India vs Australia: Fresh chapter to a red-hot rivalry
There’s a special something contained in the promise of a Test series between India and Australia that forces its narrative to go where few modern-day cricket rivalries go—beyond the realms of the game itself. This is true for the Ashes and an India-Pakistan contest with the red ball as well. But the former excludes the sport’s biggest stakeholders—the Indian cricket fans—from having a sense of true belonging and the latter hasn’t taken place in 13 years, which is longer than Virat Kohli’s international career.
This was perhaps why on the eve of the first Test in Adelaide, and with the larger significance of the four-match series in mind, India captain Kohli spoke of why he (and by extension his team) represents “the new India”. And “the cultural effort” that goes into winning games for the country in what is widely considered their greatest challenge in cricket—a Test series against Australia, in their backyard.
“For us, it’s about playing for the general public who want to see India perform as a team, which was the highlight of our last tour here,” Kohli, who led India to their first-ever Test series win in Australia in 2018-19, added in the online press conference on Wednesday. “Our focus remains that—everything else is not in our control even if it is great for the publicity of the series.”
Publicity there certainly has been, especially for the opening Test of the series, which will also mark Kohli’s final appearance on this tour. He will return to India on paternity leave after the day-night affair at the Adelaide Oval. “Till the time I’m here,” said Kohli, “I will continue to provide captaincy and leadership and performances to the best of my abilities.”
Adelaide has always been kind to Kohli. On his first tour of Australia in 2011-12, a young Kohli struck his very first Test century here, at the backend of a miserable series. In 2014-15, a new-look Adelaide Oval met a new-look Kohli—as stand-in skipper he smashed twin hundreds within the confines of a rebuilt ground. On the following tour in 2018-19, Kohli didn’t score big runs in Adelaide, but became the first Indian captain to win the opening Test in Australia; and then the series itself.
This time, Adelaide presents him with a new challenge—the colour of the ball, pink, and the hours during which the Test will be held. “Every challenge is new and different and you have to understand the difficulties and the requirements to fulfill that particular challenge. The pink-ball Test is probably going to be a bit more challenging (than the earlier Tests in Adelaide) in terms of the conditions, and how the ball moves around in the evening and stuff like that,” said Kohli. “For us as a team, it is about adaptability.”
India have played just one day-night Test—against Bangladesh at the Eden Gardens last year. They adapted rather quickly, what with Kohli’s hundred and five-fors by pacers Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav sealing an innings win. Ishant won’t have an effect on this pink-ball Test, having been ruled out of the series, but Yadav well could.
In what could well be a first, India announced their playing eleven shortly after the captain’s presser. Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami form the three prongs of India’s fast bowling attack with Ravichandran Ashwin the lone frontline spinner. Wicketkeeper Wriddhiman Saha expectedly got the nod ahead of Rishabh Pant, who walloped a hundred in the final tour game. The surprise was at the other end of the batting order with Prithvi Shaw (not Shubman Gill or KL Rahul) picked to open the innings with the established Mayank Agarwal.
Shaw had a middling tune-up to the Test series, scoring 0, 19, 40 and 3 over the two practice games in Sydney. Though Gill seemed the likelier of the two 21-year-olds to play—and make his Test debut—after arithmetically progressive scores of 0, 29, 43 and 65 in the Sydney lead-up, Shaw perhaps received the nod for having Test experience in the first place.
“Prithvi has performed at the Test level, but he will be playing in Australia for the first time. It is very exciting to see his progress,” said Kohli. “It is always exciting to have young guys in the team because they can play freely while senior guys take the load and pressure that comes with playing a full Test series.”
A full series is precisely what Kohli will not be playing, which begged the question—at the presser too—if vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane was prepared to step in in his absence for three of the four games?
“We have had a lot of mutual understanding and respect over the years, and some great partnerships while batting together, which is based on trust and the understanding of knowing what needs to be done for the team,” said Kohli. “We already know the template that we play with, so we’re absolutely on the same page. Jinx has done a tremendous job in the two practice games as well.”
Rahane has twice led the team on Kohli’s behalf in the past, but one of those occasions was just as significant as the upcoming series. On Australia’s thrill-a-minute Test tour of India in 2017, and with the series hanging in the balance, Rahane led India to a win in the final Test in Dharamsala, batting at the very end when his side won by eight wickets.
That series is remembered for the high quality of cricket, but specifically the phenomenal run-making abilities of Steve Smith, just as the Border-Gavaskar Trophy in 2018-19 is remembered for Cheteshwar Pujara’s defiant role in India’s historic series win, played out in the absence of Smith and David Warner.
Warner has been ruled out of Adelaide and Smith’s position in the side could well be a concern after Australia’s former captain began cutting short net sessions due to a sore back. And then there is the Kohli-shaped void post-Adelaide. The series is deliciously set-up despite the big absences—a great rivalry awaiting new faces to take the narrative forward.