Rarely has an Australian summer of cricket started without the beating of drums. The era of World Series Cricket perhaps, when those not recruited by Kerry Packer were fed to the English lions; Allan Border's first foray into captaincy maybe, so soon after Kim Hughes' emotional resignation and the raid that followed on the Sheffield Shield by the South African administrators. But that's about it, at least during this modern age of commercialism. Mind you, even Packer might be surprised by the soulless marketing speak that has turned bat and ball into product, revenue and return during the dozen years or so since he moved on.
After 40 years of Channel Nine, for so long Packer's network, the job of broadcasting and selling the game on television has now fallen to Fox Sports and Channel 7. They have big boots to fill and a demanding audience to satisfy. Cricket matters in Australia, more than can be easily understood from afar. Not that it is complicated. To Australians, cricket is identity, national identity. Treat it well and you will be kindly received; mess with it and the consequences are dire - ask Messrs Smith, Warner and Bancroft.
Next Thursday morning, Virat Kohli's Indian team will begin a Test series that it could well win. As the cameras roll in the hour before play, so Fox and 7 will run features that show young and smiling sunscreen-slapped faces batting, bowling and catching on beaches and in backyards, with barbecues firing up around them and picture-perfect parents revelling in the unparalleled Australian lifestyle. It is a wonderful country to live, to work and to play in. Summer is cricket and cricket is summer; from this enthusiasm for the game comes responsibility. The high-profile players dare not betray the past or disengage the present. Thus, shorn of the two best batsmen in the land, this Australian team must find something from deep within if they are hold off their opponents and win back the affection of their own. Sandpapergate was a shocker, but it has gone; an action-packed regeneration programme is in place, and now all eyes that have focused on events off the field will turn to those who walk on it at Adelaide Oval come the 6th of December.
If the Australian players need an example of the passion and excellence that set one cricketer apart from another, they should look no further than the Indian captain. Kohli is bold, Kohli is brilliant, but above all Kohli is committed. The love of his country and of the game he plays so well oozes from every pore; the motivation with which he drives himself and exhorts his players to greater lengths is written across his face; the desperate manner in which he chases success beats from the heart on his sleeve. In short - and as they like to say in Australia - he leaves nothing out there. His joy at the winning runs thumped over wide mid-on at the Sydney Cricket Ground on Sunday night was a lesson in itself. Cricket matters to Kohli, and in more ways than one, he cannot afford for it not to.
"Cricket with edge is a whole lot more appealing than cricket without it. It is a game whose history is littered with confrontation, simply because one player is pitted directly against another in all but physical combat"
The example set by the Indian captain is the way forward for Tim Paine's team. Whatever they may or may not achieve, the Australian players must be seen to care and to commit. Weak cricket will be punished by India, questionable attitude will be pursued by the fans, and anything short of maximum application will be hammered by the media. After a winter of discontent, Australia don't so much need a summer of success as they need a satisfactory run of performances that remind the public of the sheer joy of a game played hard and fairly won or lost. Neither must the players become pussycats. Cricket with edge is a whole lot more appealing than cricket without it. It is a game whose history is littered with confrontation, simply because one player is pitted directly against another in all but physical combat. It is inconceivable that such head-to-heads will end with both parties neat, tidy and beyond reproach. But they must end with kindness to one another, for, if nothing else, the long-held spirit of cricket is driven almost entirely by the respect each player has for both the game and his opponent.
Paine has certainly calmed the waters and knows well that he has inherited a bowling attack good enough to beat anyone in Australian conditions. What the rest of his men must do is find a way to give those bowlers something substantial to work with. On paper - and we know they don't play on paper - this could be the weakest Australian batting team since, maybe even including, the group gathered to take on England during the second summer of World Series Cricket 40 years ago. From the embers of that 5-1 defeat came Kim Hughes and Allan Border, two of Australia's finest. There is nothing to say that the responsibility forced upon Usman Khawaja and Shaun Marsh, the opportunity given to Marcus Harris and the faith shown in Travis Head won't result in the emergence of a player or two fit to do more than just lace the boots of Steve Smith and David Warner when, if, they both return to the side.
Khawaja is a no-brainer: a genuinely gifted batsman with time to play all-comers, and who has enough serious innings under his belt to suggest a player on the cusp of real Test-match quality. Marsh is a strange one, a cricketer who lurches from hundreds made with ease and grace to one who flatters to deceive us all. Well, not quite all, for he has Justin Langer firmly in his camp - a good ally right now.
India have not travelled as well as either coach or captain had hoped. Ravi Shastri speaks in gruff tones about his disenchantment with the pitches in South Africa earlier this year - not that he complains they were so difficult (which two out of three certainly were) but that at the Wanderers in particular, it was India who were happy to play on after suggestions the pitch was so bad the match should have been abandoned. He also feels that his boys were no more than a squeak away from getting the better of England in the recently past northern-hemisphere summer, but if truth be told, England played the more adventurous and rewarding cricket when the situations demanded it.
Most teams that play India away from home work from the mantra "Get Kohli, get the game." England won without getting Kohli as often as they had hoped, but both the fast and slow bowlers moved the ball in the air and off the pitch - a state of affairs poorly handled by all the Indian batsmen bar the captain. That, then, should be the aim of the Australian bowlers: to move the ball.
Usually Australian Test series begin at the Gabba; a fortress if ever there was one. The main reason for this is the extra bounce in the pitch that intimidates many a touring batsman. It is generally easier to adjust from high bounce to low bounce than it is from low to high, but India must not assume that adjustment will be any easier at Adelaide Oval, where the pitch has notably picked up in pace.
Four years ago Kohli made hundreds in both innings of the corresponding fixture, almost heaving India over the line in a fine match that marked the passing of Phillip Hughes with emotional ceremony and animated reaction to each defining moment. That pitch offered most to the spinners - Nathan Lyon took 12 wickets - but India will find a thicker mat of grass on the well bedded drop-in surface that is the result of a magnificent redevelopment at what is now one of the world's very best multipurpose sporting venues. For India to win, Kohli will have to make runs again, but not alone, and the Indian seam attack must fire as it did in England. Quite how Kohli keeps churning them out is anyone's guess: hunger, one supposes, and pride. He is the very model of a modern batsman when he needs to be and the very best example of an ancient art when that skill is required too. There is no one quite like him. The only pity is that Steve Smith is not in situ for a shootout.
For my part, 15 wonderful years working on Australian cricket with Channel Nine have come to an end. It has been the greatest privilege and the most fun. I shall watch from afar with a keen eye and, doubtless, wistfully think back to my Benaud, Lawry, Chappell and Greig long ago. Their commentary captured the game in all its detail and glory, and their love of it inspired audiences to call it the soundtrack of summer. Those of us lucky enough to follow relished the opportunity and did our very best to honour the game and the legacy of the two good men who passed away. Richie Benaud and Tony Greig were the game's closest friends and its greatest admirers.
I shall miss the rhythm of the Australian summer: the vast arenas that echo to the tune of the bat and ball; the aggressive, attacking brand of cricket that is in the DNA of Australian cricketers at all levels; the crowds that delight in the success of fine strokeplay, extreme speed and wicked spin; and the unbridled nationwide affection for the sport that got me at hello too many years ago to mention. As a boy, my dream was to travel to Australia and see it all for myself. He is a lucky man whose dreams are so fulfilled.