One of the fascinating aspects of cricket of longer duration played between countries is the evolution of intense rivalries on the field, some of which went on to acquire the status of legendary battles. The first among these was the fight for the Ashes urn between England and Australia, which began in the 19th century and has continued ever since. The fact that a nation consisting mostly of convicts shipped from their midst could pose a strong challenge to them never failed to rile England. The “Bodyline” series, which saw England fast bowlers led by Harold Larwood, indulging in bowling fast paced short-pitched balls directed at the body of the Aussie batsmen, threatened to damage the relations between the two countries. The legacy of those hard-fought battles remain to this day and Test matches between these two countries never fail to bring an extra zing of excitement.
The rivalry on the field between India and Pakistan led to some classic contests and drew huge crowds. However, the poor state of bilateral relations between these two neighbours stood in the way of conduct of Test matches, especially since the turn of this century, except on rare occasions. The growth of India as a financial powerhouse of the game and the improvement in the fortunes of the national side on the field, as seen by the frequency with which wins are notched up while touring, has brought a sea change in the perception towards the nation by other countries. One positive effect of this development has been the tightly fought matches between India and Australia since the beginning of this century, with every series producing cricket of superlative quality irrespective of the end result.
In many ways the series played in India in 2000-01, when the hosts under Sourv Ganguly outclassed Steve Waugh-led Aussies can be called as the turning point in the cricketing relations between the two countries. Waugh’s side reached India with a record 15 consecutive Test wins under their belt and the skipper made clear his determination to conquer the 'Final Frontier'. They showed their intention to steamroll India by trouncing the hosts inside three days in the first Test. But India scripted a remarkable turnaround in the next Test at Kolkata after being forced to follow on and stunned the visitors to score an upset win. The last Test, played at Chennai, was fiercely fought and went down to the wire but India held their nerve to record a narrow two-wicket victory. This series will remain etched in the minds of all those fortunate to witness or even follow it as such was the excitement that the matches generated.
There have been 11 series between the two sides since that historic encounter - with India winning six, Australia four and one ending in a draw. Six of the above series were held in Australia and the remaining five in India. India won the last two series played in Australia (in 2018-19 and 2020-21), which ended the drought of victories that the side faced Down Under. Australia clinched the series held in India in 2004-05, while the other encounters were won by the side that hosted the series. The most significant aspect here is the fact that Indian side has gained sufficient traction to start winning matches on Australian soil during the recent years.
Of the two series wins recorded by India Down Under, the one achieved in 2020-21 was definitely the sweeter and more impressive. Australia were handicapped due to the absence of three of their main players - Steven Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft - who were under suspension for their role in altering the condition of the match ball during the 2018 Cape Town Test against South Africa, when the 2018-19 series took place. Hence India had the advantage of playing against a depleted home side, which they capitalised on to record a 2-1 win. However, in 2020-21, India found themselves bereft of their main players and had to blood in as many as five cricketers into the hard and demanding world of Test cricket during the series. But the youngsters came good, which together with contributions from the senior players and the leadership provided by an inspiring captain, paved the way for one of the most momentous victories in the history of Indian cricket.
It will be interesting to see where the heroes of this outstanding performance are at the present juncture. Ajinkya Rahane had led the side with elan and panache in the absence of regular skipper Virat Kohli, but was dropped from the squad after a series of poor scores and is now playing first-class cricket. Shubman Gill and Mohammed Siraj, who made their debut during this series, have matured into top class players, with the former evolving into an all format opener while the latter is presently the leader of Indian pace attack. Rishabh Pant, the fearless wicketkeeper-batsman, who guided India to the victory in the series decider at Brisbane, met with an unfortunate car accident last December and is presently recovering from the injuries which have forced him to stay away from active cricket for some months. Washington Sundar still remains on the fringes of the national side. On the other hand, Rohit Sharma, who had an ordinary tour in 2020-21, is leading the side, having taken over the responsibility after Kohli stepped down from the job. Cheteshwar Pujara and Ravichandran Aswin continue in their respective positions as the mainstays of batting and bowling in Test matches within India.
Australia have sent their full strength squad to India under the leadership of fast bowler Pat Cummins. The side has in its ranks experienced batsmen such as Smith, Warner and Marcus Labuschagne and a seasoned pace attack comprising Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Cummins. In anticipation that the pitches in India will offer help to spin, four bowlers of this genre have been included in the touring party - the experienced Nathan Lyon, left-armer Ashton Agar, leg-spinner Mitchell Swepson and Todd Murphy, the rookie offie. Thus, the side can boast of a good mix of youth and experience as well as balance among the bowling options.
Australians have traditionally been popular with the cricket followers in India. Their attitude of playing hard but fair and not cribbing about the conditions, grounds, etc place them on a different pedestal from some other sides who blame factors outside the playing field for justifying their poor performances. Further, they always took care to send their best side to tour India, except in 1979 when the Kerry Packer-promoted World Series Cricket had attracted most of their top players. Many of their top players such as Waugh and Shane Warne attained iconic status among the masses on account of the connect that they could build with them.
The forthcoming four-Test series between India and Australia, which starts on Thursday at Nagpur, promises to be an exciting one. The tussle between the bat and the ball as well as the one among the players of both sides will be intense and unrelenting. As both sides appear to be evenly matched one can state that India start with the advantage of being the hosts.
Test matches between India and Australia have often been the best advertisement for the phrase “glorious uncertainties” that characterises the game of cricket. Miracles too are not unknown and they tend to happen on a not too irregular frequency in these clashes. Hence it would not only be imprudent but even foolhardy to make any predictions about the outcome of this series. May the better side win, but, more importantly, let us hope that the matches produce brilliant cricket that whets the appetite of connoisseurs of the game.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)