September 27, 2010

From hardship to hunger for success

Over the years, Australia's tours to India have changed in character: they've become more frequent, players have grown accustomed to the conditions, and the rivalry has intensified
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There was a time when an Australian tour of India was a rarity, a brief shower after seasons of drought. After Richie Benaud and Neil Harvey triumphed in India at the end of the Eisenhower era, it was another decade before their successors made a successful journey back across the Indian Ocean. Messrs Lawry, Chappell, McKenzie and Mallett won a hard-fought series, but it had its share of controversies, especially off the field, where Doug Walters was accused by India's reds of having a quarrel with the Vietcong.

Another 10 years would pass before a side without stars - who were busy being part of Kerry Packer's revolutionary caravan - came over and were easily beaten.

The likes of Greg Chappell and Dennis Lillee never played a Test in India, and it was quite an achievement when their unheralded successors came over in 1986 and drew a three-match series that included a memorable tie on the Coromandel coast.

By then, touring India had become less of a hardship and more of an adventure. The 1969 tourists once jeered their own manager after he thanked their hosts in Guwahati and hoped to be back soon. By the time Allan Border's men crisscrossed the subcontinent to win the World Cup in 1987, the players were more used to the unique rhythms of subcontinent life, less prone to lose focus over heat, dust or an upset tummy. It still took another decade for the Test side to return, though, and a heavy defeat in the Nayan Mongia Test of 1996 showed how much remained to be done if Australia were to become masters of all they surveyed.

These days, any talk of India and Australia tends to end up with a discussion of the epic 2001 series, but if anything, it was the crushing defeat in 1998 that forced Australia to rethink their India strategies. Thrashed in Chennai despite having taken a first-innings lead, and hammered out of sight in Kolkata - Sachin Tendulkar had scores of 155 not out, 79 and 177 in the series - it took an exceptional spell of swing bowling from Michael Kasprowicz in Bangalore to lend the scoreline some respectability. For an Australian team that had slowly and methodically ticked all the boxes on the road to greatness, it was a devastating blow, even if the absence through injury of Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie was a mitigating factor.

They had won three successive Ashes series in England, while the Waugh twins' defiance at Sabina Park had finally ended two decades of West Indian hegemony in 1995. More importantly, they had seen off the challenge of South Africa, with Steve Waugh and Greg Blewett imperious at the Wanderers, and Mark Waugh playing an innings for the ages in Port Elizabeth in 1997.

A few months after India, they would go to Pakistan and win there too. The set was complete, or nearly so. India remained unconquered, the final frontier for a side that Mark Taylor and Waugh led to greatness after the years of revival and consolidation under Border.

With neither side possessing imposing bowling strength, this should be a series dominated by the bat. For Australia, much as in 1986, this is a time to build up and look to the future. For India, this and the forthcoming series are a chance to consolidate the No.1 ranking

It's easy to forget how close they came to ending the jinx in 2001. A dazzling counterattack from Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden saw them romp home in Mumbai, and despite the dramatic defeat in Kolkata, it appeared to be business as usual in Chennai once Hayden found his range and started to hammer away like a blacksmith on an anvil.

At 340 for 3, it was Australia's Test to lose. Then Steve Waugh bizarrely handled the ball off Harbhajan Singh and the game changed. With the crowd suddenly rediscovering its voice, Australia were bowled out for 391 and India's batsmen, confidence sky-high after Kolkata, pushed forward ruthlessly. It was still a tense finish, though, with an unbelievable Mark Waugh catch to dismiss Laxman inducing an almighty stutter before Harbhajan, hero of the Indian Lazarus act with 32 wickets, steering one behind point for the winning runs.

McGrath, who lost kilos to dehydration on that final afternoon, and Gillespie bowled magnificently. They would have their retribution three years later, in a series where fortunes ebbed and flowed. Beaten easily in Bangalore, India were frustrated by rain on the final day in Chennai. There's no guarantee that they would have chased down a tricky target, but with Sehwag in resplendent form, it was the cricket lover who was the loser once the heavens opened.

Then came Nagpur and greenwicketitis. History records that it was India's heaviest defeat, by 342 runs, but six years on we still have no answers to why a pitch was prepared that so blatantly favoured the opposition's strengths. Gillespie, then bowling like the best in the world rather than the knackered Ashes misfit of the following year, took nine and India's unbeaten home record against Australia was history.

The controversy didn't end there. If Nagpur played into the pacemen's hands, the pitch at the Wankhede was so loaded in favour of spin that even Michael Clarke took 6 for 9. Australia should have won easily, but lost their nerve while chasing a miniscule target, as they had at both The Oval and Sydney nearly a decade earlier.

Given the excitement and drama of the three previous series, the one played in 2008 was a damp squib. Once India escaped with a draw in Bangalore, courtesy a doughty rearguard from Harbhajan and Zaheer Khan, it was pretty much one-way traffic. Delhi produced a high-scoring draw, but either side of it, India won handily in Mohali and Nagpur. That Brett Lee managed just eight wickets and that Cameron White, an object of some derision in the Indian changing room, was the only Australian slow bowler to feature in all four games, said plenty about Australia's travails, and whinges about Indian tactics in Nagpur, justified or not, spoke of a team that couldn't wait to head home.

Two years on, Australian cricket is still in a transitional phase. The bowling is far short of the standards set in the McGrath-Warne era, and a batting line-up with the inconsistent Marcus North at No. 6 no longer intimidates as it once did. Ricky Ponting appears to have left his best years behind him - mind you, people said the same of Tendulkar before his Indian summer - while the retirements of Hayden and Gilchrist have robbed the side of two of the biggest game-changers of the modern era.

What Australian cricket's relative decline has also done is allow India a glimpse at its own future. Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman won't be around forever, while Anil Kumble has already gone. Yuvraj Singh already appears to have been filed under the could've-been-a-contender category, while none of the young bowlers has strung together even two seasons of consistent achievement.

With neither side possessing imposing bowling strength, this should be a series dominated by the bat. For Australia, much as in 1986, this is a time to build up and look to the future. For India, this and the forthcoming series against New Zealand and South Africa are a chance to consolidate the No. 1 ranking before the inevitable period of decline that spares no team.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • dummy4fb on September 30, 2010, 6:13 GMT

    Interesting thoughts and for me the key point is at the end " Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman won't be around forever ".

    Cannot think of this situation but it is an eventuality and the sooner Indian cricket plans for this, the better. Of course, on current evidence, there seems to be very little of any transition plan.

  • dummy4fb on September 30, 2010, 5:54 GMT

    A very interesting look at the past, present and future and the key comment for me is one at the end - "Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman won't be around forever" - can't think of this happening.

    Very soon, Indian cricket will need to plan this transition but there seems to be little evidence of this happening.

  • bharatvishwa on September 29, 2010, 23:02 GMT

    There is no way aussies gonna win. Look at the batting line up India. Its will be 2-0 for sure. Hopefully aussies loses Ashes too. Definitely the English look better than at this point of time. I bet Ricky Ponting's misery with the bat and captaincy in India will continue.

  • Yorker_ToeCrusher on September 29, 2010, 18:00 GMT

    An India -Aus test series should be a five match series.This rivalry has produced some of the best games in the last 15 years and it has outdid the India-Pak rivalry from an Indian perspective.If test cricket has to survive these two teams must confront regularly home and away.There should be given absolute importance in selecting Test venues in India.Venues like Eden Garden,Chennai,and Bangalore should be given priority as these venues produces the best crowds.Crowd in places like Mohali are not yet mature enough to appreciate Test cricket,so they should be better server with the shorter forms.Its not easy to create tradition as it just happens and surely we are seing that in India-Australia rivalry.Thanks.

  • sivadubai on September 29, 2010, 10:36 GMT

    Dear warnerbasher,

    The Indian Team of 70's and 80's go with famous saying, Indian batting starts with Gavaskar and ends with Vishy - Opener to number 4. It was no wonder that the remaining 5 batsmen (Actually they were spin bowlers) who retired hurt or suggested to be retired hurt. I would not agree that Team of 70's and 80's were weaker and the 90's and 00's are stronger. Still I would go with Sharath's perfect post, West Indian team of the eighties were the greatest team till date and that's why Sunny Gavaskar, vishy, Jimmy were always better batsmen of the fast bowlers as compared to any other teams.

  • warnerbasher on September 29, 2010, 6:07 GMT

    Sharath to be fair the Indian teams of the late 90's and 2000's were far more talented and made of sterner stuff than those Indian teams of the 70's and 80's. I remember one game during the 70's against the West Indies the Indians had 5 players absent hurt during a 2nd innings. It was later suggested that a majority of those 5 players were not injured at all just scared. Enjoy your number 1 status while you can because hard days are coming for Indian cricket with the retirement of your senior players

  • Yorker_ToeCrusher on September 28, 2010, 16:01 GMT

    @Doogius : Mate, who is pushing you to watch the seires?Fans in india are full-time fans,not part timers. We not only watch indian games,but also follow all other cricket around the world,even if its a substandard australian domestic class A match.

  • pradeep235 on September 28, 2010, 12:23 GMT

    India will win 1-0. GO INDIA GO

  • TheBigFatFlapjack on September 28, 2010, 6:59 GMT

    mr dileep premachandran's article was a thinly-veiled assertion that India are going to trounce australia; possible mate, given indiaus home advantage, but the rest of us know it as nit gonna happen

  • forzaps on September 28, 2010, 1:36 GMT

    I have a bad feeling about this series. We always seem to lose the first test and catch up later, this is just a two test series. I don't understand why they gave the first test to Mohali. The pitch doesn't favor us and crowd support is usually pretty poor. I hope my gut feel is off though.

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