Test cricket is glowing in the resplendent colours of Holi, thanks in large measure to a recent trend of decisive outcomes. Incredibly, 49 of the 55 Tests played since January 2016 have produced a result. This has resulted in a genuine interest in the longer format of the game and the ongoing series between India and Australia is serving to heighten that interest.
The fascinating manner in which India bounced back from a stinging loss at Pune defines a new era for Indian cricket. The young side led by Virat Kohli is a bold beast that treated the Australians to a large dose of their own medicine in Bengaluru, and looked beyond bat, ball and limbs to trump the ferocious enemy.
The battle for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy between Australia and India has added enormous layers of intrigue to the already fascinating fabric of white-flannelled cricket. Skill and sledging have combined to deliver an intense package of passionate sport over the past fortnight. Unfettered comments from cricketers of both teams, past and present, have served to garnish the brewing sense of excitement among fans.
There is no shred of doubt in the minds of connoisseurs about the quality of this growing rivalry between India and Australia. Interestingly, battles between these two teams have not always been on an even keel. The infamous incident in Melbourne (1981) involving Sunil Gavaskar and Dennis Lillee served to bring simmering tension to the surface. But we had to wait for well over two decades to see battles between India and Australia squarely supplant the famed rivalry between India and Pakistan.
The evolution of this rivalry has coincided with the emergence of a new abrasive era of cricket in India. The team under Sourav Ganguly presented an emboldened face to the world. And that epochal come-from-behind victory against Steve Waugh's Australia at the Eden Gardens in 2001 sowed the seeds for this vitriol-riddled relationship between the two teams. The 'Monkeygate' episode at Sydney (2007-08) turned the rivalry into one that is borne out of deep-seated suspicion and rancour.
The Australians worked hard on their game ahead of the series. And their preparation paid rich dividends when they put up a spectacularly bold performance in Pune. India seemed down for the count, but Kohli led his team with aplomb to bounce back in style in the second test at Bengaluru.
There has been plenty to speak about already midway through this series. The performances of Steve O’Keefe, Nathan Lyon and Josh Hazlewood for the visitors and those of Ravichandran Ashwin, KL Rahul and Ravindra Jadeja for India have all been built on resilience, hard work and skill.
Unfortunately though, the conversation has been overwhelmingly driven by rancour. Steve Smith’s DRS antics on the one hand and Kohli’s unhesitant criticism of the 'brain fade' defence put forward by Smith have raised the temperature as the teams sweat it out for the third Test of the series in Ranchi.
The Ranchi match promises to be another blazing affair. Any upsurge the Australians may have felt at the end of the first Test was quelled by the Indian resurgence in Bengaluru.
"When you've got a caged lion you expect them to come out pretty hard, to get away," Australian stumper Matthew Wade told the media. "That's what happened in the Bangalore Test, we expect it for the rest of the tour.”
"It's not really our issue. We've got to play good cricket, and beat them on skill. Emotion doesn't win Test matches," added Wade.
Naturally, some feel that those reactions are too sober coming from the Australians. They have been worst offenders of sledging over the years, taking to verbal jousting at the drop of a hat to tame opponents.
The reactions coming from the Australian camp are an interesting study for behavioural experts. The press in Australia has joined the chorus – Kohli drops to fourth in the world rankings, read one headline. Another article blamed Kohli and coach Anil Kumble of 'misbehaving' during the Bengaluru Test, accusing Kumble of being one of the main instigators of the 'Monkeygate' fiasco. Former fast bowler Mitchell Johnson even called Kohli frustrated at the lack of runs.
Lyon has started the chatter before the Ranchi Test, suggesting that the pressure was on India to perform on their home soil. But clearly, it is Australia who have been pushed back into a defensive shell.
The Australians are apparently finding their own medicine bitter to swallow. The Indian team has transformed the narrative of this flourishing rivalry by adapting an alien strategy to usurp territory. As they say, use a thorn to remove a thorn. And India have been a torn in the flesh and soul of the Australians by resorting to the same brand of aggression that they used to dole out to their opponents.
The Indians now seem to have left aside the chatter they engaged in in the immediate aftermath of the second Test. It appears they are back to the workshop preparing for a decisive blow in Ranchi.
The Border-Gavaskar Trophy will be on the line in Ranchi and all that the Australians need, is to draw the series to retain the silverware. Expect another bruising battle between the two sets of gladiators. No effort will be spared and word, willow and rawhide will all flow with the ferocity that we have come to expect from this great rivalry.