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Put aside India-Pak rivalry, the India-Aus contest is something else altogether
It is often said that when an overseas cricketer performs in Australia, the world takes notice. It is never a memorable tour for those who are faint of heart or weak of mind. Yet, for those up to the challenge, it is a brutal but rewarding hunting ground of treasures; many of the game’s greats have enjoyed career-defining moments on Australian turf. Steve Waugh may have famously labelled India the “final frontier”, but to India in particular, it is Australia that is truly the final frontier.
Over the course of almost a dozen tours to Australia, stretching back to 1947, India has never once won a Test series in this country. This time around, almost exactly a year to the day on which India gave up the Border-Gavaskar Trophy to Steve Smith’s Australian side in a 2-0 series defeat, India is preparing for a first: a limited-overs tour of Australia with no Test match fixtures. But what is it that makes a tour of Australia the toughest assignment in the international calendar? And what does the India-Australia rivalry mean to the world of cricket today?
Let’s preface this discussion with a disclaimer: home advantage is a universally accepted factor in cricket, and the impact of home conditions on cricket matches is unique in the sporting world. However, although the distinction between home and away fixtures in most sports is traditionally associated with crowd advantage, in cricket, natural conditions are critical and usually determinative – not only of the outcome of the match, but of the style of cricket that will be played. And in Australia, that style has always been capable of being summarised in one word: hostile.
Hostile are the Australian pitches, which favour batsmen capable of ducking, weaving, and when required, attacking like pugilists. Their aura may have diminished of late, but for any sub-continental cricketer raised on low, slow dustbowls, the pace and bounce in dry, hard Australian tracks is formidable. Such a transition tests all facets of an Indian batsman’s game in particular: a fluid yet robust technique, adjustable to combat the greater speeds and heights at which the ball is delivered; mental fortitude, to employ supreme levels of concentration and face much longer periods of fast bowling than those to which the batsman is accustomed; and the willingness to attack on a pitch that is never truly risk-free, in order to reap rewards that are rarely earned.
Hostile, too, are the Australian cricketers and crowds, who have zero tolerance for incompetence, no interest in formalities nor any capacity to relent. Australia has an incredibly proud and rich sporting history, but its cricket team is in another echelon altogether.
It is not without reason that the captain of the Australian cricket team is deemed to have the second-most important job in the country behind the Prime Minister. His job is to embody the fabled Australian spirit of fighting to the death and winning at all costs. If Lleyton Hewitt embodied this spirit on the tennis court, the country’s cricket team has lived it on the cricket field since day one. Unlike the Australian Prime Minister, however, the captain of the Australian team must put himself on the frontline of the battle. Tough competitors away from home though they may be, in their own backyard, the Australian cricket team is an entirely different beast, albeit equally ferocious.
It is no surprise, then, that although their individual records Down Under were at least admirable and in some cases exceptional, even the modern greats of Indian cricket – Tendulkar, Laxman, Dravid, Ganguly, and Sehwag – never enjoyed Test match success in Australia, despite their moments of greatness on these shores. It is easy to define each of these players by reference to a single innings played by them in Australia, as those innings somehow found themselves particularly engrained in our memories of them as cricketers. Punishing Tendulkar’s 114 in Perth; Wristy Laxman’s 167 at the SCG; Defiant Dravid’s 233 in Adelaide; Audacious Ganguly’s 144 in Brisbane; and Explosive Sehwag’s 195 in Melbourne.
Of these players, however, only the first and last were there to revel in India’s only-ever series win in Australia – the 2007/08 Commonwealth Bank Series. The reason? Deadweight does not carry far in Australia. No matter the calibre or potential of the player, if they are deemed not to be good enough, they will be useless in a tour of Australia.
It is the battle scars worn by these greats which have seen the rivalry between India and Australia define the pinnacle of competition in the sport – at least in those contests involving Asian countries. Australia-India may not evoke the raw passion and emotion of an India-Pakistan match, but as India’s diplomatic relationship with Pakistan continues to ebb and flow, so too does its cricketing relationship follow; while India’s past 20 years in the sport have broadly mirrored its emergence as a global economic superpower, Pakistan’s past 20 years has, with an entirely different impact, also broadly mirrored its global milieu.
Although India has been a party to several engaging contests with the other Test-playing nations during this time, its relationships with those nations on the field have remained broadly unchanged from the status quo levels of familiarity and camaraderie. Australia, however, has developed rapidly into India’s nemesis.
From Tendulkar’s assault against Warne in Sharjah, to the famous 2001 Test series in India, and a World Cup final loss in South Africa, the seeds of an ongoing war were sown early. Both sides then enjoyed almost simultaneous peaks of genuinely great players throughout the 2000s, if nothing else, making their contests a spectacle of cricketing wonders.
By the time India’s controversy-marred 2007-08 tour of Australia had concluded, there was just the right level of animosity between the two nations to make things interesting: lines were undoubtedly crossed, but losing to Australia began hurting India that little bit more.
Now, as foreshadowed by Indian captain MS Dhoni, both India and Australia have entered an exciting new era. India’s selected ODI and T20 squads feature more potential debutants than any Indian squad in recent memory. The upcoming ODI and T20 International series comes at a perfect time in light of the recently concluded and disappointing West Indies tour of Australia, which was a poor advertisement for the game, as well as the upcoming T20 World Cup due to be held in India in March and April.
This is likely to be MS Dhoni’s last tour of Australia. As the only captain to ever orchestrate a series win in Australia in any format – particularly after taking the decision to give some great cricketers the boot from his ODI squad – Dhoni will know what it takes to win Down Under more than most. Given only two members – Dhoni and Rohit Sharma – remain from the successful 2007-08 squad, Dhoni will be keen to leave behind a winning culture that India can continue chasing on future tours.
Inexperienced players such as Barinder Sran, Rishi Dhawan, Hardik Pandya and Manish Pandey are acutely aware that they will become household names if they perform during this tour. Old blood brought back into the fold for the T20s, including Yuvraj Singh and Ashish Nehra, have been put on notice that this is essentially their one opportunity to cement their spot in the upcoming world tournament which is likely to be the denouement missing from their stop-start careers. Can Dhoni settle their nerves and bring out the best in his charges, young and old?
Given the unquestionable imminence of Dhoni’s retirement – it is hard to recall a situation in which a captain who retired altogether from Test matches continued to play on for several years in the shorter forms – Dhoni’s own performances in this series are likely to be more closely scrutinised than ever. If he were ever to need inspiration, he needs only to look across to his opposite number.
Steve Smith, who wears his heart on his sleeve, is at the opposite end of the captaincy spectrum to the ice-cool Dhoni, and is yet to prove his leadership credentials in the shorter formats of the game. However, his ability to lead from the front by piling on runs – albeit by batting higher in the order than Dhoni – is unrivalled.
The battle between Dhoni and Smith will be fascinating to watch. One is in the twilight of his career, and the other in his prime. One has nothing left to prove and the other, everything. One is an enforcer, and the other an accumulator. One employs a sense of calm and the other prefers to play with fire.
Despite its seemingly hollow context, there’s everything to play for and this series will be fiercely contested – could anything less have been expected from these two great sides?