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Thursday, January 28, 2021

India vs Australia Tests 2020-21: An UnAustralian summer 

Dynamics of the India-Australia rivalry has changed with the ruthlessness associated with Baggy Green making way for softer and less formidable opponents

Written by Sandeep Dwivedi | Updated: December 17, 2020 8:06:34 am
India vs Australia, Adelaide TestIndia will play a da-night Test away from home for the first time at the Adelaide Oval from Thursday. (FILE)

In a break from a long-followed endearing tradition, India this time didn’t have to set the alarm to catch the first ball of a Test series Down Under. The 9.30 am IST start to the Day-Night Test in Adelaide denied Indian fans that undisturbed wee-hour tranquility that has historically heightened the anxious excitement about the unfolding of Round 1 in Australia.

This late-morning toss, regardless of the foreign surroundings, has the off-putting whiff of a home Test. The din and distractions of the office rush hour is unlikely to trigger that soothing Benaud-Lawry nostalgia. In a way, this un-Australian opening is apt for the changing times and altered dynamics of this storied rivalry.

Australia 2020 isn’t what it used to be and the blame can’t be solely pinned on the pink ball. Over the last decade or so, cricket has seen a cultural shift on the world’s sportiest continent, and this latest eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation provides an opportunity to check the changing face of the old foe.

All’s not well in this cricket paradise. The famed Aussie set-up, once the benchmark that the world aspired to emulate but miserably failed, is crumbling. The Baggy Green, the symbol of cricketing excellence for so long, does remain venerable but no longer comes with a factory-fitted halo.

The IPL-charged global power shift towards India, the near-bankruptcy of the pandemic-hit Australian board, the public burial of the once-celebrated ‘win at all costs’ motto after Sandpapergate, and India’s historic series win last time seems to have both softened and sobered cricket’s erstwhile superpower. They remain the top Test team but that famously formidable terrain seems rather tourist-friendly on this visit.

Unlike in the past, Australian administrators aren’t influential, their selectors can no longer afford to be ruthless and most noticeably, their cricketers are giving up on their long-held belief that sledging means toughness. Cricket Australia’s radical rebranding after the humiliating 2018 ball-tampering episode in Cape Town has had the biggest effect on player behaviour. Back in the day, the Australians took pride in mentally disintegrating their opponents. Talking like truckers was their weapon of choice.

In his shockingly revelatory biography Unguarded, England’s troubled batsman Jonathan Trott gives a deep insight into how the Aussies targeted the vulnerable. He recalls his meltdown when facing Mitchell Johnson and a traumatic outing that left him in tears. “I’ve played against Australia a lot. They are always like this when they’re in the game: cocky; loud; in your face. It’s when they’re losing, they go quiet and sulky. I’ve seen them quiet and sulky a lot. But there’s none of that today. They know they have something special in Johnson. And they know I’m struggling. They’re circled like hyenas round a dying zebra.”

During the infamous Monkeygate series, the late Peter Roebuck had put the blame on Ricky Ponting for turning “a group of professional cricketers into a pack of wild dogs”. Those were heady days, machismo and winning ugly was a celebrated attribute.

Under the shadow of the Table Mountain, when the broadcasting cameras captured Cameron Bancroft hiding a sandpaper in his briefs, Cricket Australia would see the light. Subsequently, after the storm subsided, the Australian board would co-produce a documentary titled A New Era for Australian Team. In one of the early episodes of this Amazon series, coach Justin Langer can be heard telling the boys: “There’s abuse and there’s banter. No more abuse. Plenty of talk, plenty of banter, but no more abuse.” Former England captain Mike Atherton, in his column, would label this a PR exercise. “For the benefit of the rest of the world, the famous Australian line has been redrawn,” he would write.

This ‘new line’ would change the Aussie character. They do sledge but are ultra-cautious. The on-pitch script is U/A now. It’s actually childish. The most famous exchange caught by the stump mic during the last Australia-India series was the one between Aussie captain Tim Paine and Rishabh Pant. Paine wanted to know if the young ’keeper was free to babysit as he planned to take his wife for a movie. Steve Waugh and Matthew Hayden would have died laughing.

This time around, the bonhomie has further intensified. All through the white-ball contest, skipper Aaron Finch would be all smiles while batting.

Between overs, he would chat up his IPL captain Virat Kohli or share a joke with wicketkeeper KL Rahul. Michael Clarke once alleged the Aussies ‘sucked up’ to Kohli to protect their IPL contracts. The next IPL is round the corner, RCB captain Kohli might be leaving but Mumbai Indians skipper Rohit Sharma will be on the way.

Read | Virat Kohli finds sledging ‘pointless’ but Tim Paine won’t take ‘backward step’ if need be

At the end of the limited-overs series, Finch would advise the Test squad not to provoke Kohli. “You don’t want him (Kohli) to get up and about in the contest. When he does, he can be ruthless on an opposition,” he said. They needn’t worry much; the only one with the old-school Australian temperament in this series will be on paternity leave after the first Test.

Toeing a new line

Even former Aussie cricketers are toeing the new line. The first Test is upon us and we haven’t heard that all-too-familiar 4-0 whitewash prediction from Glenn McGrath, and Shane Warne hasn’t talked up any youngsters.

The team news from the two dressing rooms has an element of irony, especially for those Indian fans who diligently sat through past debacles Down Under.

This time around, it is the Australians who are getting hit on their heads by Indian pacers in the lead-up to the Test series. More surprises: It is not the Indians, but the Australia who have a migraine over their openers. Additionally, the hosts are still not sure if their captain deserves a place in the side. This isn’t business as usual.

The stadium atmosphere too has changed. That Aussie pitches have gone dead is an old story. The tales of Thommo’s short- pitched ball flying over the ’keeper and crossing the boundary on one bounce in Perth are part of folklore now. So used to seeing spinners from both ends on slow-low pitches, the one big reason India woke up early to catch action from Australia was to see the ball sail past batsmen’s eyeline and the long slips cordon throwing their hands up. The afternoon start in Adelaide rules out that thrilling period of play.

The stands too have changed over the years. They’ve come a long way from the 1985 India vs Pakistan World Championship of Cricket final in Melbourne that saw the infamous banner that read ‘Taxi Drivers vs Tram Operators’.

Till very recently, the MCG had a notorious section. Bay 13 was known to make life hell for visiting fielders. They hurled beer cans and racist slurs on visitors. Indians have also been at the receiving end. That’s history now.  The other day at SCG during T20 games, a Bangalore guy proposed to a Sydney girl. And she said ‘yes’.

1st Test: Live on Sony Network: 9:30 am 

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