Cricket

India vs Australia: What the Indo-Australian cricket rivalry tells us about shift of power in sport

  • Jitendra Nath Misra
  • January 21st, 2021
  • 8:28:21 IST

Is Australia-England the greatest cricket rivalry? Cricket’s two oldest powers think so. England clutches at past glory, and its sibling feels an odd mix of disdain and nostalgia for the old country. Journalists and players in both countries rate the Ashes the top rivalry in Test cricket. “There’s nothing quite like the warm feeling of waking up to an Aussie batting collapse,” says Tim de Lisle in The Guardian.

India has now entered the contest. All too often, we view sport as "what the eye can see." But sport is politics, and politics is money. In England and Australia, the discussion about Jagmohan Dalmiya’s election as ICC president was framed as if India had stolen it. As England and Australia copped blows, India chuckled. England could not develop a countervailing franchise. The Indian Premier League (IPL) is “disruptive,” Michael Atherton complained.

Australia captain and his India counterpart Ajinkya Rahane shake hands at the end of the drawn Sydney Test. AP

Australia captain and his India counterpart Ajinkya Rahane shake hands at the end of the drawn Sydney Test. AP

“I am the representation of new India,” says Virat Kohli. After rubbing shoulders in the IPL with the all-too-human greats, Indian players are fearless. Mr Nice has become tigerish. The IPL is filling everybody’s goody bag. From its brand of hit-and-miss cricket, many Virat Kohlis are being born in the alleys of depressed communities. Paradoxically, the IPL is good for India's Test cricket.

What lies behind India’s victory over Australia in the series just concluded? Greg Chappell calls Kohli the most Australian of non- Australian cricketers. But Kohli is the new Indian. “In years gone by, the Indian teams were too easily bullied,” says award- winning filmmaker Peter Dickson. “But now they’ve found their voices, and the world is hearing them loud and clear.”

Depleted India’s resilience in the latest saga is making the Border-Gavaskar Trophy shape like the Ashes. The English would be smiling in the corner. England counted on India to soften Australia before the Ashes year, and India has delivered. Former captain Michael Vaughan called Tim Paine’s sledging of Ravichandra Ashwin in the Sydney Test “Back to the old days!!,” and Steve Smith’s pitch-scuffing at Sydney “very, very poor.” Darren Gough accused Smith of "plain cheating." Curiously, there was little comment from other cricketing powers.

As the world’s fifth-largest economy (and the third-largest in purchasing power parity), India matters to Australia. In 2018-2019, India was Australia’s fifth-largest export market, ahead of ninth-ranked UK. “European” Australia wants to be Asian, so it bandwagons with a yet not clearly-defined “Indo-Pacific.” Whether it is the QUAD, or the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative, India is in.

Sport has not escaped Australia’s strategic tilt towards India. As a revered Australian sport, cricket becomes the reference point for the rivalry with India, the starting and finishing line of the race. The BCCI is the world’s richest cricket board. The money in the IPL is eye-popping, Cricket Australia earns handsomely from hosting Indian teams, Indian-origin Australian fans fill the stands, and the contest is riveting.

Thus, there is a present need to humour India. Cricket Australia’s apology after alleged racist slurs against Indian players during the Sydney Test was swift. Tim Paine followed up with another apology after his sledging.

England and Australia still smart under India's rising power, but both make individual deals with India. Thus, former Australian player Brad Hogg swiftly criticised Smith’s pitch-scuffing: “Batsman’s area. Not his space to mark!”

The British media is adjusting to India’s new status. BBC, The Guardian, Reuters and other outlets have poured life and urgency into their analysis of the current series. We saw multiple stories and live blogs on the same platform almost every day of a Test match. With the pandemic seizing our minds, the cricket was so good it smothered distractions. That nails it — a good product does not need fanfare and superlative introductions.

Besides, everybody fears not being in the IPL, or the commentary team. Australian players would have been mindful of not sledging the Indians too much. The Australian journalist Geoff Lemon has written glowing accounts of India’s play. “Loved the fight and determination of India all day today,” tweeted Ricky Pointing after India drew the Sydney Test. “I cannot compliment India enough on their courageous approach and their effort today, just outstanding,” gushed Shane Warne.

Indian players celebrate after defeating Australia by three wickets on the final day of the fourth cricket Test at the Gabba, Brisbane, Australia. AP

Indian players celebrate after defeating Australia by three wickets on the final day of the fourth cricket Test at the Gabba, Brisbane, Australia. AP

It’s not only about the money of course. There is another factor — perform or perish. Mutual fearlessness creates symmetry in relationships. There was a time when Australia walloped India in cricket. It took India 31 years to earn its first Test match victory on Australian soil. Starting with that victory, India has won nine games. “This Indian team have shown in the last 2 Tests Great skill but more so much more mental resilience,” Vaughan had said after the Sydney Test.

The Australian “win at any cost” mentality can be borderline problematic. It might liven up the rivalry and increase television ratings, and unfortunately, history valorises only the winner. You would want to knock down the opponent before the game begins. The 2020- 2021 series has been civil, because the virus has somehow become the hidden challenge uniting the teams. But scratch down, and we see old wounds opening, as the Sydney incidents showed.

Could India at last be knocking at the gates as Australia's peer competitor in cricket? The Australian media at least is beginning to think so. A spectacular Indian meltdown in Adelaide, Australian batting collapses in Adelaide and Melbourne , India’s rise from nothing in Melbourne, a draw for the ages in Sydney and a historic Indian victory in Brisbane — cricket in Delhi’s January chill has been a cheer for corona-stricken sport.

Updated Date: January 21, 2021 08:28:21 IST

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