An India-Australia series is about cricket, there’s no baggage 

The symbol of supremacy in India-Australia Tests is held by the legends after whom it is named — Allan Border and Sunil Gavaskar. File

The symbol of supremacy in India-Australia Tests is held by the legends after whom it is named — Allan Border and Sunil Gavaskar. File
| Photo Credit: Reuters

It has always been different with Australia. There is a purity to India-Australia cricket that is missing from series against other teams. With others, from England to Pakistan, there is the baggage of politics, religion, ethnicity, or culture. With Australia, the focus has been the cricket; the game is not part of a larger narrative. Cricket has stood for itself and not as a vessel for other emotions and sentiments.

Australia were the first country Independent India toured, three months after the tricolour was raised. Decades before that, soldiers from the two countries fought on the same side in the first World War at Gallipoli and the Far East. As India’s coach Rahul Dravid pointed out in his superb Bradman Oration of 2011, “Before we were competitors, Indians and Australians were comrades.”

Gallipoli (in Turkey) might have been a disaster for the Allies, but as one historian put it, the national character of Australia and New Zealand were forged on its beaches.

‘India’s oldest cricket friend’

Melbourne-born all-rounder Frank Tarrant was called “India’s oldest cricket friend” by a London newspaper in the 1930s. Tarrant organized an Australian tour of India for the first time in 1935-36, having earlier helped prepare the Indian team for the inaugural home Test and series against England. He also umpired in the first two Tests. Jack Ryder, Don Bradman’s first captain, led on that first tour, a private one.

In an excellent biography of Tarrant, Australian writer and Indophile, Mike Coward has written, “Ambitious and driven, he foresaw that India was destined for greatness as a cricket nation and implored the authorities in Australia to open their minds to the inevitability of a paradigm shift in the cricket world.”

Coward also wrote a lyrical book on cricket in the subcontinent. Interestingly, two of the more interesting books on Indian cricket were also written by Australians. While Edward Docker’s History of Indian Cricket (published in 1976) focused on the politics, Richard Cashman’s The Phenomenon of Indian Cricket (1980) explored the cultural and sociological aspects of the game in India.

The great Duleepsinhji might not have played for India, but after his playing career, he served as the High Commisioner to Australia in 1950.

In the years when England sent less than their full first team to play in India, Australia had the courtesy to field their best team, thus making them popular tourists in a country which understood what this compliment meant. Allan Border, who shares the name of the trophy the teams contest for with Sunil Gavaskar, toured ten times between 1979 and 1989, leading the revival of Australian cricket with the World Cup win in 1987.

Intense competition

None of these connections has, of course, reduced the intensity of the competition between the two countries, which is as it should be. India have won half of the 20 Tests between the countries in the last decade, losing just five — a record that includes successive series wins in Australia. The last time India lost a home series to Australia was in 2004. Against that background, India must start favourites when the four-Test series commences in Nagpur on Thursday.

Except for the odd crack about pitches (former player Ian Healy believes Australia will win if India prepare “fair pitches”, thus insulting both teams in one go), the decibel level pre-bout has been somewhat low. This is surprising given that most teams, and especially Australia, like to get in a shot or three off-field before the start of a series.

Elaborate ploy?

The story of the faux-Ashwin, Mahesh Pithiya, has both entertained and impressed Indian fans. The resemblance the Baroda off spinner has to Ashwin in his build-up and release meant he became a part of the visitors’ preparations to meet the original, taker of 449 Test wickets, 89 of them Australian. Or it could be an elaborate Australian ploy to keep the focus away from an Indian bowler they have even more serious trouble against! Cricket is played as much in the head as on the field.

In recent years, some of the great museum-worthy cricketing art have been sculpted in an India-Australia series, which might be the biggest reason of all for the anticipation with which every series is welcomed. The batting of Virat Kohli and Steve Smith, the bowling of Nathan Lyon and Ashwin are already in that museum.

This series could see another generation add their creations to that list — Shubhman Gill, Cameron Green, Trevor Head, Kuldeep Yadav might be the artistes ready to do exactly that.

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