India, Australia set for theatrical show on Boxing Day

The catch that substitute Hemang Badani took to get rid of Matthew Hayden at Eden Gardens in March 2001, the fabulous slip catch Shane Warne took to remove skipper Rahul Dravid at Nagpur in October 2004, the back foot punch that Virender Sehwag gave Brett Lee at Perth four years ago -- these are the sort of sparks that have propelled players to up the ante in encounters for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy in the last decade.

Skipper MS Dhoni and Sachin Tendulkar during a net session on the eve
of the Boxing Day Test at the MCG. Pic/AFP

It's been a rivalry that has sought inspiration -- that may come through a sledge, a delivery, a shot, a catch, or even a taunt by a section of the crowd. For the players, they are entering today's Boxing Day Test as just another game of cricket, but are searching for the moment that will breathe life into the contest and force them to raise the bar. 

"Hasn't sunk in yet. Feels like just another day," India spinner R Ashwin says on the eve of the Test match.
Ashwin and 21 other men are seeking that ignition. Everyone knows that Sachin Tendulkar is on the brink of his 100th international century, Ricky Ponting hasn't scored a hundred for 16 Tests and Zaheer Khan hasn't survived a full Test tour of Australia, India haven't won a Test series here in nine attempts and Ed Cowan is Australia's 10th Test debutant in 2011.

None of these things matter. These are mere props to sell the series to a worldwide audience, give the media enough fodder to put on the table. The greatest Tests between India and Australia have featured unexpected heroes. In 2000-01, it was the duo of VVS Laxman and Harbhajan Singh, not Sachin Tendulkar and Anil Kumble (who was injured). In 2004-05, it was Damien Martyn and Jason Gillespie, not  Hayden and Glenn McGrath.

Both teams claim to have 'done everything they can' to prepare for the four Test matches. Both are confident of countering different scenarios if and when necessary. But magic doesn't wait for when the ball is worn, bat has cracked, glove is loose, and the grass and dirt have become one. It could come from Zaheer's first ball or David Warner's first gunshot.

Both captains have promised a controversy-free summer. Again, it's a difficult pledge to keep, considering the sparks that fly when they share the same stage. Perhaps, the biggest date on Test cricket's calendar will answer some questions.

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