India vs Australia: In a historically intense rivalry, will this 4-Test series be a damp squib?

Whenever a team visits Australia, their ex-cricketers go on a rampant media drive, predicting the outcome of any particular Test series. The legendary Glenn McGrath in particular was infamous for his 5-0 prophecies, particularly concerning the Ashes among others.

It is all a measure of psychological warfare that Australian cricketers consider to be a part of the game. Steve Waugh even had a name for it — mental disintegration. As such, it isn’t really any surprise that Indian cricketers, both former and current, have given their two cents regarding this upcoming four-Test encounter, starting in Pune on Thursday.

Virat Kohli (left) and Ravichandran Ashwin celebrate a Bangladesh wicket in the one-off Test in February 2017. AFP

Virat Kohli (left) and Ravichandran Ashwin celebrate a Bangladesh wicket in the one-off Test in February 2017. AFP

“I won’t be surprised if India wins 4-0,” said former Indian captain Sourav Ganguly at a recent media event. “If Australia play well, then India will win 3-0, otherwise 4-0,” off-spinner Harbhajan Singh was quoted as saying by news.com.au.

In their prime, both of them have given Australia a tough ride, whether with bat and ball or even verbally. Harbhajan’s spells in 2000-01 gave Steve Waugh’s all-conquering team nightmares, while Ganguly’s counter-attacking hundred at Brisbane set the mood for the 2003-04 series Down Under.

Singh has had quite a few run-ins with Australian players with the ‘Monkeygate’ scandal in 2008-09 almost leading to a breakdown in cricketing relations between the two nations. And although Ganguly didn’t back down from a confrontation, in his captaincy avatar at least he knew which battles to pick.

This is not to say that Australian cricketers have only been on the receiving end. Instead, it is to outline the competitive synergy, which has been very evident in this rivalry for nearly the last two decades now. It was a magnanimous gesture from Shane Warne to ask for Sachin Tendulkar’s autograph after a thorough shellacking in 1998. There have been major rivalries ever since, without a touch of similar respect.

Sure, it isn’t something mandatory on the cricket field. Yet, the underlying point is the heightened sense of rivalry among players of these two sides. Harbhajan made Adam Gilchrist a walking wicket in 2001, while Mathew Hayden feasted on the pitches here. Rahul Dravid and Ricky Ponting went hammer and tongs in the 2003-04 series to see who would outscore the other.

No Australian bowler could ever conquer VVS Laxman, while Brett Lee enjoyed a few good run-ins with Tendulkar, after Warne and McGrath had their fill. Everyone also remembers when a young Ishant Sharma let it rip against Ponting in 2007-08. And lately, all of this ‘friendly animosity’ was mirrored when Virat Kohli took on Mitchell Johnson at the MCG in 2014-15.

Therein, a thaw came over when India toured in 2011-12, and then Australia came over in 2012-13. Those two series – ending in 4-0 victories for either side – were instrumental in shaping the current face of these teams. Under MS Dhoni and Michael Clarke, they were better sides at home, and toothless away. There was the odd spark, but in general, for the first time in over a decade, this India-Australia rivalry was on the ebb.

It was a transitional phase for both, stretching out over a definitive period of time, as their focal points changed. India moved on from Tendulkar, Laxman and Dravid. Australia bid adieu to Ponting. Dhoni had Duncan Fletcher for company, while Clarke had Mickey Arthur. Results under these particular managements left a lot to be desired. From 2013 onwards, until their last meeting in 2014-15, there was a churn in place that gave way to exciting leadership and found new powerhouses within these two teams.

In that sense, the setting for this latest encounter is already in place.

As soon as they landed here, Smith came out all guns blazing. “Each of our individuals play the way they play, and if they want to get into a battle verbally then, if that gets the best out of them, go for it,” he said, in his pre-series conference in Mumbai.

Somewhere, listening in to those words, Kohli will already be smiling. There is an inherent quality about the Indian skipper — arguably the world’s best batsman (across formats) at present — that aggressive posturing brings out the best in him. It has been quite evident in this long home season — from getting the crowd at Kolkata behind his bowlers as they defended against New Zealand, to giving send offs to Ben Stokes in Mohali, to showing Bangladesh in Hyderabad just who is the boss in this format.

Smith’s ride has been equally important in the Australian context. When they last hosted India, Clarke was still in-charge, but he only played in Adelaide as a tribute to Phil Hughes. Suffering an injury thereafter, he left Smith to lead the side, and the latter notched up the runs fancifully. If there is one example of a team moving on quickly from one leadership to another, this was it.

It was on that same tour that Kohli first took over the captaincy from MS Dhoni, and even ahead of the Adelaide Test, where he was only standing-in, he didn’t hold himself back. He went about that match with an aggressive demeanour, showcasing his philosophy of going all out in pursuit of victory. Never mind the heartbreaking defeat there, that result has formed the bedrock of his leadership ever since, as India have risen to the No 1 ranking thereafter.

A keen part of this elevation has been Ravichandran Ashwin. Like Kohli, that last tour to Australia was also instrumental for him. Dropped in Adelaide, he returned in Brisbane, and turned a corner. He understood the balance needed in the side when playing overseas, and how it was different from home conditions. He gauged his role perfectly, modulating from a holding role to an attacking spinner as per the demands of his side. Ashwin has never looked back since.

Australia will face a real examination of their abilities against him. It will bring back old wounds, not only the 4-0 defeat on their last trip here, but also the 3-0 spanking in Sri Lanka last year. They lost against South Africa at home thereafter, leading to a change in vision. They won against Pakistan easily afterwards, and had an eye on this Indian tour for long. Herein, a keen differentiation between the two teams emerges.

If Kohli and Ashwin have become the two powerhouses of Indian cricket, Australia are still looking for someone to partner up with Smith. But for his fitness issues, it could have been Mitchell Starc, and so, they are forced to turn to another batsman. Usman Khawaja? No. Shaun Marsh? Probably not!

It is David Warner that they must look up to. Since that Indian tour of 2014, Warner has minutely increased his Test average to 51.10 (28 Tests) as compared to his career average of 49.16 (60 Tests). The upswing is more noticeable when compared with his first 32 Tests, wherein he averages 47.47. Starting out as a limited-overs’ batsman, his Test prowess has been on a consistent rise in the last couple years.

So, can he replicate his recent good form against Pakistan here? Along with Smith, can he resist the Kohli-Ashwin combination, and serve up a sizzling rivalry on the platter once again? How Australia fare will probably depend on these answers.


Published Date: Feb 22, 2017 01:32 pm | Updated Date: Feb 22, 2017 03:17 pm