Every great Test series, like an unforgettable book or movie, has a strong narrative. It has twists, sharp turns, moments that make you laugh out loud and scenes that make you cry. If you go by what we've witnessed over the past decade, five-day games between India and Australia can safely be compared to the body of work left behind by a Hitchcock or Kieslowski.
For me, it began in 2001. I wasn't at the Mumbai game, but my colleagues and I watched open-mouthed over an extended lunch as Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist treated India's spinners with a contempt that they had seldom been subjected to on home soil. The highlights reel also features Michael Slater's tirade at Rahul Dravid, and two wonderful innings from Sachin Tendulkar, one of them cut short by the most bizarre of dismissals.
The Eden Gardens game was the first Test I covered. Like Bob Beamon and the 8.90m leap or the true love that leaves you behind, I could say that it ruined my life. Where do you go from a match like that? Yet, for three days, it showed few signs of being a classic. Instead, it was another imperious Australian performance.
I remember the ovation for Waugh's century, the genuine affection for Steve Da cascading down from the stands. The bowling of McGrath and Gillespie. Laxman's first-innings defiance. Going back to the hotel on the third evening and wondering which part of the city I would explore on the fifth day after the match finished in four.
The fourth day. History being written in front of one's eyes. Laxman driving Warne inside-out through extra-cover. Dravid waving his bat at the press box, the emotion of the moment overriding his usual calm. Watching with a policeman from behind the pillar [working for a website, I wasn't allowed into the press box] as Laxman put Gavaskar's 236 in the shade. The roars that grew louder as the day wore on. An invincible Australian side suddenly looking lost.
The final day. The chaos after tea, when the din from the stands helped transform a certain draw into a crushing Indian victory. The celebrations afterwards. Australian fans complaining of Harbhajan Singh showing them the middle finger, and Indian supporters throwing curry at them.
And then Chennai. Watching Tendulkar in the nets the day before. Peter Roebuck saying: "Take it as written. He'll make a hundred here". Hayden slugging ball after ball to the rope. Waugh's bizarre handled-the-ball dismissal. The Tendulkar hundred. Mark Waugh's catch to dismiss Laxman when India were cruising to victory. Harbhajan and Sameer Dighe just about edging across the line.
Waugh's farewell series a couple of years later. Sections of the Aussie press gunning for him, especially after the run-out of Damien Martyn in Brisbane. "I didn't kill anyone out there". India conceding 400 on the opening day in Adelaide. The Laxman-Dravid partnership that evoked visions of Kolkata. Ajit Agarkar's big day out. The tension of a final-day run chase. The yell of delight from Dravid after the winning square cut. Waugh fetching the ball from the gutter to give it to him.
Sehwag going berserk after lunch on Boxing Day. Australia hitting back. On to Sydney, and a monumental Indian batting performance. Tendulkar's monastic denial outside off stump. Laxman's incandescent strokeplay that overshadowed everyone. True Blue ringing out as Waugh walked out for his last innings, with a game to be saved. Sledging from Parthiv Patel. The walk back to the pavilion with the entire stadium on its feet.
Michael Clarke's Nureyev footwork on debut in 2004. Kumble's 7 for 48 in Chennai. Sehwag's masterpiece. Rain reducing Chepauk to slush on the final day. The green top in Nagpur. Ganguly pulling out. More pristine batting from Martyn, and India's heaviest ever defeat by runs. The pitch in Mumbai. Laxman and Tendulkar batting as though on some other surface. The wall of sound as Australia collapsed in pursuit of 107.
The Sydney controversies of 2008. A fantastic finish obscured by allegations of poor sportsmanship from both sides. The enquiry. Brinkmanship from the BCCI. Teri Ma Ki. The ill feeling persisting in Perth. Ponting showing no faith in Shaun Tait. Dravid gutsing his way to 93. Ishant's spell to Ponting. Harbhajan running to the middle with the flag after victory was clinched. The reception that Tendulkar got each time he walked out to bat. Sehwag's patient hundred to deny Australia in Adelaide.
Harbhajan in the thick of it once again in Bangalore, this time denying Australia with the bat. Zaheer for company. Australia irked by suggestions that they couldn't take 20 wickets. Tendulkar going past Lara at Mohali, with only schoolchildren to watch. Amit Mishra's googly to Clarke. A huge Indian win. The bore draw in Delhi. Nagpur in front of paltry crowds. Aussie rage at Dhoni's 8-1 and 7-2 fields. Ponting choosing to bowl part-timers when the game was at stake.
The older memories seem much more vivid, especially when it comes to the matches in India. The last two tours have been blighted by scheduling, especially with matches played in front of empty stands in Mohali and Nagpur. A rivalry that has produced the most enthralling cricket over the past decade deserves a proper stage, like the Eden Gardens or Chepauk, or the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore, where the crowd was so exceptional that MS Dhoni was moved to make a comment about the ridiculous rotation system.
India and Australia playing in front of empty concrete stands is just wrong, akin to asking Michelangelo to daub election graffiti on some filthy wall. Restricting a Test 'series' to just two games is even worse. This time, it was a seven-match one-day series that was altered to make room for them. Hopefully in future, we won't get such half-measures. Like the Ashes, with its weight of tradition, the sheer excellence of the cricket that India and Australia have delivered since 2001 makes a strong case for a five-match series.
In the case of games between India and Pakistan, the fear of defeat has often inhibited both teams. With Australia and India, the straitjackets are nowhere to be seen. Like Ali and Frazier, they throw punches until both are barely left standing. Years from now, we'll realise how fortunate we were to witness this era, and all the titanic contests. In the Twenty20 age, both teams have shown repeatedly that the venerable form of the game still has plenty of tricks up its sleeve.