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Stakes high ahead of Australia's tour

Two years after suffering a 2-0 series defeat that precipitated their slide down the International Cricket Council's Test rankings, Australia's cricketers are back in India.

Two years after suffering a 2-0 series defeat that precipitated their slide down the International Cricket Council's Test rankings, Australia's cricketers are back in India.They were not supposed to be in this part of the subcontinent until 2012, but the Indian board's desperation to retain the No 1 ranking and Australia's desire to be battle-hardened in preparation for an arduous Ashes series has inspired this two-match marriage of convenience.

In any case, a contest featuring two Tests and three one-day games offers far more to look forward to than one of those interminably long seven-match one-day series. And marriage of convenience or not, there is little like an India-Australia Test series to quicken the pulse.At Sabina Park in 1995, Australia ended West Indies' dominance of the Test arena. Since then, with cricket in the Caribbean imploding, largely the result of abysmal administration, the contest for the Frank Worrell Trophy has lost much of its meaning.

Until Andrew Flintoff's larger-than-life interventions during the Ashes series of 2005, cricket's premier rivalry was also in danger of becoming similarly meaningless. Australia had won as they pleased since the 4-0 romp in 1989. In those 10 years of dominance that started at Sabina Park, only one team managed to get under Australian skin.These days, any discussion of India and Australia invariably veers back to 2001 and perhaps the greatest three-Test series ever. But as impressive as India were in coming from behind then, they were even more ruthless in 1998, when resounding victories at Chennai and Kolkata made the Bangalore Test a dead rubber.

In Kolkata, the Test was over so quickly that Steve Waugh, then yet to assume the captaincy, woke up on what was supposed to be the final morning of the game and found a flyer outside his door. Those at Udayan, a home for the children of leprosy patients, would benefit immensely in the years that followed as Waugh worked tirelessly to raise funds for their cause.By the next time he played there, in 2001, he was such a hero that the applause he received for his century made the Indian players stare at each other quizzically. By the third evening, Waugh's all-conquering side, chasing a 17th successive Test win, were well on course, still 20 runs ahead with just six Indian wickets to take.

By the next afternoon, we were all going through the record-books and contemplating the unthinkable. VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid didn't just bat through the day; they broke Australia's spirit.The mood of the crowd too had changed. Subdued in the face of imminent defeat in the morning, there were as loud as could be by afternoon. By the time Laxman went past Sunil Gavaskar's 236 - then the highest score by an Indian in Tests - the crescendo was such that you could not hear the person next to you speak.

The series decider in Chennai was another epic, with India clawing home by just two wickets, and the series in 2004 was just as gripping. Australia won comprehensively in Bangalore and Nagpur, while India prevailed on a dustbowl in Mumbai. The home side were left to reflect on a Chennai Test where a modest run chase on the final day was scuppered by rain.Through all these contests, the feeling was of Australia being the champions and India the best of the contenders. That changed in 2008. An acrimonious series in Australia earlier in the year hardened Indian resolve and after scraping draw in Bangalore, they won convincingly at Mohali and Nagpur.

You have to go back nearly 16 years for India's only loss in Mohali, while Australia have never lost in four visits to the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore. With the No 1 ranking at stake, something has to give.@Email:sports@thenational.ae

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