How sharp will be the India-Australia needle?

Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Michael Clarke will do battle both directly and indirectly over the next month and a bit. More will be known about them and their teams at the end of it. Considering that the revelation of character after every India-Australia engagement this decade has been unfailingly fascinating, there's a lot to live up to, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

M. S. Dhoni and Michael Clarke have an unenviable task this Australian summer. Not only must they coax and control their largely inexperienced bowling attacks, they must also make compelling what appears an underwhelming Test series. It may well turn out to be one of the grand series of our time, a sleeper hit, to borrow a box-office term. But it appears unlikely to match, in scale and meaning, India's tour in 2003-04 or even 2007-08, which had two fine Test matches, at Sydney and Perth. In both series, a champion Australian team (even if it was less formidable in 2007-08) was forced to its limits by an Indian team that was playing beyond its.

The context is markedly different this time around. Australia is in transition. For the first time in a long while, it appears uncertain of itself, of its right to win. India is in a more nebulous state. It retains its great batting spine — “Well, like a few, creaking Terminators, we're back,” said Rahul Dravid, when delivering an outstanding Bradman Oration — but its time as the world's best Test team has ended. The 0-4 defeat in England took something from India, an indefinable something that left it less than whole.

So Dhoni and Clarke — 30-year-olds who were born within three months of each other — bear a great responsibility. As leaders and tacticians, they must find ways of winning the series, of restoring to their sides some of what they have lost.

Dhoni has been at the job longer than Clarke. Having inherited a battle-hardened side shaped by Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, and Anil Kumble, he has captained with calmness and detachment. Dhoni's great virtue is his ability to see cricket as no more than a game — without ever compromising his competitiveness. This balance, which was complemented by then coach Gary Kirsten's behind-the-scenes efficiency, was vital in creating an atmosphere where all felt welcome. The team, which had strong, independent characters in its great batsmen, its spearhead, Zaheer Khan, and its lead-spinner, Harbhajan Singh, responded magnificently in this environment.

To add to Ganguly's series wins in Pakistan and Zimbabwe, Dravid's in England and the West Indies, Dhoni led India to its first series win in New Zealand in more than 40 years and another in the West Indies. But the clean-sweep earlier this year showed up some of Dhoni's vulnerabilities as captain. While there's no denying his leadership and man-management skills, Dhoni, the tactician, is a less consistent creature. He is shrewd beyond measure, independent and clear-headed, unworried about how he's perceived: precious strengths, for an Indian captain is assailed from many sides. Yet he slips too quickly into defensiveness; too often it appears that wickets aren't his first priority, a criticism valid of most modern-day captains. His supporters will say he's a realistic man, a practical man. Given the bowling at his disposal, he can't attack as he might otherwise.

There's some truth in it. But, equally, it's with thin bowling resources that a captain's measure may be had. Stephen Fleming, for example, was a wonderfully imaginative, persistently attacking captain with modest bowlers (till the arrival of Shane Bond). Dhoni has his aggressive quirks — his stationing of leg-slip from time to time, one of them — but he's a safe-man's captain. He's also a boundary-denying captain: new batsmen, before they have settled, often have easy singles to take, for there are sweepers out.

No captain, if he has a career of any reasonable length, is exempt from retreating. The good ones do it in degrees. Dhoni appears to do it before he has to. Under him, India has been guilty of not pressing for Test victories after a series has been sealed. Perhaps he's merely conserving his side's energy; India does play a lot of cricket. But it's difficult to drive a Test forward if you haven't made a habit of it.

Clarke, on the other hand, seems more inclined to roll the dice. “I'm not going to reinvent the wheel,” he said after taking up the job. “The key for me is that we go back to basics, old fashioned basics, and make sure we're getting out of bed every day and trying to get better at the three major basics in cricket — batting, bowling, fielding.”

It's something that Dhoni often says: “sticking to the basics” is a staple of any pre-match press conference involving the Indian captain. But, with a basis in basics, Clarke has shown he's eager to improvise. He's more of a punter than his predecessor, under whom he spent a lengthy apprenticeship. (Ricky Ponting, however, deserves greater credit than he is given for his captaincy; although inherently conservative, he kept Australia competitive after the retirements of Warne, McGrath, Langer, Gilchrist, and Hayden). He looks at his part-time bowlers — primarily Michael Hussey — as wicket-taking options.

Clarke also appears an excellent captain of spin: he understands its value; he sees its offensive possibilities. His treatment of Nathan Lyon has been striking thus far. How Dhoni uses R. Ashwin — like Lyon, an attacking off-spinner — will be one of many points of comparison during the four Tests.

Clarke hasn't had nearly as much success as Dhoni in the dressing room. The youngsters reportedly look up to him, much like India's youngsters respond to Dhoni. But at least one senior, Simon Katich, took exception. Such was the turmoil Katich's outburst created that Hussey was forced to state that the team was united under Clarke.

Both Dhoni and Clarke will have to pull their weight in the series. Dhoni's wicket-keeping in England was poor, the wobbling ball asking embarrassing questions of his footwork and bruised fingers.

His tendency not to go for chances between him and first slip forced the cordon to spread itself narrower, covering less ground. It's a measure of his general competence behind the stumps that it's rarely spoken about. But in England, his limitations were laid bare. There's no doubt he'll enjoy Australia more, for the ball does less and carries nicely at most grounds. He'll have to be at his best to support his bowlers.

Dhoni's batting in Test cricket hasn't attained the consistent quality his limited-overs play has. He averages 28 from 11 Tests this year and 17 from four Tests in Australia; none of his five Test centuries have been made outside the subcontinent: it's a record he'll have to set right, adapting his home-spun style to Australian pitches.

Clarke hasn't achieved the batting greatness that was forecast when he made his debut in India. After 76 Tests, he averages 46.34 — respectable, but short of the inflated modern-day averages that have become common.

He's already made three hundreds in eight matches as captain, including an incredible, counter-attacking 151 in the heavy defeat at Johannesburg. Perhaps captaincy will enable his batting ascend a level. An average of 41.85 suggests, however, that the inconsistency remains.

But Dhoni and India will be wary of him in Australia, where he averages nearly 52. He is also the country's best player of spin.

Dhoni and Clarke will do battle both directly and indirectly over them next month and a bit. More will be known about them and their teams at the end of it.

Considering that the revelation of character after every India-Australia engagement this decade has been unfailingly fascinating, there's a lot to live up to.