Ever since I started watching cricket, I always considered Pakistan as the only arch rival India had. But the scenario has changed to a big extent in recent years and now the one side I want to see India facing is Australia.
This change can be attributed to various reasons, like the poor form and lackluster performance by the Pakistan side (the last time they toured India, a journalist called their side consisting of carbon copies of originals), and to a big extent the controversies India-Australia series have witnessed in the recent times; well who can forget the famous “Monkey-gate row”.
It is not that India-Australia matches were as dead as a dodo earlier; I still remember the 1996 World Cup match in Wankhede Stadium where Sachin Tendulkar was stumped by Ian Healy on 90 off the bowling of Mark Waugh. It may have looked like just another dismissal of the Master Blaster but for me it was a dramatic scene from a Shakespearean play where Julius Caesar was stabbed
in the back by Brutus. What it (Sachin’s wicket) meant for Australia was clear once they started celebrating his wicket and indeed they won the match which was otherwise slipping out of their grip.
Two more instances that cut across my mind, came in the Titan Cup (a triangular series featuring India, Australia and South Africa) in 1996 where India had two close encounters with Aussies. India cruising to a close victory in the final over, bowled by captain Sachin Tendulkar, and Australia losing the match by just five runs.
But it was in the earlier match of the series where all the drama happened; Azharuddin given out leg before when he was not and Bangalore crowd going berserk and disrupting the match and then it was Jadeja running himself out after colliding with the bowler and Australia deciding not to call him back. India’s all hopes almost crashed when Sachin fell to a Steve Waugh delivery.
Call it mere coincidence or an appropriate end when India cruised to victory, courtesy a ninth wicket partnership between Kumble and Srinath with their moms cheering them from the stands and it was a Dussehara (I am not comparing Aussies to demons).
Since then I have not seen any controversy-free India-Australia series. Another important thing is the level of cricket between the two teams which has only gone up.
Though cricket is full of anecdotes and I am not short of them, in a flashback of the incidents that happened between these two teams in last one decade, I can just recall Shane Warne bowling in the rough to Sachin Tendulkar and Ian Healy chanting “bowling Shane” relentlessly, later Sachin thrashing Warne with his paddle sweeps and jumping out of his crease to loft him over his head to long on and hitting against the spin over midwicket boundary.
And who can forget Sachin’s two back-to-back centuries against Australia in Sharjah in April 1998. Though his 143 in a league may not have won India the match but ensured them a berth in the final of the triangular series, it is still considered one of his best innings in the ODI format. And his 134 in the final coincided with his birthday. The memories of his lofted sixes off Kasprowicz, Tom Moody and Shane Warne are still fresh in the minds of all cricket lovers.
While many would be thinking that it is an article more about Sachin, let me tell you, for a long time India-Australia series meant Sachin versus Australia. It is for everyone to see how Sachin’s best performances have come against Australia.
India’s tour to Australia in 1999-00 may have been a disastrous one with India’s challenge proving to be a damp squib, as they lost the series 3-0. The series also had its share of controversies with Sachin being given leg before wicket after being hit on the shoulder while ducking a McGrath delivery and later Tendulkar being awarded the Man of the Series award.
I can just recall the failure of the Indian batting line up and Sachin batting to avoid follow-on and India’s southpaw Sourav Ganguly getting out to part time bowler Greg Blewett. The only shining moment for India came in the Sydney Test when VVS Laxman scored 167 in a losing cause. But very few people knew that he would become a nemesis for Australians in times to come.
After Mark Taylor failed to conquer on Indian soil, it was the turn of his successor Steve Waugh, who came here in 2001 and called it his final frontier. The highlight of the series was but of course VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid’s partnership in the second Test at Eden Gardens. VVS Laxman’s 281 is till date considered the best inning by an Indian player. But the series also saw the emergence of Harbhajan Singh claiming 32 wickets in three Tests, prompting Aussies to name him ‘Turbanator’.
Again the series saw Aussies hurling verbal abuses at Indians. In the first Test, it was Michael Slater abusing Rahul Dravid after latter refused to leave the pitch. Later it was McGrath who used his verbal volleys on Sachin as he continued to drive him in the off side. Then in the Kolkata Test when Laxman and Dravid batted all day long, the Aussies started calling them ‘Mr Leavers’.
While in its last two tours to India, Australia won in 2004-05 against a depleted Indian side, though the series could have ended in a draw had it not rained on the final day of Chennai Test, while in their last outing Australia lost 2-0.
It was India’s tour to Australia in 2007-08 that raised the rivalry to a new level. The Harbhajan-Symonds verbal spat and again some controversial decisions were unforgettable instances of the series. Being called ‘racist’ by none other than Aussies proved to be bit too much for the nation. The emotions across the nation reached such a level that calls were made to leave the tour mid way and series being declared null and void.
However, cricket enthusiasts went overboard and started burning effigies of Aussie players and umpires which was uncalled for.
The Test series was completed and India surprised everyone by winning the one-day series, courtesy Sachin Tendulkar. India had left out Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid from the ODI squad and later, even Sehwag was dropped from the series.
It has been more than a decade since I have been following the India-Australia encounters closely. While many things have changed, one thing that has remained unaffected is Sachin Tendulkar.
It was in 1994 when the Little Master scored his maiden ODI century against the same opposition in Sri Lanka. Life has come to a full circle for Indian cricketing icon, remaining unaffected by age. The mainstay of Indian batting is till a class apart and is still winning matches single handedly.
Aussies who are out to avenge their defeat on the home turf from Indians in the CB series last year are also wary of the fact that the one player who stands between them and a series win is again going to be the Indian Batting Maestro.
But the two areas where Aussies were always two steps ahead of Indians were their fielding and fast bowling. On the other hand, Indians always relied upon their spin attack and strong batting line-up, which always faltered on fast and bouncy pitches. Indian team was high on skill and low on fitness and for Aussies it was more or less the other way around.
The new Indian youth brigade is a few notches up when it comes to fielding and overall fitness, but when it comes to skills they are novices to say the least. Getting filthy money from IPL, Champions League and TV commercials, the young guns don’t seem to bother even after losing their place in the side. Even mediocre players with poor commitment and poor skills make it to the national side. With conditions favouring the hosts, it is expected to be a close fought series and India’s complacency can prove to be their bane. If only Sachin can rub off his qualities on his teammates as well…
(The views expressed by the author are personal)