Fiercer than the Ashes

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Our first sight of a Test match between India and Australia was in October 1956, watching wide-eyed as Lindwall and Benaud overwhelmed us. The last time we saw India play Australia, Tendulkar dismantled an Australian fast bowler hurling down deliveries at over 140 km per hour in February 2013. Between these two series, the India-Australia rivalry had grown to become the most fiercely contested bilateral series in world cricket.

In 1960, when Benaud’s team played against Ramchand’s India, the gulf between the world’s best Test side and an aspiring cricket-crazy nation was still so vast that a win in Kanpur in that series was called a ‘miracle’. The venerable Hindu even featured this on their front page. To the multitudes who thronged the stadium at the time, it was enough if India competed. To see Lindwall’s divine bowling action, admire Neil Harvey unfurl his cover drive or watch skipper Benaud bustling around, was for Indian spectators indescribably thrilling. And when we were beaten, we accepted it and waited for the next series.19591225_01-1

The Hindu’s sports page the day after the 1960 victory in the Kanpur Test

But when Tendulkar smashed Pattinson for three boundaries in an over at Chepauk five decades later, it was nothing more than what the crowds expected. In every sense of the word, India was different; a rising confident nation. In the sporting arena, India now met its opponents eyeball to eyeball, chin to chin. The confrontations between the two teams have been spectacular — be it the near-walkout by Gavaskar in the infamous Melbourne Test in 1981, the near-physical confrontations in the tied Test at Chennai in 1986, or the boiling cauldron of Sydney in 2008. At home, India was expected to win. Despite all the aggro that is first nature to the Aussie cricketer, they now had no hesitation in admitting that playing India in India was an international cricketer’s toughest assignment.

Was this development of the Indian team a nice, linear, upward curve? Or were there defining moments that determined this change in confidence? When we asked a dozen friends – keen cricket enthusiasts — to name important inflection points in India’s Test cricket history, they all agreed upon three key moments: India’s twin victories overseas in 1971; the World Cup victory in 1983 and the Kolkata win against Australia in 2001.
Among India-Australia contests, the 2001 home series became the watershed. Steve Waugh with the swagger of the undefeated called it a ‘final frontier’ but came a cropper. After Bradman’s invincible Aussies of the 1940s, no Australian team was as powerful: this team had Hayden, Langer, Gilchrist, Ponting, Waugh, Warne and McGrath.

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Yet, in series after series, even this redoubtable combination found it impossible to conquer the once-in-a-lifetime phalanx of Sehwag, Dravid, Ganguly, Laxman, Tendulkar, Dhoni, Kumble, Harbhajan and Zaheer. Since then, Australia have approached every series against India, both at home and in India, as their sternest test.

The fierce battles between these two nations between 2001 and 2010 seemed to have become a distant memory as both countries went through a troubling transition after their legendary cricketers retired. Both felt the vacuum and slipped down the rankings. But so strong is the inherent structure and talent in both countries that only a few years later, both are on the upswing, again straining at the leash, again pitted against each other as the two top-ranked Test nations.

As we ready ourselves for what will surely be another riveting India–Australia Test series, one recognizes that Australia has always sent its best teams to India. No wonder Indian crowds have received Lindwall, Miller, Harvey, Davidson, Benaud, Simpson and others warmly. They played attractive cricket, their batsmen like Harvey would use their feet to our spinners, while their bowlers were such a thrilling sight — unlike England, whose best players such as Hutton, Compton or Trueman never deigned to visit India and the ones who did played pedestrian cricket.

Perhaps that is why Indian fans have so many more memories and images from Australian visits: Davidson’s classical left arm swing; Pataudi and team waving to crowds from the CCI pavilion after beating Australia in October 1964; Tendulkar dismantling Shane Warne in four hours of genius in 1998; the Laxman-Dravid–Harbhajan saga at Kolkata, and Mohali, where we were biting nails and on the edge of our seats while Laxman serenely conjured an unbelievable one wicket win. Just last month, reminiscing with Dhoni, his face lit up as he recalled the win.

India v Aust X.jpgLaxman and Dravid, India’s greatest warriors against Australia

The only regret is that Indian fans never saw Lillee and Thomson bowl to Gavaskar and Viswanath in India, because the Aussies did not tour India in the 70s. Then there were the captains – the charismatic Benaud, the stylish Pataudi, a dour Lawry, the bustling Mark Taylor, an inscrutable Steve Waugh and a frowning Ponting. But above all, Sourav Ganguly. Appointed captain when India was hurting after the match fixing scandal, Ganguly forged a proud band of cricketers who were also marvellous ambassadors of the game.

As Kohli and his men prepare to conquer newer summits, they could do no better than look at these wonderful men for inspiration. An India – Australia test series is now the most awaited international event in the cricket calendar. Fiercer than the Ashes? That is no hyperbole.

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S. Giridhar & V.J. Raghunath are authors of From Mumbai to Durban: India’s Greatest Tests. Get the book here: https://goo.gl/wyNZoP

 

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