Melbourne, Dec 24: With an Australian cricket team in upheaval, India might have its best chance in decades to end an unwelcome streak Down Under—it has never won a test series since it began touring here 64 years ago.
And regardless of the outcome, both captains said Saturday that they'll try to keep the series free from controversy that marred India's last visit.
When the four-test series begins Monday at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, star batsmen Sachin Tendulkar might have an opportunity to give India a solid start towards ending that streak, and create a historic milestone for himself: becoming the first cricketer to score 100 centuries in tests or limited-overs internationals.
Tendulkar warmed up for an attempt at the mark when he hit a stylish 92 in India's drawn tour match against a Cricket Australia Chairman's XI a week ago.
Tendulkar's last international century came in March against South Africa. Fellow batsman Rahul Dravid has also been in strong form, scoring 1,067 runs in 2011 with five centuries.
But Dravid said he'd trade all the personal achievements for a test series win in Australia.
“I wouldn't have minded scoring five hundreds (fewer) or 1,000 runs less if we could win a series in Australia,” Dravid said. “The greatest memory for me now is not necessarily statistical ... it's those magical moments. The series wins in tests stay with you.”
Former India captain Kapil Dev believes his side has edged closer to an elusive Australia series win. And he claims former captain Ricky Ponting, who is in a batting slump, is the biggest threat.
The 37-year-old Ponting has not scored a century in nearly two years, has averaged 50 just once in his past seven series and has made 323 runs at an average of 24 in seven tests over the past 12 months.
The 158-test veteran will play in his 15th Boxing Day test after being named in the team Saturday. Shaun Marsh, who is returning from a back injury and scored an unbeaten 99 in a Twenty20 match this week, was thought to be a strong chance to replace Ponting, but both were named in the starting side.
“I am more concerned about Ricky Ponting than anybody else because he is experienced,” Dev said. “If we can control him, we can control the entire Australian team. He has not scored enough runs in the last year, so he is due.”
The Australian team is in tatters after losing eight wickets for 74 in a seven-run loss to No. 8-ranked New Zealand in Hobart two weeks ago, New Zealand's first test win in Australia since 1985. The collapse against New Zealand extended concerns over a batting order which was dismissed for a record low of 47 at Cape Town weeks earlier.
On Saturday, rival captains Michael Clarke and M.S. Dhoni said they were anxious to avoid the tensions and bad blood that spilled over when India last toured Australia in 2007-08.
Harbhajan Singh was initially suspended for racial abuse after clashing with Australia's Andrew Symonds during the Sydney test of January 2008. Amid reports that Anil Kumble's side would go home mid-tour, Singh's suspension was overturned, he was found guilty of abuse and given a fine.
Australia won the series 2-1.
“The relationship between the Australia team and the India team could not be stronger,” Clarke said. “We all understand there's a line you can go to but there's a line you can't cross. I can guarantee you that nobody in the Australian team will cross that and if they do, there'll be punishments from the ICC but also from Cricket Australia.”
Dhoni said sport played a key role in Australia's culture and his players knew what to expect.
“They are a side that play tough when it comes to sport or in life, so it's good to compete against them,” Dhoni said. “Even the last series when we were here, we really enjoyed it, keeping the controversies apart.”
Dhoni said India would do its best to behave.
“A few individuals did make mistakes at that point in time,” he said. “It's something that we don't really want to do as professional cricketers.
“There's a lot at stake. People look up to us. So we'll try to keep it controversy-free.”
Melbourne Cricket Ground curator Cameron Hodgkins said there would not be too much life in a pitch that traditionally plays low. He advised both sides that they might need some variation in their attacks to take the 20 wickets needed, adding that after the pitch flattens out, “you tend to need a fair bit of variety to conjure up wickets.”
Australia will take just four genuine bowlers into the test, with Marsh replacing all-rounder Dan Christian. Seamer Ben Hilfenhaus replaces 12th man Mitchell Starc, while the other bowlers are Peter Siddle, Nathan Lyon and James Pattinson, who has taken two five-wickets hauls in his first two tests.
Clarke said he felt he has the right lineup to get 20 wickets at the MCG, but admitted it was a gamble to leave out Christian on a flat pitch.
“I'm confident we've got the best 11 to help us win this first test match,” Clarke said. “I can use Michael Hussey, Ricky Ponting and myself to bowl a few overs. David Warner can bowl a few leg-spinners.”