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The skinny guard at the steel-rimmed gates of the practice nets of the MA Chidambaram Stadium was furious at his colleagues manning the main gate, who had unsuspectingly let a few boys wander into the stadium to watch Australia practise. “Enna ninachitikre, ithu vanth Buchi Babu aa (What do you think, this is a Buchi Babu match?” he shouted. His elderly colleague, retorted, “Vida aiyya, inke vanth periya Waugh batting panreenkala (leave it, it’s not as if Steve Waugh is batting here)? As if the series-opener between India and Australia, on Sunday, is some kind of an immaterial, irrelevant fixture.
All this laxity, of course, changed when India trained later in the evening. The main-gate guards suddenly, as if flicking a switch, turned stringent, even shooing off a few overeager kids with a swish of their lathis. But all this sudden urgency lasted just an hour or so, before they again let their guard off, and the spectators began to hoard. By twilight, there was more than just a motley crowd, who, though, were unusually quiet, calmly soaking in the mild sea breeze and watching Virat Kohli and chums go about the nets, in an even more laid-back demeanour. The faithfuls seemed to accumulate out of a ritualistic obligation than a genuine sense of expectancy.
There was hardly any flutter or frenzy, as it generally preludes a series opener, especially when it’s between India and Australia, especially when followed barely four months after they were locked in an engrossingly-layered Test series. But none of the nervous suspense or edgy anticipation has brimmed over to the limited-over series. It’s as if a humdrum series is about to unravel — a kind of a dull stopgap-one without too much of a throbbing context, apart from of course the rankings. If Kohli’s team procure a whitewash, they can usurp South Africa and become the No. 1 ODI team in the world, but apart from this hierarchical embellishment — as also the rare distinction of being the No. 1 side in Tests and ODIs — the series is trembling without a central narrative thread.
India’s focus is perceptibly on the lengthy spell overseas, beginning with the South Africa series, from where would start the true validation of their Test-match mettle. Australia are clearly prioritising the Ashes later this year. Whatever fixtures that interlude those are mere perfunctory, merely calendar filling.
Though players of both sides have tried to drill in an artificial significance and incitement — the broadcasters have painfully conceptualised jaunty advertisements as well-there is an increasing fear that the series will meander into a tedious, sombre venture. It maybe an extension of the cynicism that has followed the most one-sided series India had played in over a decade, but it’s the most conspicuous theme.
Perhaps, the most discernible giveaway of this lack of context is that both sides are without several of their regulars, automatic choices who have put aside physical pain and familial problems otherwise. Ashwin’s afforded game-time in England, Shikhar Dhawan is tending his unwell wife. In other circumstances — say for example the Champions Trophy or in the build-up to it-they wouldn’t have granted such luxuries.
Neither would have sought it in the first place. Likewise, Australia are without Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and James Pattinson-all nursing minor niggles-with which they’ve played through, if the series commanded more stakes or significance. Even head coach Darren Lehmann sought a breather. Even the tireless Sudhir Gautam too was absent. Workload management has suddenly become the buzzword, with both coaches emphasising it several times.
A more striking signifier is the utter lack of the prematch taunts and instigations. Both teams, as if atoning for all the rancour that the series witnessed, were dramatically restrained. The observation was put forth to Rohit Sharma, and he embraced the platitudes. “The spirit of the game always needs to be there and there needs to be a line which needs to be drawn,” he said. He was merely lipping what Marcus Stoinis and Travis Head had emphasised the other. Rarely, ever has, an India-Australia series, or any series involving Australia, begun without verbal fireworks, thus making the build-up to the series slightly anomalous.
Now, it’s entirely up to the series to weave a context of it own and enliven it. A couple of close encounters — not necessarily gluttonous run-fests, which though the placid Chepauk strip foretells — could inject dynamism. Like it did in 2013 or 2009, both limited-over series but thrilling nonetheless, and remembered for not only close finishes but thrilling individual feats.
“People though the same about those series as well, but look close it turned out to be and how well remembered. People still talk about Tendulkar’s 175 in Hyderabad. So you can never say India-Australia series are without context. They make it’s own context,” observes former skipper Michael Clarke. Australia’s stand-in coach David Saker too endorses this view. “It can’t get bigger than an India-Australia series. It doesn’t matter which format they are playing or how good the teams are on the paper,” he belted out. But even his words seem more mechanical than spontaneous.
Not that the series doesn’t have any possibility of serving up nail-biting contests-both sides have quite a few remarkable characters, and those with equally susceptible temperament. But whatever drama that’s set to unfurl in the coming fortnight, it risks the fear of being soon forgotten. For the priorities of both sides seem elsewhere, despite their best efforts to mask it.
As the floodlights dimmed and the crowd filed out of the V Pattabiraman gate, the gatekeeper cribbed: “Ellame vetti match tha kidakre (Chepauk is getting all useless matches).” He was referring to the dead-rubber in England series and the series-opener on Sunday. Maybe, with lowered expectations, can there be hope of a stirring series. But without any context, the series faces the fate of an island in a stream.