Australia’s collapse, which gave New Zealand a seven-run win in the Hobart Test earlier this week, has sent bookmakers on a fresh exercise in crunching odds for the series coming up next. M.S. Dhoni’s team, which begins its campaign Down Under with the Boxing Day Test at Melbourne, is now favoured to win—for the first time in the 64 years since Lala Amarnath led the first side from independent India to play Don Bradman’s Invincibles.

This is an interesting twist in the history of cricketing ties between the two countries and, in a sense, reflects the massive changes that have taken place in the sport’s power matrix in the past few years, for India’s ascent has coincided with Australia’s decline.

Down Under: India have a new-found self-belief and improved competitiveness (Stu Forster/Getty Images)

An anecdote from the 1947-48 series will show how much Indians were in awe of the Australians. A member of the Indian team, G. Kishenchand, was so consumed by the aura around Bradman that he saw it as a personal career highlight when Bradman took the single off his bowling to reach his 100th century. For several years later, Kishenchand sought recognition for this feat!

Where skills were concerned, a distaste for fast bowling, more so on bouncy tracks, would expose the batsmen’s technical and temperamental fragility. There are several stories, in hindsight laced with humour, of Indians feigning injuries and skipping a Test rather than face a Ray Lindwall, Keith Miller, Dennis Lillee or Jeff Thomson in the middle.

For the record, Bradman’s team clobbered Amarnath’s 4-0 (one match drawn because of rain) and Bob Simpson’s side battered Tiger Pataudi’s 4-0 in 1967-68. In 1991-92, Mohammad Azharuddin lost four Tests out of five (the benign Adelaide pitch permitting a draw) and Sachin Tendulkar came back wounded with a 0-3 verdict that effectively terminated his captaincy.

The last decade saw Indo-Australia cricket move into another gear. The awe was dissipated and the shock was replaced by a combativeness hitherto not seen. The transformation came through a match played in India—the memorable Test at Kolkata in early 2001 when V.V.S. Laxman and Rahul Dravid turned the Test on its head.

India’s growing clout as the financial powerhouse of the sport not only saw more frequent series between the two countries (India’s first tour was in 1947-48, the second after 20 years), but also keener competition as the old defeatist mindset gave way to new-found self-belief and improved competitiveness.

This has been best reflected especially in the contests in Australia in the last two series. In 2003-04, Sourav Ganguly’s team shared the honours and in 2008, Anil Kumble’s side lost by a whisker.

This last series was acrimonious (remember Monkeygate?) but also riveting for the quality of cricket played. By the end of the four Tests, India had found their métier and Australia were beginning to lose theirs, as the performances of the last three years suggest.

By common consensus, Australian cricket has never looked as vulnerable since the mid-1980s, soon after Greg Chappell, Lillee and Rod Marsh retired in the same Test match. Corroboration comes through a simple statistic: 16 Test defeats since 2008 against only five wins, which hardly bespeaks a great side.

This does not make Australia the worst performer in Test cricket: West Indies and Bangladesh rank below them, which only increases the pain. More agonizingly, the Australian batting has become more brittle than roasted poppadoms.

The collapses against New Zealand recently and South Africa not too long back (at one stage Australia were 21 for 9, then 47 all out) would make Bradman squirm in his grave. Question marks hang around the immediate futures of Phillip Hughes and Brad Haddin, but even more pertinently, Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey. The bowling’s looked good, yet the team’s in disarray.

In contrast, the Indian team looks solid and hungry. While Tendulkar’s impending 100th century will still be the focus of attention, the threat to Australia comes from all the other batsmen as well. The bowling is largely inexperienced. But if Zaheer Khan can remain fit, Dhoni has enough variety and firepower at his disposal to exploit all kinds of pitches.

On paper, India are the superior side. But this can be a lulling factor which Dhoni’s team must guard against. As the series against England earlier this year showed, rankings and reputations become a noose around the neck if the players are physically unfit or mentally unprepared for the challenge.

Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.

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