Melbourne: Perhaps the biggest date on the Test cricket calendar, this year's Boxing Day match is a meeting between two flawed but fascinating teams. The dimensions of the flaws - Australia's brittle batting, India's slim bowling - create for plenty of intrigue.
Australia enter the match having lost a Test to New Zealand for the first time since 1993, and with the batsmen having been submitted for extra remedial work against the swinging ball. They are bolstered by the return of Shaun Marsh and the inclusion of the solid Ed Cowan, but will have to improve markedly in their resilience as a batting collective. Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey, the two thirty-somethings in the middle order, have the task ahead of them to prove they deserve to keep their spots after recent misadventures with the bat. They will hope for brighter days against India's attack.
Though Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma appear a formidable pace duo on the page, neither is at their peak due to ankle problems. Zaheer's has been recovering after surgery, while Ishant may yet require surgical work once the tour is over. Behind them are the slippery but inexperienced Umesh Yadav and the spin of R Ashwin or Pragyan Ojha, none of whom have played a Test in Australia. Ashwin's accuracy and variations have the chance of posing problems for the hosts, though the drop-in pitch at the MCG is not noted as for extremes of spin or deterioration.
Better known is India's batting, constructed as it is on the pillars of Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, Sahin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman. The latter trio are on a valedictory trip that is surely their last to this country, Dravid making it memorable already via his insightful Bradman Oration in Canberra. He has been India's most accomplished batsman in 2011, having beaten the naysayers much as Tendulkar did when he emerged from a lean 2005-06. Sehwag's destructive capabilities are self-evident, while Laxman's penchant for Australian bowling is nothing short of legendary. Gautam Gambhir and Virat Kohli are able lieutenants, through Gambhir is overdue a century.
Opposing them is an Australia bowling ensemble that could be extremely effective, but may also be taken for plenty of runs. James Pattinson's fire and swing have given Michael Clarke the spearhead he needs, while Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus seem to be much improved on the versions of themselves that were milked around the MCG by England in last year's corresponding match. Most curious of all, however, is the matter of Nathan Lyon's fledgling spin. He is talented, and led adeptly by Clarke. But India have destroyed the world's finest slow bowlers as a matter of course, and shall seek to do the same to Lyon to place maximum pressure on a quartet of bowlers lacking the allround element of Shane Watson or Daniel Christian.
Players to watch out for
Shaun Marsh batted with enormous assurance in his first three Tests, until a back complaint rendered him lame for the second innings of the Cape Town Test against South Africa and kept him out of three further encounters. His combination of patience, sound judgement and firm stroke-play elevated him to No. 3 ahead of Ponting, and gave Australia a sense of calm at the fall of the first wicket. How much Marsh was missed became painfully clear in Hobart against New Zealand, necessitating his return for the MCG. Having shown he is striking the ball well enough in a Twenty20 appearance for the Perth Scorchers, Marsh must now push his back through the rigours of five days. A relapse would be disastrous.
Two previous tours of Australia have proven too taxing for Zaheer Khan, as injuries cruelled his progress each time. Smart, aggressive and skilful, Zaheer has all the toys required to unseat the best batsmen, and in India has ripped through Australia more than once, using swing and cagey variations in pace. But it is in Australia where the injuries have struck, and after an ankle surgery Zaheer must hold his body together if he is to make a critical contribution to this match, and this tour.
Cowan and Marsh replaced Phillip Hughes and Usman Khawaja, while Ben Hilfenhaus offers steady swing and long spells - two things Mitchell Starc struggled to provide either in consistent doses despite his undoubted promise.
Australia: 1 David Warner, 2 Ed Cowan, 3 Shaun Marsh, 4 Ricky Ponting, 5 Michael Clarke (capt), 6 Michael Hussey, 7 Brad Haddin (wk), 8 Peter Siddle, 9 James Pattinson, 10 Nathan Lyon, 11 Ben Hilfenhaus.
Ishant and Zaheer are fit to play, and India's batting appears settled. Ashwin is expected to claim the spin spot ahead of Ojha.
India(probable): 1 Virender Sehwag, 2 Gautam Gambhir, 3 Rahul Dravid, 4 Sashin Tendulkar, 5 Virat Kohli, 6 VVS Laxman, 7 MS Dhoni (capt, wk), 8 R Ashwin, 9 Zaheer Khan, 10 Ishant Sharma, 11 Umesh Yadav.
Pitch and conditions
As on Boxing Day last year, the MCG pitch will likely offer plenty of early life before simmering down later. On a surface not given to breaking up once the early life recedes, the first innings will be important to the outcome of the match.
Stats and trivia
Sachin Tendulkar needs a century to reach his 100th in international matches.
India have not won a Test series in Australia in nine attempts since their first visit in 1947-48. Three series, 1980-81, 1985-86 and 2003-04, have been drawn.
Ed Cowan is Australia's 11th Test debutant in 2011. This is the most since 1977, the year of defections to Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket.
"I make no bones about it, we've had extra time as a batting unit because we know we've got to get better at facing the new ball if there's a bit in the wicket. We want to improve. We want to get better in that department of our game as batters. We've done the work though. That's all I can ask any of the boys for."
Michael Clarke believes his batsmen have addressed their frailties
"Last time we had one side game against Victoria team but it was rained out, so we directly went to a Test match without preparation. So we are quite happy with the way we have prepared. Also we are able to spend a lot of time together, especially with the one-day boys who have recovered from the tough schedule they had.
VVS Laxman has appreciated a more rounded preparation for Boxing Day than in 2007-08.