India, Australia, Chennai.
Sachin Tendulkar slog-sweeping Shane Warne on his way to an electric 155? The nerve-shattering famous tied Test in 1986? An energy-sapped Dean Jones throwing up in the middle of a furnace that was the MA Chidambaram Stadium, on his way to an epic 210? A baby-faced Steve Waugh sending Maninder Singh's off-stump cartwheeling to clinch the match by one run in the 1987 World Cup on the Chepauk's ODI debut? A charismatic Harbhajan Singh, amid soaring tension, guiding a near-yorker through point off Glenn McGrath and flinging his bat in the air, celebrating a famous Test series win in 2001?
Well, these are some of the moments that strike your mind when India, Australia and Chennai are mentioned in the same breath. Cricket has this uncanny knack of throwing up moments which get etched in your memory. These moments turn memorable and then become synonymous to the venue.
There is no blinding revelation in the fact that the MA Chidambaram Stadium has served up some of the most delightful as well as thrilling encounters between India and Australia over the years. And as Chennai gets ready for Australia's visit for the first time in 21 years for an ODI, the excitement is palpable.
There is a buzz in the city, and even the GST-inflated ticket rates, which started from Rs 1,200 and went up to Rs 8,000, couldn't stop the thousands of 'knowledgeable Chennai fans' from queuing up on the streets of the city all through the night, outside the box office for purchasing tickets.
“The crowds have craved for an ODI for quite some time now. South Africa last toured in 2015 for an ODI. People have queued up for tickets since the night of 9 September while the ticket sales opened only on 10 September,” says Ananthasubramanian Narayanan, an IT professional and a cricket buff.
Narayanan, an almost regular at the Chepauk until he moved to Australia for work, is on vacation and missing the Chennai match wasn’t an option for him.
“With the temperatures soaring and very long queues for cheaper tickets, it is very difficult and nearly impossible to get tickets less than the ones priced at Rs 4,800. I am not sure how a common man can afford such an increase in the cost. Since I chose to buy higher-priced tickets I could get tickets standing in a smaller queue than the ones which were more than a kilometre long," Narayanan adds.
Saksham Alag, a Delhi-based engineering student will be attending the match for the first time at the Chepauk. His college is abuzz. A day prior to the match, Alag is standing outside the main gate of the stadium to get a glimpse of the stars and the temperatures don’t bother him when it comes to cricket.
“Kuch farak nahi padta, garmi ho, thand ho, match dekhne aaye hain, match dekhke hi jaayenge (It doesn’t matter how hot or cold it is, we will watch the match at any cost),” Alag says with pride.
And with Chennai, you are guaranteed of bouts of nostalgia.
“There are quite a few matches that I cherish having watched from the stands. But the one that is closest has to be the first sighting of Sachin Tendulkar during the 1998 Test at the Chepauk,” says Narayanan.
“Having watched Tendulkar on TV for years together, it was surreal to see him in full gear up close from the pavilion. As a 13-year-old, nothing came even remotely close than watching Tendulkar in his prime,” he adds.
Going by the gilded history of India versus Australia matches, there is hope of another exciting contest. India are riding the crest of a massive wave. After the 9-0 annihilation of Sri Lanka, they will be looking to carry the momentum straight into the Chennai ODI. While the Sri Lanka tour proved to be a walkover, India will face a tougher challenge against a strong Australian side looking to get into the groove ahead of the Ashes.
The Australians look battle-hardened especially after a doughty display on Indian soil in the Test series earlier this year and a come-from-behind victory over Bangladesh to draw the Test series.
The Sri Lanka ODIs didn't reveal the chinks in India's armour. In fact, it piled on selection headaches. It was a complete team performance where someone or other put his hand up in time of need.
KL Rahul, Manish Pandey and Kedar Jadhav are fighting for a spot in the middle order. Ajinkya Rahane is waiting in the wings as a third opener with Rohit Sharma-Shikhar Dhawan forging a solid bond. The fresh-found vigour in the Jasprit Bumrah-Bhuvneshwar Kumar new-ball pairing has added to India's basket of options which already consists of Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav. It looks a well-balanced side with the spin triumvirate of Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal and late addition to the squad, Ravindra Jadeja, injecting extra venom.
The MA Chidambaram Stadium served up a slow and spinning wicket the last time it hosted an ODI, two years back, against South Africa. However, in 2016, it offered a flat track for the India-England Test in which Karun Nair scored a marathon triple century. Recently, the Tamil Nadu Premier League matches were played on flat surfaces and by the looks of it, we may expect the same in the first ODI of the series. Dew could play a part with humidity levels rising in the evening.
“There is no grass on the wicket. (It’s) difficult to say how it is going to play,” Australian captain Steve Smith said in the pre-match press conference. “It is still a bit soft and it's pretty warm outside. So it could harden up pretty quickly. We will make another assessment tomorrow,” he added.
The Chepauk track does offer some bounce and over the years, the pacers have done better than the spinners at the venue. The pacers have taken 171 wickets at 28.34, with a strike rate of 34.1 and economy of 4.97, while the spinners have scalped 106 wickets at 33.71, with a strike rate of 41.2 and economy of 4.90. But with no grass on the surface, India might go in with two spinners.
In the batting department, Pandey might get the nod ahead of Rahul with the latter enduring a tough time in the ODI series in Sri Lanka, averaging just 11 from four ODIs, while Pandey impressed in the limited chances coming his way. Rahane will open in absence of Dhawan, who is away tending to his ailing wife, and would look to make the most of rare opportunities presented to him.
Talking about the spinners, Kuldeep burst onto the international scene with an impressive Test debut against Australia who struggled to read the left-arm Chinaman in Dharamsala. He has been performing consistently since then and captain Virat Kohli would be looking to unleash him again, especially with the Uttar Pradesh spinner being endowed with extra bounce. A major part of Australia’s preparation seems to revolve around Kuldeep with Australia’s spin consultant Sridharan Sriram calling up Kerala Chinaman bowler KK Jiyas, who was also a part of Delhi Daredevils earlier, to bowl in the nets.
"They have got Kuldeep Yadav in their squad and probably (he) is likely to play,” Smith said. “There is a chance to train against someone that bowls the same. There isn't too many around the world, they are different, so it's good to be able to get someone who bowls a bit of that.
"He has played a bit since then. A few of the guys played against him in the IPL and saw what he did in Sri Lanka as well. He is a good, young talent and can be difficult to pick at times. He is someone who you have to watch really closely. Hopefully, we can put him under pressure early in his spell and try and take him for as many as we can," Smith added.
Yuzvendra Chahal is likely to pair with Kuldeep with Axar Patel being ruled out following an ankle injury suffered during a warm-up football game. Jadeja has been named as a last-minute replacement for Axar.
Australia's all-rounders – and they have plenty – instill flexibility which might give them the freedom to play two spinners in Ashton Agar and Adam Zampa. If they do plan to go in with two spinners, then either James Faulkner or Nathan Coulter-Nile may miss out. Given that Australia's strength has always been their pacers, they might want to play three of them which means Travis Head and Glenn Maxwell will have to chip in with crucial part-time spin along with one frontline spinner. David Warner, Smith, Head and Maxwell will form the nucleus of the batting line-up. Smith said that Head would continue batting at No 4 so Hilton Cartwright might open in absence of the injured Aaron Finch.
Warner will be the key going into the match. He has already warmed up with 64 off 48 balls in the practice match against Board President's XI and comes into the series on the back of two stupendous centuries against Bangladesh where he displayed a new-found adaptability in Asian conditions. He has been Australia's highest run-getter (second-highest overall after Kohli, who has 1,375 runs) in ODIs in the past 12 months, having scored 1,179 runs from 17 matches at 73.68. He has scored six centuries in this period, which is the most by any international player.
Smith's biggest concern going into the series, unlike previous years, isn't spin. It's Kohli.
"He is obviously a very good player and has a phenomenal ODI record. Hopefully, we can keep him quiet as much as possible in this series. If we do that then hopefully it can go a long way in us having success on this tour," Smith told reporters in a press conference after reaching India.
Kohli is on a rampage. Kohli is unstoppable. Kohli is in 'God' mode. We have been hearing this for a long time. Well, he is also the second-highest run-getter at the MA Chidambaram Stadium and averages 55.80. His last ODI innings at the ground was a high-class 138 on a sultry Chennai afternoon, against South Africa two years ago, where he seemed to be playing on an altogether different pitch. This might just send the blood pressure levels rising in the Australian camp.
The return of beloved son MS Dhoni will send excitement levels soaring especially for Chennai Super Kings fans starved of IPL action. He is the highest run-getter at the Chepauk with 322 runs at 105.22, including two tons.
“We are trying all our sources to get the tickets. Dhoni is back in Chennai so there is tremendous excitement,” says Dr Vignesh, an avid Dhoni and CSK fan.
“CSK is soul and life of Chennai. We were IPL champions for two years and Champions League winners too. It is a big part of the city and we all missed it,” The 23-year-old adds.
However, it's not just Dhoni who shares a special connect with Chennai. The Australians too share a special bond with the likes of Matthew Hayden, George Bailey, Ben Hilfenhaus, Michael Hussey, Ben Laughlin, Dirk Nannes having played for CSK in the past. Australia have also won all the four ODIs played at the venue which will give them confidence. However, a lot will depend on how they handle the Chennai heat which can strip you to the bare bones sucking every inch of power from the body. Luckily for the visitors, the temperatures haven’t touched the typical ‘Chennai thermonucleur levels’ in the past few days. It rained on Saturday night and there is forecast for thunderstorms during the match.
Twelve out of 20 matches have been won by teams batting first, seven while chasing, at the MA Chidambaram Stadium; so it will be interesting to see whether the teams are ready to veer away from the general chasing trend set of late. The average score batting first at the venue is 237 but with the pitch getting flatter, this might change.
Thirty years ago, the Chepauk cauldron was gripped with drama, emotions and anxiety on its ODI debut when the two sides clashed against each other. On Sunday, thousands will flock the stands in hope that the MA Chidambaram Stadium will provide one more moment to savour.
With stats inputs from Umang Pabari.