Fighting fire with fire

New Delhi, Feb. 17 -- There is a sense of the unknown as India and Australia prepare for another Test battle over the next month.

The two teams that usually find willing candidates who bristle at the prospect of taking on each other are surprisingly subdued this time. While India are desperate to put their house in order and regain that home invincibility that was painstakingly built over a long time, the visitors too are a touch distracted after the retirements of Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey to stoke the fire.

For a change, the all-conquering side of the past decade is still engaged in finalising players who can stand up to the challenges cricket in the sub-continent, especially India, throws up.

Proof that the build-up has not had any of the past hype was barely broken by two protagonists from India's controversy-filled tour of Australia in 2008.

Harbhajan Singh, who was at the centre of the "Monkeygate" storm is now left hoping he will get to play his 100th Test.

Still, he gently prodded Australia after the Irani Cup. "Hopefully we'll put them under pressure from the first day and show how we play cricket here".

Once bitten

Such claims before the England Test series rang hollow after the visitors outwitted India in all departments - planning, spin, pace and batting.

India, having lost 0-4 in Australia early last year after suffering a similar reverse in England in 2011, have been careful not to play up the reverse tune.

On his part, Michael Clarke, who India players and most of their fans who watched on TV still insist claimed a bump catch with controversial umpire Steve Bucknor being a willing tool in that infamous Sydney Test five years ago, is at least outwardly looking to keep the attention firmly on the game.

Australia's captain and leading batsman by a distance still gently set the mind games rolling in Chennai on Friday after expressing surprise over Gautam Gambhir's omission for the first two Tests.

Maybe he hopes the two replacement candidates at the top of the order - Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan - will read his comments and feel the pressure. Gambhir's century for India 'A' in the warm-up tie has only added weight to Clarke's words.

Angry men

India-Australia clashes have had a history of leaving players from either side furious, and sometimes pushing the limits of accepted behaviour.

While India halted Australia's record victory sequence at 16 on the memorable 2001 tour, taking on the all-conquering side that was seen as the ultimate challenge for India at home thanks to their batting greats and Harbhajan's 32-wicket haul.

Skipper Sourav Ganguly set the tone with mind games, pointing out that the Aussies had won most of those 16 at home and largely against weak West Indies and Zimbabwe sides.

He then set relations aflame by arriving late for the toss, leaving Steve Waugh fuming and the entire Aussie camp crying foul.

Not every incident left players on both sides in a foul mood.

One rare anecdote that caused much mirth among the players happened over three decades ago on India's tour Down Under.

Opener Chetan Chauhan was seeing off a spell from Jeff Thomson. The fiery fast bowler was in the habit of muttering and cursing himself while walking back to his bowling mark when things didn't go his way.

Chauhan, meanwhile, was being subjected to friendly taunts from teammates sitting outside the dressing room.

With those voices carrying to the middle, the batsman could not help but grin.

However, Thommo got furious as he assumed the batsman was making fun of him and went on to produce a hostile spell, wiping the smile off the batsman's face with others enjoying his discomfiture.

But the aggression has rarely been couched in humour. Sunil Gavaskar almost forced his batting partner to walk off the Melbourne Cricket Ground on the 1980-81 tour after being controversially declared leg before and given a send-off by Dennis Lillee and company.

The team manager's presence of mind somehow averted a major row.

Current chief selector Sandeep Patil, a flamboyant batsman, was felled by paceman Len Pascoe hooking in the first Test in Sydney during the 1980-1 tour, but bounced back to smash 174 in the next match in Adelaide, which ended in a draw.

India then went on to clinch a famous win in Melbourne to level the series 1-1.

Fitting responses

So, what is it that triggers volatile behaviour on both sides?

Timing has had a lot to do with this rivalry in the past decade, which even surpassed the aggression between India and Pakistan on the sporting field.

It was around 2000 that Sachin Tendulkar started getting the right batting back-up as Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman matured as world class batsmen.

The Indian economy started zooming and the 'empowered' Indian fans, most of them willing their most popular game to emulate the financial success, formed a raucous and influential support army.

As far as Indian fans were concerned, winning the battle within the war too got them going.

On Indian soil, Shane Warne bore the brunt of Tendulkar's aggression in 1998 and then found Laxman and Dravid push him to the brink three years later. India's comeback win in 2001 left Warne facing questions over his fitness. Distracted skipper

Steve Waugh was out handling the ball in the final Test in Chennai, which India won to clinch a famous comeback series. India had won much more than the bragging rights.

While India measured their quality by what they did against the mighty Aussies, they also realised that, win or lose, they will have to stand up to everything thrown at them, be it sledging or condescending attitude.

The Indian youngsters didn't see any point in taking it lying down. That only added to the volatile atmosphere.

The animosity in the controversial 2008 tour was perhaps lit in the one-day series in India the preceding season when Indian spectators taunted Andrew Symonds.

The 2008 tour was such a low point that made skipper Anil Kumble comment that only one team upheld the spirit of cricket.

Clarke's 'catch' off Ganguly was the trigger in the Sydney Test after it had already seen a clutch of dubious umpiring decisions.

And Harbhajan's verbal clash with Symonds and his subsequent ban, then reduced to heavy fine on appeal, left the Aussies bristling with anger. India's subsequent win in Perth was special, although the series had been lost.

The subsequent sparring in the media between Matthew Hayden and Bhajji only helped stoke the fire.

But the players from both sides have gradually warmed up to each other.

The Indian Premier League has helped heal wounds with Harbhajan and Symonds becoming team mates at Mumbai Indians and many Aussie players making a beeline to the lucrative T20 league.

But there are still things money can't buy, and this fresh series may still prove that saying right.

Published by HT Syndication with permission from Hindustan Times.

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