Australia the country and the cricket team have held a special place in the minds of Indians of a certain age. That certain age happens to be roughly that of the people playing in this team. We grew up watching Australia dominate world cricket. Everything about Australian cricket - the glitz, the hard hits, the bounce on the pitches, the sunburnt venues, the zinc cream, the commentary, even the advertisements - was loved in India. People barely remember the 1987 World Cup, but 1992 they do in photographic detail. Kids wanted to be like Australia, play like them, win like them, look like them.
To the kids in the 1990s, Australia was not this isolated, remote country with some of the roughest terrain imaginable. Australia was the dream. Their way was the way to play. As much as the bats got heavier and bottom hands got lower with the rise of Sachin Tendulkar, kids began to walk up to bowl legspin to ape Shane Warne. Australia were the cool big brothers you wanted to be like, but who did not take you seriously because you were hardly good enough, hardly able to compete against the marauding side.
Then you went out of town for college and came back a little cool yourself. You became MS Dhoni cool. Dhoni didn't say anything himself but he gave his players free rein. He encouraged intelligent sledging. He asked his team to not celebrate beating Australia as if it was a big deal. That possibly annoyed Australia further.
Big brother couldn't handle it. He snarled at you. He tried to browbeat you. He turned nasty when you retaliated. Sometimes you crossed the line, sometimes big brother did. The cricket became feisty, though not always spectacular: India were nowhere closer to winning a Test in Australia, Australia not likelier to win one in India. It was still great drama. TV began to exploit it, highlighting the boorish behaviour in their promos.
Even in the aftermath of Phil Hughes' tragic death in 2014, these teams couldn't hold themselves back. In the first two Tests, two Indians and an Australian were booked for sledging and bad behaviour. If Australia believed sledging got them an advantage, they were now looking at a team that was more Australian than Australia in that regard. Except this time it was not the cool style of Dhoni. Instead, it was properly fiery under Virat Kohli, the king in waiting. It was like Australia's transition from the sophisticated mental disintegration used by Steve Waugh's side to the open aggression of Ricky Ponting's team.
Now was the time for Australia to feel victimised. They had to just live with it now. The kid brother was striking back, and he could. They were losing support all around. The world indulged in schadenfreude. Their former cricketers themselves were now Indophiles; IPL commentary was a great gig. On the flip side, Andrew Symonds, for one, was let down with the outcome of the Monkeygate saga. And India's refusal to play a day-night Test, or in Brisbane, on this tour has not gone down well either.
Until Cape Town happened, you actually dreaded the kind of behaviour that would have been on display this series. Australia's last visit to India was one of the ugliest and most acrimonious ever. You suspected David Warner and friends would have been waiting with a response come December 2018. The events from Cape Town have made Australia look at how they play and behave. They promise not to sledge. They want to turn a corner.
Like a living organism, the rivalry is ready to evolve again. The absence of Warner and Steven Smith will impact the quality of cricket but it could still be an entertaining series. Don't expect India to suddenly start behaving themselves because Australia have made the decision to do so. It can't be that easy. Australia can't unilaterally decide to put the genie back in. India will do what they believe is best for their cricket. They want cricketing credentials to live up to the word "rivalry". They want to finally win a series in Australia. They don't want to be clubbed with the sides that failed to knock out Australian sides weakened by the World Series Cricket exodus or the injury layoffs in 2003-04.
This series is also an opportunity for the rivalry to become more about cricket than ugliness. The absence of Smith and Warner has evened the scales of the cricketing contest out. It is crucial because, for all the bluster, the Test series have hardly been close between these two sides. The 2016-17 one in India was a refreshing change, but it was a rare event. Perhaps if India can win without resorting to sledging, even they might learn it is possible to do so without being ugly. An entertaining, close series without boorish behaviour might be just what this "rivalry" needs. Don't bank on it yet, though.