Sydney: In top form after blowing away rival teams one after another, India will face their toughest test when the defending champions take on a formidable Australia in what promises to be an explosive semi-final of the ICC Cricket World Cup here tomorrow.
One of international cricket's fiercest rivalries will resume after six weeks when Mahendra Singh Dhoni's men will get down to business against Michael Clarke's team which will be supremely competitive with some high-quality performers in their ranks.
Michael Clarke, MS Dhoni. Pic/ AFP
While the Ashes rivalry has history attached with it and India-Pakistan contests their own political flavour, the India versus Australia rivalry has been equally intriguing in recent years where an inch won't be given without a bullish fight. Expect a few battles inside the main battle. It could be between Ravichandran Ashwin's carrom ball against Glenn Maxwell's pyrotechnics.
David Warner's savage attack against Mohammed Shami's probing length or Michael Clarke's years of experience against Ravindra Jadeja's restrictive lines also has ingredients of a blockbuster. Not to forget Mitchell Starc's guile against Virat Kohli's flair. All eyes will be on Kohli, who has not got a 50 plus score after his century against Pakistan in the first game of the tournament.
However, bigger the occasion, blade of Kohli's bat becomes wider. The Delhi lad loves a good scrap and nothing better than hammering a quality Australian attack on which he has feasted all summer.
A semi-final of a World Cup is not played on paper and therefore there would be very little to separate the two teams when they square off at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG). It will be a match where current form will be pitted against recent statistics which makes it a Battle Royale before the summit clash against New Zealand at the MCG on March 29.
On basis of current form, India with seven straight wins have been the team of the tournament so far but when it comes to playing Australia, they have not won a single match in seven encounters across two formats which also includes a warm-up game of the mega event played some 43 days ago. These matches include four Tests, out of which two were won by the hosts, two ODIs of the tri-series and warm-up match (unofficial) before the start of the tournament proper.
But the memories of a horrendous Australian Summer have long been replaced with the celebration of stupendous performances in the World Cup where there were abject surrender by a few and clinical decimation of some other rivals.
The Indian team can be segregated into two divisions while analysing the turn of events during the past four months Down Under -- the pre-World Cup phase where everything went haywire and the World Cup phase where everything seemed to have fallen in place.
The bowling that used to be the perennial weakness for Men In Blue has now turned into their strength. Mohammed Shami, with 17 wickets, along with Umesh Yadav (14) and Mohit Sharma (11) have accounted for 42 victims out of the 70 that India attained in seven games.
For Australia, the biggest test at home will be playing on a SCG surface that might not be to their liking. The low and slow nature of the track was on view when South Africa humbled Sri Lanka in the quarter-finals with Imran Tahir and JP Duminy taking four and three wickets respectively.
While pacers have ruled the roost for India, Thursday's match could just tilt in tourists' favour because of the presence of Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. Especially Ashwin, with 12 wickets, could prove to be a handful for the Aussies with his drifters and doosras. The pitch has shown signs of ball stopping and gripping which would make Ashwin and his spin partner Jadeja's role very important in the bigger context of the match.
Similarly, Australia can suffer due to lack of specialist spinners for the slowish track. Equally important will be how Steve Smith, the man with best footwork against spinners, counters the Indians.
Majority of the experts, including England captain Michael Vaughan, have said that the team which wins the toss, should bat first irrespective of the conditions. The Indians have so far has done well in the tournament on that front with the top-order batsmen getting at least one big score in seven matches that they have played so far. Shikhar Dhawan leads the pack with 367 runs but it won't be an easy task for the left-hander, who has had problems in negotiating moving deliveries in the off-stump corridor. Starc and Johnson would certainly be asking probing questions to Dhawan.
Rohit Sharma had a quiet tournament till the quarterfinals, where he came into his own with a flowing 137. The Aussies will remember well that Rohit smashed them for a 138 at MCG during the tri-series opener after which he sustained a hamstring injury.
For Australia, one of the potential game changers is Glenn Maxwell, who is well aware about the pros and cons of Indian bowling attack having played a lot against them in IPL. Similarly Mitchell Starc and David Warner on their day can destroy any opposition with the ball and bat respectively. Shane Watson's return to form is also a positive sign for the home team.
Starc's 18 wickets in the tournament have been a testimony to his ability. He has brought the ball back into the right hander at a speed of around 145 kmph. His yorkers have been lethal and would make someone like a Waqar Younis proud.
As the tournament reaches the climax with only two matches left, some questions will be answered by Sunday. Whether Michael Clarke can shut all those who are skeptical about his place in the ODI side or Mahendra Singh Dhoni can attain immortality by leading the team to back-to-back World Cup finals.
A nice script is in place, the star cast is of brilliant quality and now it all boils down the performance delivered on the grand SCG stage.
India: Mahendra Singh Dhoni (captain), Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Ajinkya Rahane, Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Mohit Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Axar Patel, Ambati Rayudu, Stuart Binny.
Australia: Michael Clarke (captain), George Bailey, David Warner, Aaron Finch, Shane Watson, Steven Smith, Brad Haddin (wkt), Glenn Maxwell, Mitchell Marsh, James Faulkner, Mitchell Johnson, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins, Xavier Doherty
Match Starts: 9 am IST.