matthew Elliott. That is besides the point as the team has now been selected and barring injury to one or the other on tour, nobody else will get a look in. It seems like a bit of a risk to take along three fast bowlers who have just got over injuries and one who has been going so long that by the law of averages he is due to get one but then the selectors's minds work in curious ways. One must take into account the fact that both food and water can lay a man low on the subcontinent, not just the cricket. The heat and the crowds are additional factors.
I would personally have taken Stuart MacGill in preference to Shane Warne but I don't think that Australia is going to be too dependent on spin out there. The Indians play spin pretty well in their own backyard but they are susceptible to pace. The West Indies have never been troubled by the lack of a spinner in India; quality pace bowlers have done the job for them time and again. India will be at a big disadvantage without Anil Kumble and thus it is unlikely that the wickets for the Tests will be slow turners.
The Wankhede Stadium is generally a good batting strip. The ground in Madras can go either way; Sunil Gavaskar made the highest score of his Test career (236 not out) there but low-scoring matches have been seen as well. It all depends on the type of wicket prepared. Calcutta has traditionally been a spinners' wicket but that could have changed over the years. There was a time when India had just five or six grounds and so there was a Test match at every centre every year; now the cricket is spread far and wide and apart from Bombay and Delhi some centres can go without a Test for years.
Logic says that India will prepare good batting strips. Bouncy wickets are unknown in the country; the ball keep low and tends to skid. Fast bowlers who can take advantage of that type of strip - Lance Klusener is a good example - find the place a good hunting ground. But quality fast bowlers will do well on any type of wicket and the four in the Australian squad are all good. Any three plus Warne or two plus Warne and Miller will be a difficult proposition to handle.
I expect Australia to win the series. Not a clean sweep, but a hard-fought 1-0 victory. A lot depends on how they hold up during the series and how the batsmen cope with Indian conditions. And how well the bowlers manage to establish a mastery over the Indian batsmen. In this, they may be helped by the fact that India toured Australia not very long ago and were outclassed. Such memories do not help a batsman any.
There has been some psyching up before the Australians even land in India and one does not expect the din to get any less after they do. I only hope that the umpires do not spoil the show - as happened in Australia when India played there - and that a good series results. The last series which caught the imagination was when Australia went to the Caribbean and Brian Lara single-handedly ensured a 2-2 draw for his team. Sachin Tendulkar has everything that Lara does and consistency besides, Saurav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid have been in fine form recently and one can only hope that the tour gives a sorely needed boost to the game.