The death of a rivalry

Gone are the characters, missing are the mouth-watering contests. The great India-Australia rivalry is dead.

Remember the good old 1990s?

On their on-going tour of India, the biggest event in the Australian camp has occurred off the field and did not even involve the opposition. Australia’s bizarre axing of Shane Watson, Mitchell Johnson, James Pattinson and Usman Khawaja did inject some interest in the series. But it has reduced the fading rivalry to a farce. 

In 1996, the Border-Gavaskar Trophy began on a dustbowl in Delhi, paving the way for one of the most gripping rivalries in international Test cricket. It enriched the game in general. The early legacy of the rivalry was shaped by the promise of a challenge: while both teams were nearly unbeatable at home, the challenge was to prevail in foreign conditions. From the fast, bouncy tracks in Brisbane and Perth to the sandpits or minefields in Mumbai and Chennai, the contests between the two nations redefined modern cricket in a way that few have.

At home, India were incredibly tough to beat. Australia had to wait 35 years for a series win in India when, in 2004, Adam Gilchrist’s men finally conquered what they called the ‘final frontier’. For India, there was an emerging cricketing narrative to confront – they wanted to challenge one of the greatest cricket teams ever assembled, first led by Steve Waugh and then by Ricky Ponting. Apart from England in 2005, India were the undisputed challenger to Australia’s era of unparalleled domination.

While India raised their game each time they met Australia, the other classic rivalry – the Ashes – had watered down to an incredibly one-sided affair. England struggled to find their personality against the all-conquering Australians unflinching in their desire to assert themselves, and in doing so, take the p*ss off. The India-Australia rivalry was a worthy break from a boring yet-another-Aussie-win phase, solely thriving on the quality of cricket it managed to produce over the span, and along the way, providing the Australians with a hard challenge and fresh problems to crack.

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THERE WERE characters. At times the dynamics of the series would be reduced to personalities. The consummate genius of Shane Warne against the powers of Sachin Tendulkar; Sourav Ganguly and Steve Waugh consuming themselves in a gripping tactical battle to outwit each other, through pure cricket, at times art. Here was an Indian team, in the mid stages of its evolution as a purely cricketing, not commercial force, deeply motivated by its own history of failures in that country, turned challenger. There was much at stake. They fought, they even won that odd game there. Levelling a series was as good as a triumph, so much so that "winning in Australia" became an integral part of a captain's legacy.

On the other side, India was the final frontier. Today, it's just another frontier. The buzz seems to be severely lacking, the anticipation and the sheer thrill of a big series seems to have evaporated. Today, it's just another series, having its place in Test cricket, but gradually fading away into irrelevance.

The ongoing series, along with the previous one in Australia had nothing exciting. For the heart on the sleeve fan on the Indian side, it’s an been an unbelievable series, easy as you like, an opposition terribly unsure of its own abilities in these conditions succumbing to everything India have thrown at them. For the connoisseur, anything but that. A damp squib of a series, moving away from its promise of producing quality cricket that we’ve all grown up to admire, respect and love. We’ve been witness to a couple of Test matches, laden with sessions that are invariably dull, uneventful (minus the Dhoni onslaught, maybe) and with set patterns that somehow make Test cricket look rather predictable, when it shouldn’t be that. And mind you, this was the best time to play India, a side reeling from what was a humiliating home defeat to England. The proverbial s*it had hit the fan, a few seniors were admittedly dropped and not rested, there were selections that raised some eyebrows, and some familiar names lacking form. Instead, it’s been an absolute mismatch. Also, the disappointing bit is that this is an Indian team playing in third gear.

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BEFORE INDIA'S home season began, I marked Australia as probably the tougher of the two visitors - a team that could ask India a few questions and probably grind them out if required. I was wrong. The last two Tests have featured by far the most underwhelming performances I’ve seen from an Australian team in India. They look scared, even scarred by their own failings or the inability to turn promise into performances. Their technique seems rather pedestrian and even from a common sense point of view, it is astounding to see them play spin with feet firmly rooted to the crease, hard hands and a scrambled head, unsure and unclear of what to expect from the Indian spinners. Of course playing spin isn’t as easy as writing columns might be, but the disappointment is that, unlike England, they haven’t made an honest effort to rectify some of those mistakes and technical deficiencies. No batsman, barring Michael Clarke and to some extent the likes of Henriques have shown the skill or the resolve to play spin. Teams that have come to India in the last few years, successful or not, have fought, possibly found a way that works, and not fallen apart. The Australians are crumbling.

England’s successful tour last year might just have the blueprint for visiting teams to excel and possibly triumph on Indian soil. And it’s not that difficult to figure out - a good mixture of skills, discipline, the acumen and the resolve that these conditions demand. Not to forget, some knowledge would help too, the little things like a Mushtaq Ahmed helping the English spinners find the right pace on a particular wicket. It required England to play a different kind of a game, an approach that demands an austere approach, primarily cutting down on flair and in doing so, eliminate certain shots from their armoury until their practice and confidence in those shots were near perfect. Can Australia do that? On the evidence on offer, it’s hard to be sure with the impatience of their batsmen. The difference between England and Australia, barring the fact that the former had two quality spinners, is the fact that England had players who executed their plans to perfection. Australia look like a side without a plan, and even if they had one, the players seem incapable of executing them.

The narrative seems clearer as this rivalry fades away - both teams, mediocre at best, will convincingly thrash each other at home, while in foreign conditions - India in Australia and vice-versa, the very desire of a fair, intense contest between bat and ball seems a distant dream. Australian cricket looks to be in a state of irreversible decline and it is equally disappointing to note that Indian cricket isn’t necessarily on the ascendancy.

There is always the transition argument that a lot of people make for the Australian team. But Australia have been in transition forever. There always will be chatter about how India has over the years has turned into a distraction for the Australians, given that regaining the Ashes seems to be the highest on their priority list. The mess that they find themselves in today, England’s defence of the Ashes looks like a formality waiting to happen come the summer. Even there, the hopes of a contest seem to fade away as things blow up in that dressing room. It’s just disappointing all around.

For a generation which grew up watching Test cricket, this was a series you’d mark your schedules and watch every ball of. As a cricketer, playing against Australia or India was one of the biggest Tests of your career and you’d almost do anything to be a part of these contests. As a fan, you’d bunk lectures, give your work a good old slip to watch the action. Today, you can afford to not watch the game and yet know how it is shaping up. I might be exaggerating about its glorious demise, but if this rivalry has to light up once again, the onus is on both teams to produce the quality of cricket befitting its legacy. Sadly, that may never happen.

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