CRICKET-IND-AUS
Indian cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni tosses a ball during a training session at the Vidarbha Cricket Association stadium in Nagpur on November 5, 2008. The final test match of the Gavaskar-Border Trophy 2008 will start from November 6 with India leading the series 1-0 against Australia. AFP PHOTO/Indranil MUKHERJEE
Rachit Kaushik
The Match To Watch

The traditional India-Pakistan rivalry in cricket is now passé. India-versus-Australia is the not-so-new rivalry to wait for, unfolding at the Sydney Cricket Ground, on television screens and hearts of millions of cricket lovers on 26 March.

There is no definite milestone when the India-Australia rivalry started, but the Sydney-gate in 2007-08 Border-Gavaskar trophy was a defining moment in it. And the it just gets spicier with each passing year. A gag order resulting in the pull-out of Aussie caps from IPL wasn’t just that — a gag.

It isn’t so much about anything a it is about dominance in world cricket. Life after Warne-McGrath and Hayden-Gilchrist hasn’t been the same for Australian cricket. India winning the crown in both formats, and being number one test team, even for a brief period, made them a team to conquer. Performance-wise, both teams have done a flip-flop vis-à-vis each other in the recent past in bilateral series. Both have dominated in home conditions. Australia had the last laugh in the recent tests and one-day series. But India have nullified any momentum loss through the unbeaten run in the cup so far.

On paper, Australia may have the upper hand with factors like bouncy pitches with lack of turn and home crowd support. Mitchell Starc is in the form of his life, and is peaking at the right time. Another Mitchell (Johnson) may not be at his best, but is still good enough for any side on a given day. James Faulkner and Josh Hazlewood are dependable. On the other hand, glimpse of his destructive self by Shane Watson has provided a new armoury to the already explosive list of Warner, Smith, Finch and Maxwell. And did you write Michael Clarke off? You can’t.

India, on its part, is banking on, well, what they always bank upon. Batting. But what has impressed is their pace bowling. Always termed a liability, Indian bowlers have not only supported the batsmen, but have proved match winners in a number of occasions more than what Dhoni would have imagined. And he is not complaining. It’s no surprise that Mohammad Shami is right up there when it comes to top wicket takers of the tournament.

This bowling looked pedestrian just a few weeks ago. The transformation has sent the analysts searching for a theory. Rival sides have been bowled out by India in all the seven matches we have played so far. It’s not only an all-time record for India, but a feat that no other team has ever achieved at the World Cup. Who would imagine that their premium bowlers before the tournament, Bhuvaneshwar and Ishant, won’t be missed even a bit? R Ashwin is back, and how! His spell against Pakistan was as mesmerising as the contest itself.

As far as batting is concerned, it seems it’s a different lot from the one that played the recently concluded tri-series. Do we have any batsman in the team who has not scored a fifty? Perhaps Jadeja? But at 5 down, it’s not a nightmare even if he is a bit off-colour. The grey areas are turning pink, or is it blue? Then there is sleeping giant Rohit Sharma! There is no doubt the ‘potential talent’ has arrived, even if he has this canny habit of proving the analysts wrong, both ways.

One thing that can never be put on papers or opponents’ strategy board is MS Dhoni. The captain with a Midas touch has performed the finisher’s role at a frequency of being boring. He is not in-your-face like the Aussies; even Virat Kohli closer home. But he will run away with the game before you know it. The uncomplicated way in which he troops his team is a virtue to envy for.

It’s a mouth watering proposition, and a perfect set-up a world cup semi-final deserves. For a sports-loving nation that Australia is, and with cricket’s religion-like stature in India, the bitter-sweet rivalry is a good ambassador for the game. A win-win contest!