The Test between India and Australia last week in Mohali was, by all accounts, one of the most exciting ever. So exciting that several newspapers, including this one, editorially commented on the match as one that signalled the return of Test cricket in all its glory and grandeur.
Cricket history has seen many such exciting matches in the past – the tied Test between the West Indies and Australia at Brisbane in December 1960, the second tied Test between India and Australia at Madras (now Chennai) in September 1986, the famous Test match at the Eden Gardens in 2001, which India won after following on… the list includes dozens of matches.
Over the last decade and a half, matches involving India and Australia have produced several such needle contests. Spectators, players and sponsors alike look forward to such contests and many people consider an India vs Australia series the pinnacle of Test match rivalry – more than the much hyped Ashes and the more intense India-Pakistani rivalries.
"Ever since the Sydney Test (made infamous by the Monkeygate scandal) in 2008, India-Australia has become the top billing in world cricket. There’s no doubt about that,” former cricketer Ravi Shastri told HT.
Test record since january 1, 2000
68 win percentage
40 win percentage
In the subcontinent, a Test series between India and Pakistan generated grim excitement even 10 years ago. Pakistan were then a very good team. And the political situation, and the fact that the two countries had been at war thrice, gave India-Pakistan matches an edge that contests with other countries couldn’t match.
If anything, the cost of losing was so high that India and Pakistan have played some of the most dull, boring Test series in history, being defensive to the point of not looking for victory.
It is in this context that India’s recent cricketing encounters with Australia have assumed immense significance. For Steve Waugh, who led Australia to the top of the table, India was
the Final Frontier. His team won frequently and convincingly in different parts of the world.
When the Australians came to India in 2001, Waugh looked set to retain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy when his team was one Test up in the three-match series. But V.V.S. Laxman’s epic 281 and Harbhajan Singh’s stellar bowling performance in Kolkata mauled the Australians so badly that they were unable to recover for the final Test of that series in Chennai, where too they lost.
Ever since that series, India-Australia Test matches have been the ones to watch. On the field, Australia's gradual decline – they have lost players of the calibre of Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer and Adam Gilchrist – has coincided with India's ascendancy.
India are not merely the No. 1 team in the world (on the basis of rankings at present), they're also the team the opposition want to beat the most.
Some instances will establish this. India drew the series one-all against Steve Waugh’s men in Australia in 2003-04 – no mean achievement. In January 2008 at Perth, when Australia were looking for their 17th consecutive Test victory (against all countries starting late 2005), India won by 72 runs.
Off the field, the exchanges have become more and more intense. What started as a light banter blew into an international incident when the infamous monkeygate scandal of 2008 happened, and since then the teams have worked hard to keep their temper in control.
"Whenever I've spoken about this series (the present one, with the second and last Test in Bangalore still wide open) over the past couple of weeks, I've said how important it is for the international game that this series is played in the right spirit," Australian captain Ricky Ponting said before the start of this series.
On the rivalry, he added: "We've had some amazing battles with India over the past five or six years. All those series are exceptionally entertaining to be part of as a player."
Ponting felt that a quality series between India and Australia was crucial as it would not merely help ease the pain over the spot-fixing allegations in England, but would put Test cricket back in its rightful place.
Before the series began, Virender Sehwag suggested that playing Pakistan still meant the most to India's players while Ponting gave the Ashes top place.
But Shastri echoing popular sentiment, said: "The hype and the intensity (in all recent India-Australia Tests) have been right up there. And if you look at it, the cricket has lived up to the billing – with great unpredictability and close finishes. This is the series to watch."
And, perhaps, the rivalry to savour!