Typically, Australia’s players serve the first verbal volleys before they step into the departure lounge back home. This time, there is silence. And it’s no bad thing, for this is one clash in which cricket can speak for itself. The only remark so far, from Steve Smith, has been about the pointlessness of playing warm-up matches, and this is understandable.
For years now most teams have fielded weak teams in these games and play them on surfaces that have no resemblance to the pitches on which the Test matches will be played. Australia are tucked away at the Karnataka State Cricket Association’s Alur facility, far from peering eyes, and are getting their preparation out of the way.
It helps also that these two teams play each other so often now. There is little mystery when it comes to players and there is a familiarity that has not bred contempt. It helps also that India won for the second time in a row in their last trip to Australia, in sensational fashion, taking the series 2-1 after losing most of their key personnel.
When Australia came to India last, in 2017, they had every chance of winning and ran India close. The first Test was played on a Pune surface that became something of a spin lottery as the match wore on. Steve O’ Keefe, the left-arm spinner, picked up 12 for 70 as India were bowled out for only 105 and 107. A masterful Smith century in the second innings sealed the deal for Australia.
In the second Test played in Bangalore, Australia will feel they fluffed their lines. Nathan Lyon was magnificent, bowling with control and making the most of the bounce on offer to take 8 for 50 and bowl India out for only 189. But, the batsmen could not make the most of this and Australia only managed an 87 run lead. India bounced back, setting a target of 188 and from there R Ashwin did his thing, picking up 6 for 41 as Australia were skittled out for only 112. This was the Test in which Smith had his infamous “brain fade” when he looked to the Australian dressing-room for help on whether to review a decision or not, riling up the Indian players no end.This was clearly against the rules and Smith readily conceded that he had no excuse for his behaviour.
After a rare draw in Ranchi on a surface that gave too little to the bowlers, India overcame that man Smith, who scored another century. But, after beginning the Test brightly, getting to 144 for 1, Australia only managed 300. In their second innings the Australian batting failed once more and only got to 137, leaving India with a comfortable chase.
Australia’s improvement, especially playing spin in the subcontinent is dramatically apparent when you look at their previous visit to India, in 2012-13. Australia were thumped 4-0, never really getting into a position from which they could push for victory in any of the Tests. That tour is remembered most for the Homeworkgate saga.
In the third Test, in Mohali, Shane Watson, James Pattinson, Mitchell Johnson and Usman Khawaja were dropped from the team for failing to complete tasks assigned to them by coach Mickey Arthur. Going any further back in Australia’s visits to India does not reveal much in the context of this series as the personnel have all changed since the 2010-11 series.
The fact is, however, that India-Australia has grown into one of the great modern rivalries. While India-Pakistan raises the heat the most, the teams only meet at ICC events or odd Asia Cup, and that is white-ball cricket, which does not have either the romance or the ebb and flow of a full Test series.
The Ashes is that other major rivalry today, but India-Australia has become close now, thanks to the fact that both teams have the wherewithal to win in both countries, in different sets of conditions. At the start of this series, it’s too close to call a clear winner, but what is guaranteed is that it will make for compelling viewing.