There is an unusual air of optimism among Indian cricket fans as the Virat Kohli-led Indian team heads into the Border-Gavaskar Trophy series of 2018-19, this December-January. India has never beaten Australia, in Australia, ever since they made their maiden journey to the antipodes in 1947-48. What is more, India’s Test record Down Under makes for dismal reading: 28-5; and only two of those Test wins have come off five series played in Australia in the new millennium.
With that as the backdrop, Indian followers – and some pundits too – believe that the series in Australia, as the sub-continent gets set for winter, will be an epoch-making one. And what, one may ask, makes them so cheerful? A couple of reasons:
1. Two of Australia’s best players, Steve Smith and David Warner have been banned for a ball-tampering incident in South Africa and won’t play for their country for another three months.
2. The Australian team, led by wicketkeeper-batsman, Tim Paine and perhaps prodded by Cricket Australia, is behaving like ‘good boys’, a term alien to Australian sport.
Quite a few former Indian players – including a few legends – have been of the view that the present Australian side is ‘weak’, as far as batting is concerned, and that they will badly miss the services of Smith and Warner in the ensuing series. In the recent Test series against Pakistan, the newcomers to the team too haven’t shown much promise. Moreover, the Australians have failed miserably in raising their game in the dozen odd one-day-internationals (ODIs) that they have played in 2018.
Indian fans and experts will however do well to remember that most of Australia’s top players had migrated to the Packer ‘Circus’ when India toured that country in 1977-78. Despite the depleted squad then, led by Bobby Simpson – who was called out of retirement, Australia had managed to win that series 3-2. India, mind you, was at full strength. In the new millennium, India has had strong batting sides. Yet, they lost the series in Australia in 1999-2000, 2007-8, 2011-12 and 2014-15 and only managed a draw in 2003-4. At home, therefore, the Australians are a different kettle of fish.
Former Australian cricketers like Adam Gilchrist, Brad Hogg and others too believe that in the absence of Smith and Warner, India may have an outside chance of setting up their first series win in Australia. However, all of them expect new players to emerge and make use of the opportunity to cement their places in the Australian side. That, they say will make things a bit difficult for India. “If the Indians do manage to win the series, it will be an exceptional victory,” says Hogg. ‘It won’t come easy, though.”
The win, if at all, will indeed be exceptional. Kohli and his boys will not only have battled alien playing conditions and some unknown players who would be hungry for success, but also some ‘demons’ off the field, like the Australian media and the Australian crowds. Playing at home, egged on by both ‘hostile’ journalists and spectators, it will not be long before the present squad, led by Paine, sheds its good boy image and plays for respect.
In a recent social-media row, Michael Clarke, the former Australian skipper was accused of creating a culture in the Australian team that led to the ball-tampering scandal in South Africa. Clarke refuted the allegations, stating that he always played within the rules of the game. He stated categorically though, that he wasn’t happy with the nice-guy approach of Paine. “Australian cricket should stop worrying about being liked and start worrying about being respected,” he said, “Playing tough is important, because that is in our blood.”
After Australia lost an ODI against England at Trent Bridge last season, going down by 242 runs after England had posted 481 for 6, Australian cricket columnist Alex Broun spat fire. He wrote that the Australians play well only when they are ‘fired up’. “It is a tradition that has been passed down by Australian captains from Chappelli to Border to Waugh to Clarke to Smith. But it has stopped decidedly at Tim Paine; chosen precisely because he is a nice guy, because he was the last man in the Australian team who would ever say anything nasty to anyone, because he would lose politely,” he opined, and not forgetting to take a dig at Australia’s traditional rivals, he added “as England have done for centuries.”
The Indian team’s new mantra is aggression. Kohli and coach, Ravi Shastri would want their players to go all out and put in a 110 percent effort to achieve that elusive target – a Test series win in Australia.
And as the latter would say, ‘India will take no prisoners’. Broun believes that it will be the abrasiveness of the Indians and their aggression that will fire up the Australian team in the Test matches. “A chirpy young fellow called Virat Kohli is heading down our way and nothing will fire up the Aussie bowlers, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins than a true contest against an equally committed foe. Kohli, by his mere presence, will bring the Aussie fire back, and the Indian captain would not want it any other way.”
The South African skipper, Faf du Plessis has advised the Australians not to needle Kohli if they want to win. He believed that the Australians would have to pay through their noses if Kohli got fired up, both as batsman and skipper. Coach Justin Langer and Paine are therefore caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. They will be damned if they fire up Kohli; they will be damned if they don’t fire themselves up.
The Indians play four Test matches in Australia. Beginning at Adelaide on December 6, the second Test will be at Perth, the Boxing-Day Test at MCG and the final Test at SCG, beginning January
3. If the Australians are a beleaguered side, the Indians too have issues with their batting. The series will therefore be a battle between the Australian bowling – probably breathing fire – and the Indian batting, led by Kohli.
India needs to win this series to prove it’s the best Test team in the world. Australia needs to win to get back its self-belief. Something tells me that the series will be an explosive one. With so much at stake for both teams, there will be provocation for sure and a hell of a lot of chin ‘music’. Let’s see who wins the ‘Grammy’.
The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler and coach, he is now a mental toughness trainer.