On the field, the 2017 Australian Test series was perhaps the best since the 2005 Ashes in England. Certainly, India hasn’t seen a comparable contest since 2001, when Sourav Ganguly’s team overcame a three-day drubbing in Mumbai and the follow-on in Kolkata to edge out Steve Waugh’s legendary Australia side in the greatest series played on Indian soil.
Years from now though, it’s not just the on-field heroics that we will be talking of. This was a series with a nasty edge, one that offered a reminder that Indian and Australian cricketers tend to be like oil and water. The rivalry with Pakistan has always been heated, but the shared cultural background has meant that there have been few flashpoints like those seen over the past few decades in India-Australia contests.
Enough has been said, and written, about Steve Smith’s “brain fade” in Bengaluru, which provoked an irate reaction from Virat Kohli, the Indian captain. By the time the series ended in Dharamsala, with an injured Kohli watching from the sidelines, the Australian media—dismissed as “one-eyed fans with laptops and microphones” by Frank Keating, The Guardian writer, in a searing column during the 2001 Ashes—had called him cricket’s biggest bully, compared him to Donald Trump and highlighted his egomania for attending the post-series press conference.
But even without the media’s inputs, the relationship between the two sets of players had been strained since Indian cricket emerged from the shadows in the early 1970s. Sunil Gavaskar was at the heart of the first big controversy during the Melbourne Test of 1981. Given out leg before to Dennis Lillee, Gavaskar stood his ground, believing he had inside-edged the ball.
Lillee came down the pitch, gestured pointedly at Gavaskar’s pad and added a few endearments for good measure. As a dismayed and angry batsman trudged off, more words were said. Incensed, he turned round, went up to Chetan Chauhan, his opening partner, and asked him to walk off with him. Only the intervention of Shahid Ali Khan Durrani, the Indian tour manager who later termed Gavaskar’s actions “deplorable” in his report, ensured that the Test, which India would go on to win thanks to a magical spell from Kapil Dev, continued.
Tempers were even more frayed in the Chennai heat five years later. With a hitherto uneventful Test careering towards a thrilling finish—only the second tie in history—Greg Matthews, Australia’s bowling hero, dismissed Chandrakant Pandit. “When he got out he had to walk past me to get to the rooms,” Matthews told Wisden India on the 30th anniversary of the event. “There was some seriously colourful language coming out of my mouth. Tim Zoehrer came up to calm me down and I brushed him as well! I walked Pandit halfway off the ground and didn’t let up for a second.”
In 1999, as a callow Indian team were routed 3-0 by Steve Waugh’s Australians, the newspapers were once again in the thick of things. After India had refused to play on under lights—they were not obliged to—one of the headlines said: “India Go Back To Dark Ages”, blithely unaware or blasé about the racist connotations.
Four years later, on my first tour of Australia, when the home side finished the first day of the Gabba Test on 262-2, the local Courier Mail came up with this gem: “Indian Summer Over?” Sourav Ganguly responded with his finest hundred, in a drawn match, before India won in Adelaide. By the end of the series in Sydney, it was the hosts who were clinging on for survival.
The next trip down under saw the ugliness of Monkeygate, and a Test marred by so many umpiring controversies that the bloopers alone made a highlights reel. At his post-match press conference, Anil Kumble spoke of only one team playing within the spirit of the game. In The Sydney Morning Herald, the late Peter Roebuck, not one to toe the establishment line, wrote: “In the past few days, (Ricky) Ponting has presided over a performance that dragged the game into the pits. He turned a group of professional cricketers into a pack of wild dogs.”
By then, the Indians were no shrinking violets themselves. And the bad blood with those in baggy green caps had been exacerbated by Greg Chappell’s contentious 20-month spell as coach of the Indian team, a stint that culminated in a shock first-round exit in the 2007 World Cup.
The One Day series between the two teams in India a few months later marked a nadir of sorts. Andrew Symonds had lit the fuse by questioning India’s enthusiastic celebration of the World Twenty20 title, and the crowds responded with blatantly racist behaviour. At the final One Day International in Mumbai, there were orchestrated “Monkey” chants in reference to his Afro-Caribbean heritage, with Harbhajan Singh also accused of having used the word during on-field exchanges.
The Indian Premier League, where Indian and Australian players became part of the same band of brothers, lowered temperatures somewhat, but provocation and reaction have seldom been far below the surface. Under Kohli’s leadership, India have not been shy of some chatter, and it was the aggressive outlook on the second day in Bengaluru—when Australia were kept to just 190 runs—that gave India a route back into the series.
After helping wrap up a famous victory on the fourth afternoon, Ravichandran Ashwin spoke of how India had been galvanized by Australian prattle during the first innings (India were skittled for 189) and how they were intent on fighting fire with flame-throwers of their own. “I told Matt Renshaw when he was batting in the first innings that if they didn’t score big, I would have them for soup and dessert,” he said.
The great irony is that so many of these hot spots have come from one team’s desire to be more like the other. When Ganguly took over as captain in 2000, Indian cricket was at one of its lowest ebbs. Poor travellers who were also considered soft touches, the national team faced a crisis of credibility. At the time, Waugh’s Australia ruled the roost, with their mental-disintegration tactics—relentless foul-mouthed abuse if you go by what Graeme Smith, former South African captain, and others have said—buttressing supreme skill.
It was Ganguly who lobbied hardest for Chappell, one from the tough-love school, to take over when John Wright’s tenure as coach ended. Back then, the “Australian way” was in fashion, the template to emulate. It didn’t work out as planned, though a generation of young Indian players, including Kohli, has undoubtedly benefited from regular summer trips to Australia to play against the best emerging cricketers from there.
Part of the Australian problem with Kohli is that he’s the man in the mirror, the one who most reminds them of themselves. Steve Waugh admitted as much towards the end of the series. “I always believed the way you carry yourself is important, that you give off positive vibes to each other and the opposition sort of sense that ‘this is a team that’s really together’,” he said.
“Virat Kohli certainly does that. His players play for him, which is a great sign for a captain.
“He’s the new face of India, he can get in your face, he’s aggressive, he’s positive, and he leads in a certain way so the other guys know how he wants the team to play.”
It made for a compelling series, and the latest incident-laden chapter in a rivalry quite unlike any other that Indian cricket has known.
Dileep Premachandran is editor-in-chief, Wisden India.