The upcoming India v Australia series starting in Chennai on February 22 pits two transitioning teams against each other over four Test matches across the country. While MS Dhoni's India will be out to bury the ghosts of the 2-1 Test defeat to England last year, the tourists led by Michael Clarke look arguably the weakest Australian side to tour India since Kim Hughes' men in 1979-80.
India may start out as favorites owing to a sturdier batting order and more experienced spinners, but Australia own a distinct advantage when it comes to the fast-bowling stocks. Their intention was clear when the XI for the first Test was announced two days before the series, with a four-man pace attack making headlines. And as England showed last year with their success against Pragyan Ojha, R Ashwin, Harbhajan Singh and Ravindra Jadeja, India's spinners are not infallible in home conditions.
India will rely on their batting to stand up to a talented pace attack, with plenty of focus on how the top order fares. There is also the prospect of watching Sachin Tendulkar play Australia in Test cricket for perhaps the final time, and to see how the man who has conquered many strong Australian attacks fares in the next four matches after a morale-boosting century against Rest of India recently.
Plenty is riding on how Mitchell Starc, Sachin Tendulkar and Michael Clarke perform in the much-awaited Test series starting February 22.
Agains this backdrop, here's a look at the players to watch and the most influential in the series outcome.
Clark is a batsman of high pedigree and one whom the other Australian batsmen look to emulate. He has his plate full as leader of an Australian team in transition but it as a batsman that the tourists will rely on him most. Coming off a record 2012 with the bat - 1595 runs at 106.44, including a triple and two doubles - Clarke will have to bat exceptionally well to carry an inexperienced middle order in tough conditions. He knows the country well, having made his debut here in 2004 with a quite startling century at Bangalore, but in two subsequent tours to India Clarke averages just 26. In fact, on the 2010 tour he made 35 runs in four innings. A fine player of spin, Clarke holds the key to Australia's batting fortunes. If he bats well, the team could hold their own.
This will in all probability be Tendulkar's last series against Australia. The 39-year-old has retired from ODIs and is coming off a superb century for Mumbai in the Irani Trophy, and the Australians have already marked him out a big threat despite all the criticism Tendulkar faced against England. Tendulkar has thrived against Australian attacks in the past - he has made 3151 runs from 31 Tests against Australia at an average of 60.59 with 11 centuries and 13 fifties - and would be geared up for a fitting finale against his favorite opponents. Tendulkar must lead by example in order to fuel India's ambitions of beating Australia after the 2-1 embarrassment to England.
The 23-year-old left-arm quick has, in an Australia career spanning seven Tests, 18 ODIs and 10 Twenty20 internationals, proved himself worthy of the praise heaped on him as a young fast bowler. Starc has improved the more international cricket he has played, with his spells of sharp swing bowling giving West Indies a tough time in the recent series in Australia. Though he has yet to play a Test in India, Starc's ability to swing the ball at real pace is a huge asset. Australia have named a four-man pace attack for the first Test in Chennai made up of Starc, Peter Siddle, James Pattinson and the uncapped Moises Henriques, and of those four the man most likely to pose questions is Starc with his big swing. He could very well make or break it for Australia. Starc can also score runs down the order, which adds more focus on his abilities as a Test cricketer in a line-up lacking stability with the bat.
After a stroke-filled 206 not out and an even better 135 in the second Test against England in November, Pujara was riding high on confidence. But then his form trailed off - 6, 16, 8 and 26 in his next four innings. Back in domestic cricket, he reeled off an unbeaten 203 and 352 at strike-rates of over 80 for Saurashtra which forced the selectors to name him in India's ODI squad for England. However, Pujara warmed the bench for five matches. He will be itching to get back to whites and prove a point. With Virender Sehwag barely managing to hold his place and India's other opening options being the returning Murali Vijay and the uncapped Shikhar Dhawan, the focus on Pujara at No. 3 assumes greater responsibility. Seen as the future of Indian batting, the 24-year-old will have to show the tenacity he did in Ahmedabad and Mumbai to hold the top order together. Keep you eyes on Pujara for a Man-of-the-Series punt.
Australia's new Test No. 4 has his work cut out. Looking to cement his place after a length injury delay, and one that has ruled him out as a bowler, Watson faces a stiff test of his character and ability with many back in Australia questioning his worth. Though not known to be an accomplished player of slow bowling, Watson does boast a Test batting average of 40 in India and truly how he copes in the conditions will have a direct influence on Australia's success. England were able to beat India at home in 2012 largely because of how well their senior batsmen coped with India's spin bowlers, and Watson knows that he will have to emulate them to thwart the hosts. Watson is coming into the series with twin fifties against India A and 76 and 122 against West Indies in the recent ODI contest.
Australia's pre-series troubles with spin have put the spotlight on India's No. 1 Test spinner. In the two-day match against the Board President's XI, the Australians struggled against Parvez Rassol who took 7 for 45, which included the wickets of Ed Cowan, Matthew Wade and Steven Smith. Against India A later in the week, the Australians were bowled out for 235 with Rakesh Dhurv and Jalaj Saxena sharing nine wickets. This should give Ojha reason to lick his lips. Ojha was the leading wicket-taker in the defeat to England last year with 20 victims at 30.85 and before that proved a handful for New Zealand. Against an Australia line-up lacking experience of the conditions, Ojha could get the ball early if Dhoni looks to attack a perceived weakness. Though the Australian line-up includes several left-hand batsmen, Ojha still remains the biggest threat due to his accuracy and discipline. Expect a bag of wickets for the left-arm tweaker.