The first Test I ever saw was in late 1964 when India played Australia at the Brabourne Stadium. I was not quite 9 but memories of that game are still vivid because India went on to win by two wickets in a nail-biting finish.
For some reason, I was an Aussie supporter then. My favourite player was Norman O’Neil, who was in the team for this Test but did not play because he was unwell. When Chandu Borde and Indrajitsinhji took the team to victory to a rapturous reception from a packed Brabourne, I was distraught. Seated in the Islam Gymkhana, I argued with my uncle that India had won only because Australia batted one wicket less in both innings. But the glum mood soon transformed when we walked across the ground to just below the CCI pavilion balcony where Tiger Pataudi and his team were greeting supporters. It was an electrifying moment, one that had me hooked to cricket for life. Since then, I have always been gripped by Tests between India and Australia.
Testing times: The India-Australia series may bring back the thrill in the game. Hindustan Times
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Despite a disastrous start when Lala Amarnath’s team lost all matches to Don Bradman’s Invincibles in the 1947-48 series, India have actually matched the Aussies better than most other teams and I could not fathom why there should be such long gaps for these two teams to play each other.
For instance, Australia toured India only thrice between 1959 and 1979. Even allowing for the fact that cricket tours were less frequent and the money meagre in those days, this seemed illogical. Stories of Australian players and officials disliking Indian hotels, dressing rooms and travel facilities abounded, which must seem ironical now, considering how many Aussies—players, coaches, support staff—currently have almost permanent residence in this country!
Be that as it may, beating India in India has remained the biggest challenge for Australian cricket teams and has produced some fascinating contests. The nerve-wracking tied Test (only the second in the history of cricket) in Chennai in 1986 was one such. I was reporting on the match and remember telling a fellow journalist that even if I retired then I could not miss much.
Fortunately, I did not take my own words, of giving up cricket writing, seriously. As it happened, less than 15 years later, the two teams were locked in a see-saw battle that many reckon to be the best Test match played in India, the Chennai tie notwithstanding.
Indeed, India’s ascent to the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) No. 1 Test ranking late last year could be traced to the epic Test against Australia at Kolkata in 2000-01. Having been thrashed in the first Test at Mumbai, Sourav Ganguly’s team looked in a hopeless situation when asked to follow-on by Steve Waugh, 274 runs behind. From there on began among the more sensational turnarounds in the game’s history.
The Indian team management had already booked seats on the flight out of Kolkata when Rahul Dravid and V. V. S. Laxman got together in a resurgent batting display. They batted for more than a day to put on 452 runs and now stand alongside Jai and Viru, the endearing bosom pals from the superhit Sholay, as the most cherished partnership in Indian folklore. Harbhajan Singh and Sachin Tendulkar then spun out Australia and a match that looked lost had been won.
The more significant aspect was that the series came in the wake of the match-fixing scandal which had rocked the sport some months earlier. Some of the biggest names—including from India and Australia—had been linked to the scam. Cricket stood on the precipice of terminal decline.
In many ways, a similar situation exists even today after the spot-fixing scam broke when Pakistan were touring England. Though no players from India, Australia or anywhere else have been named in this scam yet, the diabolical nature of the corruption has created the fear that the malaise may be widespread. Cricket needs a balm to soothe the tension and repair its sullied image.
Can the present India-Australia series provide this? The Kolkata Test of circa 2001, with all its melodrama and magnificent performances, had salvaged the situation a decade ago. The magic of cricket had prevailed over the all-pervasive cynicism. The mood was uplifted from despair to delight. Some such magic is needed to bring the focus back on cricket. There is also the matter of India retaining the No. 1 ranking. Australia, a wobbly No. 4 now, are eager to climb back. Can Dhoni and his team stave off this challenge? Can Ponting, in the evening of his career, swing around his own and his team’s reputation on Indian wickets?
This could be a series to savour.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.
Write to Ayaz at firstname.lastname@example.org