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Post India-Australia, ‘Friendship’ talk continues into IPL

Rival captains from the bitterly contested India-Australia Test match in Dharamsala join hands to welcome Ben Stokes, another foe-turned friend

Steve Smith, Ben Stokes and Ajinkya Rahane at the RPS presser. (Photo: Abhinav Saha)

STEVE SMITH had a faint smile on his lips. With his hands placed firmly on his hips, the Australian captain was seen rubbing shoulders with England’s premier all-rounder Benjamin Stokes. Standing not far from him was Ajinkya Rahane, India’s middle-order batsman, the man who led India to an emphatic win against Australia in the recently concluded fourth and final Test match at Dharamsala. An Australian captain and a fiesty English all-rounder who have had run-ins with Rahane’s captain Virat Kohli — it was quite a surreal frame. On Thursday afternoon, the trio had descended at a plush hotel in the national capital to address the press, as part of their franchise, the Rising Pune Supergiant’s (RPS) curtain raiser ahead of the IPL season. They joked, exchanged greetings and looked fairly comfortable posing for the shutterbugs. The bonhomie between the three was fairly palpable. On the face of it, it looked surprising.

More so, if you consider the acrimony and the general undercurrent of rancour that was prevalent in the recently concluded four-match Test series between India and Australia. Yes, it was hard-fought. But it also had the fair share of sledging, and white-line fever. And not just with Kohli but with many Indians. During the second Test in Bengaluru, Ravichandran Ashwin, also in the Pune team, had said Smith’s decision to take help from the dressing room for a DRS review had reminded him of 10-year-olds who take help from coaches. This was just one of the several instances of “bad-blood” that had transpired between the two teams in the series.

MS Dhoni is very supportive, and we have exchanged a few texts, says Rising Pune Supergiant’s skipper Steve Smith

Ben Stokes, too, had got into an ugly on-field spat with Virat Kohli during England’s third Test in Mohali late last year. And, if the recent recent Ashes series is anything to by, they too have generally been pretty intense and high-octane battles. In fact, Stokes, the highest-paid player during this year’s auction, has got a special request from his captain Joe Root. He wants his deputy to come back from his IPL gig with a lowdown on the weakness in Steve Smith’s batting. The England captain believed this information will help them in great deal when they tour Down Under later this year for the Ashes duel. “I really don’t know how that’s going to happen…let’s see how it goes,” was how Stokes put it, which elicited chuckles from Smith.

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The IPL seems to have dissipated the underlying tensions between these players. Rahane, on his part, put things into perspective when he said: “I would like to stay in the present. Ground mein jo hota hain, who wahi pe rehna chahiye. Abhi, mera focus IPL hain. The Test series was hard fought, and full credit to Australia for playing so well. But I have played with him (Smith) in the past, so once again I want to reiterate that my focus will be to turn up and play well for my franchise.”
He, however, said he did not accept Steve Smith’s invitation for a beer after the series win in Dharamsala as he was busy celebrating the win with his own team-mates.“See, we had our own get-together in our dressing room after the series win, so I was busy there,” he added. The tenth season of the IPL begins in less than a week, and one of the things the league has done is to expand the list of life’s inherent inevitabilities. Over time, it has grown into something more than just a regular, run-of-the-mill T20 franchise-based league. Certain things, however, have not been inevitable. Like the bond that got forged between Harbhajan Singh and Andrew Symonds during the 2011 edition. Nobody would have thought the two would have patched up following the bitter ‘Monkeygate’ scandal that broke out during India’s tour to Australia in 2007-08. However, equations changed after they turned up for the Mumbai Indians three years after that row. And with a little help from Sachin Tendulkar, they forged an unlikely bond. “It’s all fine here,” Symonds had quipped, confirming the much-hyped truce between the two.

Are you still friends with Virat Kohli? That’s probably a question for Virat, says Steve Smith

Like Symonds, Smith, the newly appointed Rising Pune Supergiant’s captain, too seems to have “moved on” after the hard-fought Test series against India in which Australia went down 2-1. “The series is done and dusted, and India have outplayed us. It’s time to move on and focus on the IPL. At the moment, I am ready to take over as the captain of the RPS,” Smith offered. For starters, Smith has a pretty arduous task ahead of him. The Rising Pune Supergiant, finished in the penultimate spot in their debut season last year, with just five wins from 14 games.

The Dhoni factor

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Their subdued debut season prompted the team management to replace MS Dhoni with Steve Smith as the captain. The move had led to furore earlier this year, and the former India captain’s absence from the franchise’s first presser of the season, only added more fuel to the ongoing fire. Sanjiv Goenka, the owner of the franchise, quelled the talk by saying: “We begin our campaign on April 6 against Mumbai Indians, and Mahi will join us on April 3. He has been involved with us and has been constantly in touch with Steven Smith. Team selection mein bhi who hamara saath diya hain. So, everything is absolutely fine.”

Smith, on his part, believed his elevation as the team captain would in no way affect his relation with Dhoni. “MS has been very supportive, and we have exchanged a few texts. My being the captain does not in any way change my professional equation with him or anyone else,” Smith explained.

On paper, the Pune squad is brimming with talent, possessing a bevy of impressive domestic and international players. The challenge for Smith would be to channelise this talent into a string of consistent performances, something which they had lacked last year. Going forward, he will get ample help as this squad has as many as three other international captains at his disposal.

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“I have plenty of captains to talk to. It’s important to have a lot of opinions, but it can cloud your judgement. It’s best to remain as fair as possible,” Smith added. It won’t be a surprise to see Rahane’s amicable relationship with Smith; it would be interesting to see how Ashwin and Smith tango. “I have lot of respect for Smith but that was very surprising,” was how Ashwin reacted to the infamous DRS episode. That respect would be tested in the coming days.

IPL has been one of the greatest peacemaker in recent years and if it once again works its charm on cricketers who were hostile to each other until a few days ago, UN should perhaps consider sponsoring it for its peace efforts.

First published on: 31-03-2017 at 01:34:41 am
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