India clash with Australia in do-or-die humdinger

Ahmedabad: An epic battle is on the cards between the world`s top two ODI teams when India cross swords with three-time defending champions Australia in what promises to be a high-voltage quarterfinal of the cricket World Cup here on Thursday.

Games between these two arch-rivals have been bitterly fought in the last decade and tomorrow`s encounter is expected to be no different with neither expected to give an inch of space to the other.

Both teams have had a chequered run into the second stage of the competition and are also conscious of the fact that from here on there`s no second chance to bounce back unlike in the group stage which is bound to create extra pressure and produce jangled nerves.

The outfit that handles the pressure-cooker situation calmly is bound to live and fight for another day in the tournament. The toss could be an important factor too as the dew factor may come into the picture in the second half of the match.

India, as well as Australia, have not really showed ruthless dominance in the run-up to the knock-out stage of the competition but while the home team seems to have picked up some momentum with the big victory over the West Indies in their previous game, the holders seem to have theirs arrested by the heavy loss to Pakistan.

But all that would be put in the back-burner in the make-or-break scenario at this textile city`s huge arena in front of a sell-out crowd of 50,000 most of whom would be baying for the Aussies` blood.

Australia, the highest ranked ODI team in the world, have clearly lost that aura of invincibility even in this format after having been toppled from their high perch in the Test arena.

It took the unpredictable and highly talented set of Pakistanis to snap the holders` amazing 34-match undefeated run in the World Cup at Colombo last Saturday, but it can also act as the much-needed wake-up call for the Ricky Ponting-led team against Mahendra Singh Dhoni`s men. The Indians have got a big boost with Virender Sehwag expected to be fully fit for the game.

Dhoni and Co would certainly be fancying their chances of knocking the defending champions out of the tournament and stay in the hunt to bring back cricket`s most coveted title to India after 28 years.

However, for that to happen they will have to be right on top of their game as the Aussies would be coming hard at their top order batting and bowling.

The Indian top order has performed admirably in the key contests of the group stage with Sachin Tendulkar showing very good form with excellent centuries against big teams England and South Africa.

Tendulkar has clearly been Australia`s scourge and has a splendid record in ODIs against them with over 3000 runs in his kitty from 67 matches at 46.23 with nine centuries enhancing the sheen.

He is also just one ton away from completing a fabulous landmark of a century of centuries in international cricket and would be eager to stamp his authority at a very crucial part of the tournament in which his best against Australia is 90 made when India last hosted it in 1996.

Virender Sehwag started off the tournament with a cracker of an innings of 175 in Dhaka against Bangladesh before becoming somewhat subdued. His return to the team after missing the previous game against the West Indies would be a big boost to India`s hopes.

While a great start by Tendulkar and Sehwag, who are fourth and fifth in the top run-makers list in the tournament with 327 and 326 runs respectively, is what India would be clearly hoping for, the Australians would also be strategising not to let this happen.

The man-in-form with both the bat and the ball has been Yuvraj Singh who, only a year ago, was struggling to cement his place in the team. In this tournament he has been the outstanding all-round player for India with 284 runs and 9 wickets under his belt.

But both Sehwag and Yuvraj have not had great success in the past against the Aussies, averaging a modest 22.82 and 28.28 while playing for India against the tournament holders.

The pace-oriented Australian bowling attack would try to target them with short balls to the rib cage, but on what is expected to be a slow track of low bounce, these can also be opportunities to cream runs.

While this trio, along with Gautam Gambhir, would be the main men India would be looking forward to get the majority of the runs, Dhoni would be anxious his lower middle-order does not crumble as it has done in three matches in the tournament to fritter away excellent starts.

In bowling, India have been a bit too dependent on Zaheer Khan to deliver the goods with the others, including main spinner Harbhajan Singh, playing only supporting roles thus far.

Zaheer, whose first over in which he gave away plenty of runs when the two teams last met in the World Cup (in the 2003 summit clash at Johannesburg that Australia won handsomely to retain the crown for the second time) is a vastly different bowler now, having invaluable experience to go hand in hand with his undoubted skills.

The left arm pace spearhead, who is second on the wicket takers` list with 15 scalps in the tournament, is clearly the danger man for the Australian top order which has not really got going in this tournament and would fancy his chances to strike early blows and put India on top.

India are expected to go in with the same bowling attack that did the trick against the West Indies, unless they feel that left arm pacer Ashish Nehra, who can swing the ball, will be the better option than a somewhat predictable line and length stuff from Munaf Patel.

Though Harbhajan has taken only six wickets in six games so far, he is one bowler the Australians are always wary of.

In fact one of the major concerns for Australian batsmen would be how to tackle him, rookie R Ashwin and the left-arm part-timer Yuvraj Singh.

While India, with their current form and the backing of the huge crowd, seem to hold a razor-thin edge, Australia are also upbeat about their chances in the match though Pakistan have shown in the tournament they are not unbeatable.

"I don`t really care (about general perception that Australia is no longer unbeatable). We have done particularly well in the sub continent over the last few years. We have won quite a few series here. We go into this game with a lot of confidence because we have played well against India in Indian conditions in the last few years and won. I think we have a great chance," said key middle order batsman Michael Hussey.

Australian skipper Ponting, who has tallied a poor 102 runs in the team`s six games so far, is under tremendous pressure at home to perform or perish and his captaincy seems to be on the line but Hussey said he is still the best man for the job.

"No worries at all. He has been fantastic, the best man for the job and has been for a long time. He`s certainly got the full support of all team worries.

"He`s been criticised over minor things. They have been blown out of proportions. He`s been playing well and just like a champion rises to the occasion at the right time, on Thursday we will see the best of Ricky Ponting," he said.

While the Australian batting looks more vulnerable than ever, the pace-heavy bowling ? led by the experienced Brett Lee ? has been quietly efficient, if not spectacular.

Australia could leave out the struggling Steven Smith and replace him with David Hussey.

The last 10 games in two rubbers between the two sides in this country since 2009-10 have shown the contest can go either way. India have won three and Australia four while the rest had been washed out.