December 16 until recently was famous as a date when the Bangladesh War of Independence ended with the surrender of Pakistan and also a pretty chic but failure-at-the-box-office movie featuring Danny Denzongpa, Milind Soman and Dipanita Sharma. Its also a day when the nine-day celebrations culminating in Christmas begin. The day is also celebrated as the Sports day in Thailand.
But the sexy beaches of Phuket, Phang-Nga, Pattaya or Hat-Yai or the sports played therein would be the last thing on the minds of 44 white-flanneled gentlemen as they walk out to face the ultimate test of their lives; half of them at the WACA, Perth and the other half at the Supersport Park, Centurion.
Its the biggest day for Test Cricket in a long long time, a time that has been gobbled up by the street masala that was dished out in the form of short-cut T20 cricket or the IPL. The real spice now releases its aroma as the top four cricket teams lock horns. No 1 takes on No 2 at the latter's home while Number-3-on-an-upswing takes on a recently numbed No 4.
Graeme Smith and MS Dhoni will not be the best of friends as they walk out for the toss at Centurion, a stadium that gave the town its name! A confident Indian team takes on a strong home side South Africa. And the teams match up one-on-one against each other as well as the Indian proverb nehle-pe-dehla can describe.
While Smith and Peterson are not a patch on Sehwag and Gambhir, the middle order is where the muddle can happen. Amla, Kallis, de Villiers and Prince would like to see themselves supercede the experience and stardom that emanates from the names of Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman and soon from Raina too!
While Mark Boucher can fight it out along with Paul Harris while batting, Dhoni and Harbhajan can put it past or over the fielders rather interestingly. And Bhajji can tweak it better than Harris is a decided fact.
While the consistent Morkel, Steyn and Tsotsobe on home turf appear better than a niggling Zaheer, a temperamental Sreesanth and a on-off Ishant, those moments of madness from any of the latter three could be enough to do permanent damage.
A 60-40 upper hand to the hosts is what I predict but if those 40 are with perfect timing, then the hosts can forget getting back the top spot.
And while the first ball is bowled at the Centurion, it would past tea-time at the WACA, till recently regarded as the fastest pitch in the world. Whether Messers Anderson, Finn and Tremlett get to use the cherry first will be decided by the toss of an Australian Dollar, but even if Ryan Harris et al do get the kokkaburra in their hands first, its gonna be one-helluva-start, as Ian Chappel would proclaim, sniggerings from Sir Botham not withstanding. The Barmy Army needs their men to pick one win atleast from the three tests to extend the Urn's residence tenure.
Underneath those covers lies the key to the question whether the current England team would be the first ever to claim the Ashes even before the Boxing day test begins at Melbourne. While England field a rather settled outfit, barring just once change to bring in either Tremlett or Bresnan to replace an injured Broad; the Australian tabloids have been having a field day creating rumours and securing donations and raining voices to get Shane Blondie Warne out of retirement and reverse the fortunes of the Team Down Under before it sinks deep down under beyond recognition. Unfortunately, Blondie has been turning around Miss Hurley rather than practicing hurling down turners at the nets. So the Great Aussie Dream can remain just that, a dream, a wish, unfulfilled!
Ryan Harris must be familiar with the situation. At his IPL team Deccan Chargers, he was unsure which paceman would partner him. Vaas or Harmeet or whoever. He would never have imagined that donning the Baggy green, he would have been under a similar dilemma. Hilditch seems to be ditching Bollinger and Siddle and calling back Hilfenhaus and Johnson. And yeah, VB is not the only beer to be part of the Aussie line up for a change! Wildcard entrant Michael Beer must be hoping he does not get a debut so that he escapes the criticism! There is a possibility that considering Steve Smith is already in the side as a result of North's form which went southwards, Ponting might want to take in Siddle or Dougie to complete the line up. Remember, we are at the WACA. Under those covers, is all that matters. If there is juice in there, you get no Beer!
For those few Indians who appreciate real spice and not street masala, the show starts at 8AM IST at the WACA and goes on until 9PM IST at the Centurion. If its not being seen on TV, its being followed on Cricinfo!
The advertisers can show their Colgate smiles as they walk away to Axis Bank to deposit more money than you could have won at KBC. For those masala freaks, Feb-May 2011 is when the action is. For some crazy connoisseurs like me, the War begins in a few hours!