It is not that India-Australia Tests have not been contested over five-match series; they have engaged in even a six-match Test series once, other than five series of five-Test matches.
Yet, legendary leg spinner Shane Warne’s call for converting the 2020 year-end series between the two nations from a four-Test engagement to a five-Test one has whipped a torrid discussion on the subject.
While Warne, who is now a professional television commentator, has insisted that scheduling should not be an excuse for not playing the additional Test, there are others who have wanted the programmed format to be strictly adhered to. They argue that the one-off Test between Australia and Afghanistan planned for that period might have to be jettisoned if the extra Test against India had to be accommodated, and that was not on.
Of course, cricket aficionados could turn around and ask why five-Test series are not the standard operating fare for India-Australia Tests, like the Ashes. Why should it usually be three or four-Test series with the occasional five-Test arrangement thrown in every now and then?
In fact, India have not engaged in five-Test series in Australia for nearly two decades, with the last time being in 1991-92 when the Mohammed Azharuddin-led team was drubbed 4-0.
India do not have a decent record while playing in Australia. In the last 70 years, they have won only one series, the 2018-19 one when Virat Kohli led them to a historic 2-1 win. And much of this abysmal record is tied down to not just inadequate skills but also an awful lack of fitness.
Indian cricketers of the past were not comfortable playing in Australia as they were not as fit as the current lot. This meant that playing on Australian grounds was an arduous chore in the past.
The sheer vastness of the outfield was a torture for fielders. It called for plenty of extra leg work. They not only had to do a lot of chasing, which left them huffing and puffing, but regularly had to come up with strong, flat throws from the deep. Few had the shoulder and technique for this. Thus opposition’s batsman stealing four all-run runs was not an uncommon sight.
India’s batsmen too were forced to do plenty of running between the wickets as their strokes did not always fetch boundary hits on the big outfields. Some batsmen actually refused to run more than two runs for a stroke. Additionally, there was the unusually steep bounce, pitch cracks and pace off the pitch that had to be handled.
Later, probably due to commercial demands of television which needed Tests to go into the fifth day, pitches were dulled a bit. Nevertheless, the fact that India have won just one series in Australia, does not really make for a pleasant reading of our cricketing history.
Still, there is no doubt that a large part of the demand for five Tests in Australia is to pander to the commercial well being of Australian cricket, its television media and hospitality industry.
It is no secret that Cricket Australia struggles to make ends meet most of the time. They need regular series against India and also the Ashes series against England to ensure that the financial health of the board and allied industries stay strong.
The India series this year end, followed by the Ashes series of 2021 provide an excellent opportunity for Australia to return a good financial balance sheet. On the other hand, matches against Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, etc are literally a drain on its resources. They simply do not attract a fraction of the sponsorship, endorsements, crowds and, of course, television revenue.
Hereabouts it is worth mentioning that there are two issues that need to be acknowledged: The India series is part of the World Test Championship while the one against Afghanistan is not (matches against Afghanistan, Ireland and Zimbabwe do not form part of WTC although they are in Future Tours Programme).
A WTC series (between 2 and 5 Tests) is worth 120 points and currently, India are on top of the table with 360 points from seven Tests and Australia lie second with 296 points from 10 Tests.
Australia are scheduled to play a total of 19 Tests and India 18 in the current two-year cycle of WTC, unless they convert their series to five Tests and thereby end up playing 20 and 19 Tests respectively.
Australia skipper Tim Paine, like Warne, believes that the series against India could be a mouth-watering one. Of course, the home team would be far stronger in the batting department with the return of Steve Smith, David Warner and newcomer Marcus Labuschagne and hence they would be better prepared than the 2018 outfit which was all at sea against the Indian bowling.
This won’t deter India’s army of supporters who splurge money to travel around the world to see their heroes in action. Their presence in large numbers would give local businesses a boost. However, the real game-changer for Australia would be television rights for matches involving India.
The millions of dollars these rights provide make the Indian team a terrific draw for any cricket board in the world. Television channels too are thrilled to bits at the terrific advertisement rates and support they could garner.
The one-off Test against Afghanistan would never provide this sort of excitement and the Aussies would be foolish to let slip this opportunity. Warne, a television professional, would have been made aware of this.
But India need to be wary of not just this series but the one following that, against England in January-February 2021 which is a five-Test one. Would key players be fit and hungry to battle it out in 10 Tests against tough opponents within a space of four months? There are 240 points up for grabs in those two series and India need to be smart about burn-out, fatigue, rest and injuries to key players before jumping the gun.
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