October 5, 2008

Nice to be here

It used to be a hardship posting. Now India has become the number one destination for Australian players


We're back: Ponting and Clarke at Jaipur airport © Getty Images
 

For two decades whenever Australian supporters thought of the most rewarding overseas destination outside of England, the West Indies was the only place discussed. Like much in the cricket world, the focus has switched swiftly to Asia, where India is now the exotic travel highlight.

In the Caribbean the players, somehow looking more rugged, sweated heavily on the field while the supporters' sunscreen bubbled on noses. The beaches and Bacardi added to the lure, and my cricket friends and I rue not being born ten years earlier so we could have travelled to the islands when the Frank Worrell Trophy was the battle, instead of the more predictable engagement in front of echoing stadiums it is now. With West Indies dominating the 1980s and early 90s, they always provided the most strenuous and emotional obstacles for Australia's teams under Allan Border and Mark Taylor. Now those problems come from India.

Over the past seven years Australia - and Australians - have got to know India a little more with every contest. In 2001 there was shock at the dramatic turnaround and the end of Australia's 16-strong winning streak. At home in 2003-04 we saw India were losing their severe weaknesses on tour, and even when they were beaten, like they were earlier this year, they were not afraid to look or growl or swear back at their aggressive hosts. When Australia went to India for a Test series in 2004 they conquered their final frontier, with Adam Gilchrist leading the team to the most draining victory he had experienced. The drought had been so long that Shane Warne was the only person in the squad who was alive the previous time Australia had won in the country.

I once asked Steve Waugh why Australia were unable to beat India for so long. "Probably because we haven't played there," he responded sharply. It is a justification the current players will not be able to use. In the 1980s West Indies seemed to visit Australia every summer; now it's India and Australia who are living on top of each other. Apart from in 2005, they have contested a Test or one-day series each year since 2003, and the Twenty20 leagues have also increased the familiarity, even if Australians often confuse the IPL and ICL acronyms. And slowly, through heated arguments and mediated lessons of understanding, the teams are becoming more accepting of the culture of their opponents.

India had trouble adjusting to life in Australia during their 2007-08 visit and this trip will be as tough for Australia. The heat, different pitches, fanatical exposure, and heaving crowds in the streets and at the grounds will mix with the match pressure created from so many men around the bat and the need for Ricky Ponting's men to prove they can cope with a team that is unrecognisable from last time.

In 2004 the players were so exhausted after two Tests they were given a mid-series mini-break to escape and recharge. More novel measures will be necessary during the four Tests in five weeks that will help define Ponting's evolving outfit. The results will be fascinating, particularly if Australia have entered the final stages of dominance.

I've been to India three times, but apart from a quick look at Azad Maidan in Mumbai, I've never seen a game there. I can't wait for the dosas and dal, the ear-throbbing crowds and constant, thundering appeals. Australia are vulnerable in a major series like they haven't been since Border stepped down.

The next five weeks will be a fabulous adventure, like it would have been to see West Indies in their Caribbean prime. "Ten years ago it was the tour to avoid," Waugh said of India in 2004, "now it's the one to go on." Four years later it's the same for supporters.

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo

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