My fascination with Australian cricket began early in life. Don Bradman loomed into consciousness as soon as I could hold a bat and has not left it since. Doubtless, this must be true for not just every fan, but also cricketer: a Test batting average of 99.94? How was that humanly possible!
Norm O’Neill and Graham McKenzie were my favourite cricketers in the pre-teen years. When the former did not take the field in the first Test I ever saw, at Mumbai’s Brabourne Stadium in 1964-65, I was utterly dejected, for I had waited months to see him in action. But India won that Test in a gripping finish and I was consumed by the elation that followed. New heroes emerged—Chandu Borde, who had shown nerves of steel in a crisis, the enigmatic B.S. Chandrasekhar, and most notably, the charismatic captain Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi.
A “first love” syndrome obviously has some role to play, but that remains among the more memorable Test matches I have seen, not the least because beating Australia was considered so difficult. In the five decades since, only two other Tests have bettered that experience, both against Australia.
In 1986 was the tied Test at Chennai, only the second in the history of five-day cricket. When off-spinner Greg Matthews got Maninder Singh leg before wicket with the scores level, there was a moment of stunned silence before the Aussies erupted. Kapil Dev and his team were obviously disappointed. It was a brave effort at chasing 345 runs on the final day, only to falter at the final step.
It seemed impossible that such a riveting match could ever be upstaged, but the Kolkata Test of 2001 was straight out of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! I hardly need repeat details of the game save to say that V.V.S. Laxman’s 281 is the greatest innings played by an Indian. His partnership with Rahul Dravid not only turned the match on its head, but also redefined the future of Indian cricket.
Cricketing contests between the two countries, especially of Australia coming here, have since become more frequent. This is largely because India has become the El Dorado for the sport and the earlier compunctions of visiting teams—notably England and Australia—have vanished. More pertinently, India versus Australia has acquired an edge that was hitherto unknown. India are now competing on even terms. The psychological dread of the past had been overcome, and at least at home, they even seemed to have the advantage.
The moot question as the first Test of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy begins on Friday, however, is whether this is still true. India have been a beleaguered Test side over the past 20 months, having lost three series and 10 Tests to slump from the No. 1 ranking in 2009 to No. 5. Does the team have the wherewithal to stem the rot and effect a turnaround?
The opportunity exists surely. This is the weakest Australia side to have come to India since 1979, when Kerry Packer had poached the crème de la crème of Aussie players. How will it fare on slow, turning pitches—both in batting and bowling?
Of the current squad only Michael Clarke, Shane Watson, Mitchell Johnson and Peter Siddle have depth of experience at this level. David Warner has had a flashy start to his Test career and has some blazing knocks in India, but only in Twenty20. Can these handful of players make it count for their team?
Clarke’s phenomenal scoring over the past two years makes him arguably the world’s best batsman and Watson has the power and temperament to make big scores. Ed Cowan and Phillip Hughes have shown the requisites for good opening batsmen, but it remains to be seen how they fare when confronted early by spin. Australia have an array of fine and diverse quick bowlers. Siddle is the bulwark, Johnson is enigmatic, but the ones to watch out for are youngsters Mitchell Starc and James Pattinson, who have shown tremendous potential.
It is unlikely that there will be green tracks for any of the Tests. But Clarke will also know that fast bowlers have succeeded in Indian conditions if they are either quick through the air, or have the ability to swing the ball late: former players like West Indies’ Andy Roberts and Malcolm Marshall, Englishmen Bob Willis, Ian Botham, and recently, James Anderson are examples of this.
The lack of quality spinners is this Australian team’s biggest drawback. Clarke has five slow bowlers to choose from, but apart from off-spinner Nathan Lyon, none has looked good enough.
Of course, this is all speculative. Ultimately, it is how motivated the teams are, and how they cope with crunch situations that will determine the outcome. Against England recently, after winning the first Test, India entertained hopes of a revenge whitewash and plumped for rank turners, only for it to boomerang.
The desire for revenge against Australia—who won the last series 4-0 in 2011-12—will be no less. But M.S. Dhoni and his players will have to proceed now with skill and strong motivation. Both teams are in the process of transition, but India’s track record in the past 20 months has been dismal where Australia’s has been encouraging. The margin of error for the Indians is meagre. For some mighty reputations, it is either redemption or kaput.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.