Michael Clarke had been here before. A victory over India at the SCG to deliver Australia an unassailable 2-0 series lead. Except the conditions were somewhat different.
In 2007-08, it was Clarke's part-time spin that reaped three wickets in the final over of an ugly incident-marred Test and delivered Australia a thrilling win. In 2011, it was his glorious unbeaten 329 that spurred Australia on to an innings victory. Back then, Clarke was a batsmen bristling with talent but yet to live up to expectations. Today, he is Australia's captain and a proud one at that, having completed one of the most overriding Tests that a leader can. And his triple-century is being heralded as the innings of the 21st century.
MS Dhoni had also been here before. At the time of India's defeat in Sydney last time around, he was India's limited-overs captain with sights on leading the team in all formats. With Anil Kumble coming to the end of his career, Dhoni was the heir in waiting to captain the Test team. Today, having led India to the top of the Test rankings and a World Cup, he stands amid a pile of rubble as India lick their wounds after six consecutive overseas Test defeats.
Throughout India's rise to the top of the Test table and their subsequent time at the top - 18-odd months - the image of their captain Dhoni coolly marshalling his troops and nonchalantly addressing post-match ceremonies and press conferences with a confident smile on his face became a trademark. Captain Cool, he was called. For what seemed like years, Dhoni could do no wrong. He would make a bowling change and more often than not it would work. He got the best out of players like Gautam Gambhir, Virender Sehwag and Zaheer Khan. He led former captains in Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly while handling egos in the dressing room. He presided over a rare Test series win in New Zealand, a first drawn series in South Africa, and hasn't lost a series at home.
Now the aura that Dhoni had built up over three years is unraveling fast. He cannot be blamed for India's failing, but his inability to inspire, his repeatedly defensive captaincy, and his lack of runs (220 in four Tests against England and 88 in four innings in Australia) have been factors in their downfall. His welcoming Brad Haddin in the first innings of the MCG Test, with Australia 211 for 6, with a long-on, deep midwicket and fine leg in place was baffling. His swapping Umesh Yadav for R Ashwin, with Australia nine down in the second innings, and spreading the field and employing one slip was criminal.
In Australia's only innings at the SCG, when the hosts were 99 for 3 - still 92 runs behind India - Dhoni called on Ashwin and stuck in a deep point and deep midwicket. That is not the thinking of a champion leader. More than these tactical decisions, it is the utter demolition of Dhoni's image of a proactive captain that may hurt India further.
And then there is his batting. In the last year Dhoni has averaged 30, boosted by two unbeaten half-centuries. Most worrying is the manner in which he has been dismissed in that period. In the West Indies, Dhoni made 0, 16, 2, 5 and 74. He was out fending to gully, top-edging to cover, chipping to mid-on, spooning to mid-off, and pulling to deep square leg. Four of those five dismissals came with India in shaky position.
Onwards, to England. In the first innings at Lord's, with India 240 for 5 in reply to England's 474, Dhoni nicked tentatively to slip. In the second innings, with India reeling at 225 for 5 in the face of a huge target, he exposed the tail by wafting a catch to the wicketkeeper. At Trent Bridge, India were 52 runs ahead of England when Dhoni played a leaden-footed flash at James Anderson to give second slip catching practice. A dramatic, match-turning collapse ensued. His forgettable match was capped with a first-ball duck in the second innings as he left a delivery that was destined for the stumps.
A pair of breezy fifties followed at Edgbaston, but they had little bearing on the match, and at The Oval Dhoni was back to business, edging catches to the wicketkeeper and second slip. His 144 against West Indies in Kolkata – he walked in at 396 for 6 - was sandwiched between scores of 0 in Delhi and 8 and 13 in Mumbai, each the result of a faulty technique. In Australia, he has driven to gully, been bowled and chipped back a yorker to the bowler.
Dhoni's admission that India were beaten by the better side certainly could not be argued with. Australia have been the better side all series. Their inexperienced top order has yet to deliver collectively - 37 for 3 at Sydney was precarious and Shaun Marsh has hardly looked a Test batsman - but their senior batsmen have all cashed in. Ben Hilfenhaus (15), Peter Siddle (11) and James Pattinson (11) have all been in the wickets.
All this while, the maturing of Clarke has almost happened in parallel to what Dhoni has done. Since assuming the captaincy 10 Tests ago, Clarke has averaged 59 while scoring the three best centuries of his 78-match career. He came into this series having overseen two crushing defeats in two drawn series - to South Africa in Cape Town and New Zealand in Brisbane - and with much of the Australian public still not convinced of his abilities as a Test player. His two most experienced batsmen had nooses hanging around their necks, a pace attack cobbled together after injuries to three first-choice bowlers, and the unenviable task of leading a team roundly criticized by the Australian media and in dire need of inspirational guidance. This was, without a doubt, his biggest test as captain of the Australian team.
Clarke has responded fittingly, with a series-leading 361 runs including a glorious unbeaten triple-century, smart captaincy, and even the prized wicket of Sachin Tendulkar to turn the momentum back Australia's way on the fourth afternoon. He has been an ever-present force, rotating his fielders, switching his bowlers, and at the SCG his bat led India’s battering. He has offered stability to a side that was creaking.
Clarke has done little wrong in two Tests, and his captaincy has been received with acclaim. In these two Tests, it was evident that every player knew their role. This is not a settled unit, but if Australia retain the same team throughout the series it will prove that the right steps are being taken.
"I've spoken about consistency and our guys are doing that now," said a beaming Clarke after the SCG win. "In any team you need experience and youth and I think now this Australian team has it."
He appeared a man at peace with the world, while Dhoni's comments did nothing to mask India's frailties. While Australia go to Perth led by their captain, India stumble without direction.