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January 2004....Sourav Ganguly, captain of India, with the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, Border and Gavaskar

On 6th October 2004 will commence the latest edition of cricket's greatest rivalry. Sourav Ganguly's tigers will take on Adam Gilchrist's Kangaroos in the 'Unofficial World Championship of Test Cricket'.

The record-books state that the last two times India played a Test series, it stunned its opponents, that too, away from home, an achievement that one cannot associate easily with the Indian team. The Pakistanis were thrashed 2-1 on their own pitches and the Australians were given a huge scare in a four-Test series. The imagination of the human mind knows no barriers, and one can go on speculating; what if Harbhajan had been fit and available to bowl in tandem with Kumble in that final Test at Sydney, with the series tied at 1-1? What if Parthiv Patel had stumped Ponting? What if Steve Bucknor had declared Langer leg-before? Had even one of this happened in the first week of the ongoing year, the chances are that Steve Waugh would not have enjoyed the spectacular and emotional farewell that he eventually and deservedly did.

There are some parallels between the Indian team that went to Australia last year, and the outfit that will be taking them on at home. A striking similarity pertains to India's performances prior to either series. Last year, the Indians followed an unimpressive show in a two-Test series against New Zealand with a lacklustre performance in a tri-series also featuring Australia. The nadir was the final at Kolkata, where the team came apart against a 'second-string' Australian bowling attack and failed to achieve an utterly achievable target of 230-odd. India's performances in the weeks prior to the coming Test series are of course, too recent and too traumatic to be recounted here.

1997-98...The duel that never was

Let's therefore concentrate on the past, and the future. The 2003-04 series in Australia saw Test match cricket at its very, very best, as did the earlier series in India in 2000-01. The quality of cricket witnessed in these two series established the 'Border-Gavaskar Trophy' as Test cricket's most prestigious prize, bigger than even the celebrated, but terribly one-sided 'Ashes'. When the Australians took on England in the last series in 2002-03, Steve Waugh was the only member of the Australian team to have tasted an Ashes series defeat (1986-87), and NONE from the English side had experienced a series win over the old enemy! The Ashes is unlikely to regain its place of pride unless the English team, which is presently in its best form since the dark 90s, ends Australia's run of wins that began in 1989, and maintains its performance over the next two series atleast. Michael Vaughan may well be knighted if he wins back the Ashes in 2005, but that is all that will come out of it.

In 2003-04, India won the second Test at Adelaide and held its own in the drawn games at Brisbane and Sydney. It paid the price for one poor session at Melbourne, but a 1-1 scoreline was still a resounding slap on the faces of all those who had predicted a 0-4 rout. Some cricket pundits from India had even gone to the extent of making 'alternate plans' for the scheduled fourth and fifth days of the Test, as they were convinced that all the matches would end within three!

Things were not too different in early 2001. The Aussies came to India on a high with a record 15 consecutive Test wins under their belt. Steve Waugh, their captain and a keen student of the game's history, christened India as the 'Final Frontier'. True, the Aussies had beaten nearly every country in 'away' series till that point, save Sri Lanka, whom they had bested in a one-off Test in 1992-93 (They added a full series win in Sri Lanka to their baggy green caps only recently). They hadn't beaten India in India since 1969-70, and the way they played in the first Test at Mumbai, it looked as if the Final Frontier was going the way of the Berlin Wall. But Messrs Laxman, Dravid and Harbhajan had other ideas, and they got together in the second Test at Kolkata to script one of the greatest, if not the greatest, resurrections in Test history. One of the most bewildered individuals at the Eden Gardens on the evening of March 15th, 2001 must have been Adam Gilchrist. It was the 16th Test of his career, and his first defeat after 15 successive wins!

Dighe and Harbhajan celebrate the series win at Chennai, 2001

As if to silence all those who doubted that it was the Greatest Test Series to be played on Indian soil, the Indian cricket team took the third and final Test at Chennai down to the wire, losing eight wickets in pursuit of a target of 155. That series made reputations, careers, and men. Ask Matthew Hayden, VVS Laxman and Harbhajan Singh.

Laxman's 'inside-out' strokes over mid-wicket against a rampant Shane Warne notwithstanding, probably the most talked-about duel in the history of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy since its inception in 1996-97 was a 'duel that never was'. The 'battle' between Sachin Tendulkar and Warne in the 1997-98 series turned out to be a rather bizarre affair, ending as it did with a comprehensive win for the Indian. There was little that Sachin could do wrong in 1998-99, and unfortunately for them, Warne and his team found themselves in the firing line. Sachin grabbed the initiative with a double hundred for Mumbai prior to the first Test, and in collaboration with the inimitable Navjot Singh Sidhu, tamed Warne with knocks of 155 at Chennai and 177 at Bangalore. Their teammates followed their footsteps and the outcome was a 2-1 win for India. Sachin's performances in that series were a prelude to grander feats in a limited-overs tournament at Sharjah that followed the series.

It is significant that of the five series played for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy from 1996 to 2004, the Aussies have won the prize only once; in 1999-00, when they annihilated India 3-0. On all the other occasions, an Indian captain has held centrestage; Sachin Tendulkar, who led India to victory in the one-off Test in 1996-97, Mohammed Azharuddin in 1997-98 and Sourav Ganguly, who regained the trophy in 2000-01 and won it again for drawing the next series in 2003-04. And this, in a period in which the Aussies humiliated every other international team, most of them more than once!

The first Test of the 2004-05 series will feature two evenly-matched teams. Both sides comprise belligerent batsmen, hostile pacemen, outstanding spinners and a whole lot of committed cricketers. The absentees are also equals, although at the time of writing, there are many who believe that Tendulkar might play. Ricky Ponting certainly won't.

The teams have a lot to play for, a tradition to maintain. The history of Ind-Australia cricket is replete with epic battles and feats; Bradman's monumental scores and Hazare's twin hundreds in 1947-48, Jasu Patel's 14 wickets at Kanpur in 1959-60, India's two-wicket win in a thriller at the CCI in 1964-65, G.R. Vishwanath's glorious Test debut at Kanpur in 1969-70, the five memorable tussles of 1977-78, the double hundreds by Greg Chappell and Kim Hughes in 1980-81, India's victory at Melbourne in the same series, fashioned by the semi-fit duo of Kapil Dev and Dilip Doshi, the Tied Test at Chennai in 1986-87, the 18 year-old Sachin Tendulkar's 'coming of age' with two magnificent hundreds at Sydney and Perth in 1991-92, Sachin v/s Shane in 1997-98. And 2000-01. And 2003-04.

Should be fun.

P.S: The cricket will be competitive and fierce. It is another matter that cricket-lovers in India and other parts of the world may not get to watch it. Hail Indian cricket!

- By Devendra Prabhudesai    

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