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A reassuring Australia-India rivalry to dull memories of a chaotic year

Given the challenges 2020 has thrown at everyone, it is refreshing just to talk about cricket again

Daniel Brettig
Daniel Brettig
At the end of a year blighted by Covid-19, Australia and India find themselves facing off at the same venue where they began their previous bout in 2018 - in the august surrounds of Adelaide Oval.
The reassuring sight of the old scoreboard and the Moreton Bay figs at the northern end of the ground provide a sense of continuity intrinsic to Test match cricket, and will be a striking background for the teams of Tim Paine and Virat Kohli in the first ever day/night Test for the Indian side away from home.
Yet there will be so much more to cherish about the meeting of two of cricket's most powerful nations than just about any other time they have crossed paths since beginning a pattern of almost constant contact 20 years ago. Not least the fact that the series is happening at all.
Without disregarding the enormously influential financial forces that have driven India and Australia to play no fewer than 12 Test series against each other since 1999 - the same number of encounters as Australia have had Ashes series against England over the same period - all participants and spectators will have had moments this year when they were not entirely sure the series would happen.
In the hard months of March, April and May, where the world was almost entirely without sport, there was plenty of time to ponder that grim possibility, and more recently the issues at hand were largely to do with obstacles to staging the series even as so much goodwill existed between Cricket Australia and the BCCI to make it happen. In a year when its leaders have faced pitched battles with state associations, state governments and rights-holding broadcasters, CA has been grateful that India's administrators and players never raised significant hassles about the tour.
Instead, the hurdles for CA's interim chief executive Nick Hockley and chairman Earl Eddings were largely to do with finding a port of entry for the charter plane carrying the touring team. From initial plans to land in Perth, the blueprint was shifted to Adelaide and then Brisbane before finally being scooped by Sydney, Canberra, the New South Wales government and the SCG Trust. Anxiety levels were never higher than during a lengthy and ultimately fruitless negotiation with the Queensland government.
Even after the Indians arrived, there was a chance the series would be turned on its head by a Covid outbreak in Adelaide. For a long time, Adelaide Oval had been slated to host at least one and possible two Tests, given the extended lockdown faced by Melbourne for most of the year that kept a cloud over Boxing Day until as late as October.
But the outbreak that forced a hard if brief lockdown in South Australia had contingencies flipping to start the Test series with a day/night Test at the MCG and then go on to play a more traditional game from December 26 onwards. All these permutations were at the forefront of the mind of Adelaide Oval's curator Damian Hough, who has reckoned with rock concerts and football fixture turnarounds in the past, but this year has prepared a Test match strip with a Christmas pageant rather than Sheffield Shield games as a lead-in.
"One thing we have learned with Covid is to be more in the present," Hough said. "We like to plan months in advance. We still had plans but had to live in the moment a little bit more," he said. "[A U2 concert last year] was a much bigger challenge than what we're going through this year. I never thought I'd see a Christmas pageant at the Adelaide Oval, so it's just a unique year.
"We're fortunate to be able to give Australia centre-wicket [training] on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, so that was our only preparation, and it seemed to go really well, the feedback was positive. We have got the recipe that seems to work ... we're just sticking to the game plan."
More than anything else, those centre-wicket sessions loom as a priceless competitive advantage for the members of the Australian squad who arrived earlier than those who played for Australia A against the Indians on a different surface at the SCG, something Paine had little hesitation in asserting.
"We've been really lucky to come to Adelaide early," he said. "We trained three nights in a row on the centre wicket at Adelaide Oval, which I think is going to be a huge advantage for our team. It's the hardest thing about the pink-ball Test; you normally get it once a year. Sometimes with a Shield game, this time without one. So you're learning pretty much on the job, in real time, when you walk out to the middle.
"To try to adjust to conditions that are just so foreign to us - with the lights on and a pink ball. So it is foreign. But we've managed to get three nights on the centre wicket at the Adelaide Oval, which has been terrific for our group - batters and bowlers - to get a sense of what it is like again. Re-jog your memory from last year - it's going to be a huge advantage for us come tomorrow."
Kohli's adjustment, having not even played in the SCG warm-up game, will be as critical as any other factor to the outcome in Adelaide. It will be heightened, too, by the fact that this is Kohli's only Test match for the series, making it still more of a one-off event before Ajinkya Rahane takes over as captain for the remaining three games.
With artillery such as Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc and Nathan Lyon, the Australians have enjoyed considerable success in dismissing Kohli early in each of the past two series. Get through that phase, though, and Kohli has proven he can hurt even this most vaunted of attacks.
"Everyone's got great plans of getting all the best players out don't they, but that's why they are the best, they can adapt, they can change with what you're doing, and Virat is certainly one of the best players if not the best player in the world," Paine said. "There's going to be a time in this, well actually there's only one Test so hopefully it doesn't, but when you play against players as good as Virat, at times they do get away from you, that's just the game.
"But certainly we've got plans in place that have worked ok against him in the past; hopefully they work early enough this week, but if not, yeah, we've got a couple of different plans. the great thing with our attack is they're all different, we've also got Nathan Lyon and now you throw in Greeny, we've got some different angles, some different speeds and obviously Nathan's spin as well as Marnus, so we've got lots of different options to throw at him if he was to get in and set."
There is something refreshing about tactical discussions and plans on the eve of a Test series, rather than those of Covid protocols, border restrictions and the financial shocks of the year to date. Paine, who appreciates his Test career more than most after coming within a phone call or two of retiring from cricket altogether in 2017, had no notion of "bubble fatigue" at this point in time, when asked whether such considerations might shorten what is left of his time at the summit of the game.
"Absolutely not. I'm loving it to be honest," Paine said. "I don't think this hub has been as strict as maybe the IPL or the one in England. I'm getting a great night's sleep; my kids are both at home - which is good in one way but I certainly miss them. But I'm sleeping better here and feel fresher here than I did at home, so hub life might actually make me play longer if anything."
You don't know what you've got until it's gone. If there has at times in recent years been a touch of fatigue about the frequency of meetings between India and Australia, the events of 2020 have ensured this latest chapter will be as vivid as any sporting contest can be when so many around the world remain cooped up by a pandemic.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig