For an Indian fan, Test cricket in Australia is about waking up at 5 a.m. in order to watch the first session of play with the television on mute so as to not wake the rest of the family. It is about watching the Boxing Day Test match in Melbourne and soaking in the tradition even if it is from thousands of miles away. It is about wondering how something as ubiquitous as the wind can be called "the fremantle doctor" during Test matches in Perth.
Australian Test matches often seem like the perfect contest between bat and ball - unlike the ones we have back in India, where the battles are often loaded in favor of the batsmen. It's about watching young men take their first giant steps in international cricket, young captains going into battle leading from the front, or men returning to set the record straight. It is about an Australian opposition that is relentless, proud and will inevitably fight back, even if you hammered them the day before.
My interest in cricket started at the age of seven with the Indian tour of Australia in 1991. I used to sit down and watch the days' highlights on the national broadcaster Doordarshan with my grandfather. And it seemed like the television suddenly came to life every evening - the dull morose commentary we were used to replaced by commentators going ballistic every time a wicket fell; the shoddy camera work replaced by new and innovative ways of admiring a Tendulkar straight drive. I was hooked!
In terms of the game I simply couldn't understand why Indian batsmen couldn't cope against fast bowlers with strange facial paint. (Incredibly, an exception was an 18-year-old Sachin Tendulkar). Eight years later it was the same story as Steve Waugh's champion Australian side dominated the Indian team, but by that time I knew better.
It is after three years that the Indian cricket team will launch its latest attempt to conquer the land down under. Starting Monday, India will play Australia in four Test matches, followed by two T20 games (with each side batting for 20 overs at the most) and a triangular series with Sri Lanka as the third team. Despite the presence of the shorter formats of the sport, all the excitement is around the four Test matches, where each match can last up to five days. The two teams have had to relinquish their status as the number one ranked team (now held by England) in the recent past and now face a long climb back to the top.
Both the teams, Indian and Australian are evenly matched, although India's injuries in the bowling line up may give the home team the edge. Australia is now a team in transition and has been fairly inconsistent at its performance since the retirement of some of their greatest Test players. India is not far away from having to go through a painful transition of its own, considering that some of their best players including Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid are in their late 30s.
In 2004, things had changed dramatically with India coming ever so close to winning the series down under for the first time. The team, much like the country, seemed to be on an upswing, with all the batsmen pulling off unforgettable performances. Under the leadership of captain Saurav Ganguly and coach John Wright, the team had a new found resolve and determination. My friends and I would follow scores through SMS updates on our Nokia 3310s - safely tucked under our desks in our classrooms in college. We marveled at how opener Virender Sehwag's score seemed to increase by at least 20 runs every time we checked during his unforgettable 195 at Melbourne. After a hard fought 4 match series, the two teams had to share the spoils having won one match each.
The series in 2008 was extremely disappointing - with controversial events on the field completely overshadowing some very inspiring performances. Except for some very questionable umpiring decisions and a dramatic batting collapse on the final day, India could have come back with a share of the spoils. By the end of the series, the accusations and counter-accusations of racism between players had left a bad taste in the mouth, and the cricket itself took the back seat. Interestingly, the two men at the center of that fracas, scandal Harbhajan Singh and Andrew Symonds, are not going to be a part of the new series.
The best way to watch this year's Test matches is probably to have few if any expectations. Barring a dramatic turnaround in the fitness of Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma, it is hard to see how India can get a win out of this series; but then stranger things have happened. Australia is going through a transition and have a fairly inexperienced bowling attack themselves.
This is almost certainly the last time we will see Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman in Australia because of their age. Their reputations as among cricket's finest batsmen of all time have been forged by their repeated successes in Australia. In a way, Laxman's career really kicked off in 1999, with an unforgettable knock of 167 at Sydney and Dravid's cemented his career with the 233 at Adelaide.
The Australians themselves have recognized these fine cricketers with generous ovations nearly every time they play in Australia. It would be great to see them finally conquer Australia and add the perfect icing to some remarkable Test careers. However, what the sport really needs right now, after a few months of meaningless matches, is a great series to get more fans hooked on Test cricket.