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New plots breathe life into old rivalry

With the World T20 around the corner, one may ponder on the relevance of the bilateral ODIs between India and Australia, but there are plenty of factors to keep fans interested

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
Ishant Sharma looks dejected after giving away 30 runs in an over,  India v Australia, 3rd ODI, Mohali, October 19, 2013

The spectre of Ishant Sharma's 30-run over to James Faulkner in India's last bilateral series against Australia could add to the rivalry in the upcoming matches  •  BCCI

"For me, when you talk about bilateral series, Tests are what matters. No one remembers these ODI and T20I bilateral series. In those formats, it is the World Cups that matter."
Possibly India's team director Ravi Shastri was trying to deflect the attention off the ODI series India lost (to South Africa and Bangladesh) and retaining memories of events where they did well (Test series against Sri Lanka and South Africa, and a semi-final position in the World Cup) when he said this to the Indian cricket board's website in December. There is still, however, a grain of unwitting truth to his words. Shastri is there in Australia, the venue where India played a "meaningless" tri-series last year without winning a match, as India take the hosts on in a five-ODI series to be followed by three T20 internationals. At a time when the World Twenty20 is around, one can see the context in the T20s, but why should one care for a bilateral ODI series that, in Shastri's words, "no one remembers"?
There is dual interest, though. In the new world order, India have replaced Sri Lanka as their dial-an-opposition with Australia. There was a time in the late 2000s and early 2010s when hardly a season would go without India facing Sri Lanka in bilateral ODI series or tri-series that "no one remembers". Now they have split their bilateral engagement of Australia into Tests and limited-overs over separate tours, which means hardly a year goes by when either of these teams is not spending at least a month in the other country. By the end of this tour, India will have faced Australia in 38 internationals since December 2011, 13 more than the next most common opposition for them.
India's frequent visits to Australia - this is Rohit Sharma's fourth tour to Australia, as many as Rahul Dravid managed through his career - mean that the administration of Australian cricket looks at them as it did at West Indies in the 1980s. West Indies back then were the biggest entertainers, and much to their chagrin the Australian batsmen would find themselves facing up to the most menacing fast bowlers every year.
India are hardly as successful as that West Indies side, but they are arguably a bigger commercial draw: 4000 people turned up for a warm-up Twenty20 against a second XI of Western Australia on a Perth weeknight last week. They have played in two tri-series and the World Cup since their 2007-08 trip, and have beaten Australia only twice - in an ODI and in a Twenty20 - but they have made sure Cricket Australia is reporting a profit from the international summer despite little commercial interest in the visits of New Zealand and West Indies earlier in the summer. Of particular interest will be the attendance for the Melbourne ODI after 80,000 turned up for the BBL derby clash.
These bilateral series also have a way of coming to life once the matches begin. Narrative develops, rivalries bloom, sledging happens. The last time these two sides played each other in bilateral ODIs, no target was safe yet Mitchell Johnson would get Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina just by turning up. These three characters won't be playing this series, James Faulkner and Ishant Sharma will. Don't worry about the buzz, there will be more than a hum when the rejuvenated Ishant bowls to the Man of the World Cup final after Faulkner took 30 off an Ishant over in the previous ODI series between these sides.
Don't try telling Virat Kohli or MS Dhoni either that there is no context to this series. Kohli, who scored four Test hundreds on the last trip to Australia but averages 15 in ODIs in Australia against Australia, was asked before he left if he was eager to go. "I am all suited up. The shoes are shining. Can't wait to get on the flight."
Dhoni is definitely in the last quarter of his career. He is not a big training man, but he has spent the two-month break he got by the virtue of the Test retirement "toning" himself down through proper training and playing badminton. Watching him operate of late has been fascinating: the shots are not all there but his presence of mind has kept him in the hunt, and the wicketkeeping to spin remains as amazing as ever. Every now and then the old Dhoni threatens to come out of the shell, but the truth that others have caught up quells that Dhoni. He has felt the pressure of late, having led India to those two ODI series defeats, ones that the team director wishes to write off. He will take every opportunity to show he doesn't need such spurious defence of his team. He has put in all the hard work to prepare for this series. To perhaps lead one final regeneration in Indian cricket.
Regeneration means new faces. Quicks Scott Boland and Joel Paris have already been told they are debuting in Perth. Barinder Sran and Gurkeerat Mann will surely make their India debuts over the series. Manish Pandey, all of 26, will get a shot at personal regeneration after having been left aside after just one ODI and two T20Is. It is often during such series missing conventional context that the future greats take their first steps.
Here's to big crowds, great debuts, a comeback or two, and most importantly a contest from India.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo