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Intense India can script memorable contest with Australia

A big knock is due from Virat Kohli and he will be itching to have a go against Australia in the crunch semi-final tie.
(Pic courtesy G Rajaraman)
A big knock is due from Virat Kohli and he will be itching to have a go against Australia in the crunch semi-final tie. (Pic courtesy G Rajaraman) © Cricbuzz
There are two reasons why Australia do not start overwhelming favourites in the ICC Cricket World Cup semifinal against India on Thursday the weary, end-of-the-season, fairly grassless pitch at the Sydney Cricket Ground as well as India's competitive instinct, fuelled by hunger and intensity, lending a greater sense of balance to the high-voltage clash.
A large section of SCG is expected to back Mahendra Singh Dhoni's team but the Indian captain will be well aware that his team and he will have to dig deep in their reserves to be able to stop Australia from setting up Sunday's title clash with their trans-Tasman rivals, New Zealand. If the teams turn up at the park with their A games, fans could get a game to cherish.
India have had a fine run in the World Cup, winning all seven starts, but they will have to be well on top of their A game to be able to beat the strong and determined home side and get to within one match of having the chance to defending the crown, a feat achieved only by the great sides of the West Indies and Australia.
To be sure, it is not beyond Dhoni and his men. The top three batsmen, Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli all relish the challenge of squaring up against the best bowling line-up. If they can extend that to Thursday's massive showdown, India can keep their tryst with the grand final at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Sunday.
India's bowlers have caught the eye by lifting their game and executing the plans admirably. Mohit Sharma's back-of-the-hand slower delivery could be one the handiest weapons on the SCG track that is not expected to be aid bowlers overtly. The slowness of the pitch could make off-spinner R Ashwin's variations of pace and Ravindra Jadeja's accuracy key, too.
After spending an evening, sweating under covers as it rained over Sydney, the pitch was back under the charge of its caretakers, curator Tom Parker and his colleagues. Between sessions of rolling spread over the day, the pitch had a number of curious visitors, including Australia coach Darren Lehmenn, Chairman of Selectors Rod Marsh and his colleague Mark Waugh.
Clearly, the curator's attempt has been to ensure that the pitch would be even-paced unlike in the quarterfinal where it started off being dual-paced and challenged the Sri Lanka batsmen. It would be important for the team batting first to ensure that not too many wickets are lost in the mandatory powerplay.
Shane Watson's show of character must count as a positive spin-off of Australia's engaging quarterfinal skirmish with Pakistan or a fired-up left-arm paceman Wahab Riaz, to be more specific. His presence in the middle-order does lend experienced muscle to go with the youthful exuberance of Glenn Maxwell.
New Zealand's entry into the title round more so as squad that has won all its eight matches in the World Cup can work as an extra spark for Australia, known to have a long history of intense antipodean rivalry. But as Australian captain Michael Clarke pointed out repeatedly, his team did not need such external factors to find the drive to win the game.
Of course, Australia have not lost an ODI in Sydney in the last three years but that must be tempered by the knowledge that only one of those games the recent victory over Sri Lanka has been played in the month of March. And it is of some significance that India beat Australia in March 2008, with Rohit Sharma sharing a century stand with Sachin Tendulkar.
The South Africans felt the crowd pressure a couple of times in the tournament, notably against India in Melbourne on February 22 and New Zealand in Auckland on Tuesday. Will it be the Australians' turn to be playing an 'away' game at home, given the hordes of Indian supporters who will turn up at the SCG on Thursday?
For this one time, we can believe the truism that is often spouted in limited-over cricket. For once, let us accept that the team that keeps its nerves in check and expresses itself under pressure on Thursday would earn the right to take that flight to Melbourne for the ICC Cricket World Cup final against New Zealand.
The teams:
Australia (from): Michael Clarke (captain), Aaron Finch, David Warner, Steve Smith, Shane Watson, Glenn Maxwell, Brad Haddin (wicket-keeper), James Faulkner, Mitchell Johnson, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins, George Bailey, Mitchell Marsh and Xavier Doherty.
India (from): Mahendra Singh Dhoni (captain, wicket-keeper), Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Suresh Raina, Ravindra Jadeja, R Ashwin, Mohammed Shami, Mohit Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Ambati Rayudu, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Axar Patel and Stuart Binny.
Umpires: Kumar Dharmasena (Sri Lanka_ and Richard Kettleborough (England); TV umpire: Marais Erasmus (South Africa). Match referee: Ranjan Madugalle (Sri Lanka).

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