Venkat Ananth

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India-versus-Australia: A story in search of a narrator

On the morning of the fifth day of the second India-Australia Test in Bangalore, I woke to an interesting comment piece in the Hindustan Times. In it, my former colleague Anand Vasu argued that qualitatively speaking, India and Australia over the past decade have consistently served up the best of Test cricket.

 

I agree, wholeheartedly, and would even go on to say that the contests between the two teams have, over the years, graduated from being one more bilateral engagement on the international calendar, to becoming one of the most important rivalries in the modern cricketing discourse. I am, however, tempted to push the envelope a bit, expand the narrative if you will, and talk how we can work to take this to the next level - a dialogue that involves not just building the rivalry, but sustaining it over a period of time.

 

Sporting rivalries are built upon, or emerge through, different complimentary or often conflicting narratives over a period of time. In football, geography and the "neighbourhood" club plays an important role in defining a local "derby" in the smallest of places across Europe. Add a tinge of socio-political factors and history to the mix, and you get epic rivalries like Barcelona-Real Madrid, which initially had nationalistic overtones attached to it. Phil Ball, in "Morbo: The story of Spanish football", writes that the epic contests between the two teams was "re-enactment of the Spanish Civil War."

 

Then you have the personality-driven clashes that have quite spontaneously created fierce rivalries - look no further than English football, where the battle of minds and wills between Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson spilled over to the fans and the players with the result that from the late 90s to date, there is that bit of an extra edge around a Manchester United-Arsenal game.

 

Other rivalries are born out of success-driven jealousy, the very primal desire to knock a dominant sporting force out of their "f*cking perch", as Sir Alex said of Liverpool. And lastly, adverse political and diplomatic ties, often layered with the baggage of history, explain the adrenalin-pumping rivalries between India and Pakistan, or Algeria and Egypt, or Turkey and Armenia, whenever these nations meet on the field of sport; the main difference in such nationalistic rivalries being that it is sport-agnostic, and fuels encounters between these nations across disciplines.

 

Narrowing the prism to cricket, it is tempting to talk of two broad categories of rivalries, as we know them today. In the ‘conventional' category falls the likes of the Ashes fought between England and Australia - thanks to history, context and ongoing narrative, the marquee event on the cricket calendars of both nations. Then there are the "non-conventional" rivalries, which often spring from  evolving sporting narratives - as for instance those involving the West Indies teams of the 80s, who in many a sociologist's thesis represented "black pride", and thus enabled the white-versus-black meta-narrative whenever the teams led successively by Clive Lloyd and Vivian Richards took the field. Another example is the racism discourse that drove Asian cricket through the 90s - the quintessential "us browns vs them whites" storyline that added an edge to any contest involving teams from the sub-continent playing one of the ‘white' nations.

 

The Australian domination, spreading over the better part of two decades, provided the cricketing analog of Sir Alex's "knocking them off their f*cking perch", with the likes of South Africa and India in particular managing to take this desire-driven motivation to the next level, thereby ushering in two high-profile cricketing rivalries to cherish. To add seasoning to the mix, you had the sub-text of Steve Waugh's "final-frontier", coupled with India's overwhelming desire to improve their track-record in Australia. All of this has, over the past decade, given India its first genuinely cricket-powered rivalry, in the sense of a contest the intensity of which doesn't rely on the baggage of history. India versus Australia has become, as Vasu aptly said, a rivalry where cricketing excellence and the desire to be king of the castle is the overarching, dominant plot.

 

Important though this rivalry is, and much as we would like for it to be the dominant narrative in the cricket ecosystem, I don't however agree with Vasu's thesis that India-Australia overshadows the Ashes. England versus Australia has over the years loomed large over the collective cricketing discourse - largely because it comes wrapped in history and emotion. In pure cricketing terms, we are on good grounds to complain that the on-field action has rarely lived up to the larger narrative, with Ashes series ending in gross mismatch and farcical scorelines. That said, I'd go back to those two words: history, and emotion. The Ashes of 2005 was played against a context where cricket as a sport was battling for relevance in England, a time when the sport needed an icon to peg its appeal on. And bang on cue, along came Andrew Freddie Flintoff.

 

That epic contest, rife with triumph and tragedy and dominated by a larger than life superhero, provided renewed fuel to the rivalry. I was in London at the time, and could sense through the whole of 2008 the genuine anticipation of Ashes 2009. That is the thing a top-level narrative does for a sport - it provides buzz even when the sporting action is in the relatively distant future, and thus keeps the sport as a whole alive and in the forefront of public consciousness. Replicating that in India, in context of serial contests against Australia, is the administrative challenge I'll come back to a bit later in the program - for now, I'll point out that the eager anticipation surrounding an impending Ashes series is what defines it as an uber-contest, one that dominates the national mood through a summer, and provides an energy that is then channeled by the 22 men who take the field. To supercharge it further, there is the epic symbolism of the urn the two nations fight for - metaphorically, the very soul of English cricket as contained in that urn.

 

So all-encompassing is that narrative that even as Australia stumbled to defeat against India yesterday in Bangalore, proving itself less than dominant with both bat and ball, the conversation was not about this next milestone in the India-Australia narrative [an unprecedented whitewash of a team that is used to being on the giving, not receiving, end of such sweeps], but of what the Australian defeat meant in terms of the upcoming Ashes series. This question has fuelled the discourse in the Australian media, with experts pontificating on what Australia's performance meant against the context of England's marked emergence in recent times as a team in the real sense of the word, not 11 no-hopers embarking on the cricketing equivalent of Don Quixote's tilt at windmills.

 

That is the direction I would like to see the India-Australia rivalry take, moving forward - to be a true rival to the Ashes, bilateral series between India and Australia has to not just dominate the consciousness when it is on, but form an integral part of cricket's meta-narrative even when the two nations are not on the field. To their credit, players of both sides are increasingly alive to the possibilities, and have over the years produced levels of play worthy of a top-class rivalry.

 

Unfortunately - but not surprisingly - the players and even the fans of both sides have been let down by administrators on both sides. Consider this: a two-Test series is what you schedule for minnows; a gesture by a top cricketing nation to one on the lowest rung of the ladder, permitting it a taste the feel of playing at the highest level, like a sampler menu in a restaurant. Two-Test series, though, are what you do NOT schedule between two nations seeking to set themselves up for an epic rivalry - for that narrative to truly emerge, you need at least three Tests, optimally five [imagine an Ashes series played over two Tests, to understand the ridiculousness of the India-Australia scenario].

 

To schedule 5-Test series worthy of this rivalry, however, involves careful pre-planning and long term scheduling, to ensure that over a four-year period the two teams will meet home and away to continue and enhance the storyline. Related, as Bollywood's honchos will tell you, it is no longer merely enough to have a story and some fine actors - in the modern world, you need to spend at least as much time, effort and money on marketing, on buzz-creation. And finally, as the packed houses in Bangalore over five days showed, the fans are alive to the potential of this rivalry, and will come in their thousands - but to capitalize on this, it is necessary for the authorities to provide fitting arenas for epic contests, to schedule Tests at venues that have tradition and history when it comes to Test cricket, rather than allot such games to second-tier venues that might get you votes in the next election, but which will fail miserably to put butts in seats [think Mohali, where the two teams played out a top flight game against the backdrop of empty galleries].

 

Careful scheduling this is imperative. Sure, commerce is important - but I would submit that a great rivalry is a powerful engine of commerce, and thus it is in the interests of administrators on both sides to build up India-Australia contests to epic proportions, to plan them carefully and well in advance [remember that the two-Test series just ended was shoe-horned at the last minute into what was originally billed as a seven one-day series]. Consider, again, the Ashes - there is scheduling, there is buzz, there is history and emotion. And that in turn produces full houses, intense commercial interest, and a huge fillip to the game overall.

 

The other day, someone asked me if we need rivalries at all, in the first place. My response, then and now, is that there is a case to be made for it, especially against nations like England, South Africa and Australia, simply because India has now broken into a league that, through its sheer quality, promises top-class Test cricket. Bangalore proved that the "Test cricket is dying" narrative is erroneous, one crafted by an administration unwilling to think beyond the cheap and easy monetization options provided by the two shorter forms of the game. However, Test cricket will die, if we do not seize opportunities when they present themselves - and a biennial five-Test engagement between cricket's latest rivals is one such opportunity begging to be leveraged. The opportunity has presented itself - it is up to administrators on both sides to seize it, or to mourn missed opportunities in hindsight.

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