OPINION | Magnificent India overcome great Aussie barrier
India’s first-ever series triumph in Australia has triggered off interesting debate whether this is more significant than the maiden overseas wins in New Zealand (1968, the first time), West Indies and England (1971) and Pakistan (2004).
I’m restricting the scope of this piece to just Test cricket, not the other formats, where too India has had splendid success in the past (1983 & 2011 ODI World Cups, 2007 T20 World Championships). Mixing apples and oranges is silly, and such comparisons banal.
Each of the Test series wins mentioned above is remarkable. This makes the debate engaging and, as an academic exercise, fascinating. Fans and critics will obviously take different positions depending on how they assess a particular era of Indian cricket and perhaps players they venerate.
Where do I locate myself on this matrix? I’d say that beating Australia this time, if not a nudge ahead, is certainly as significant as the others. The fact that a series win came after 71 long years is of the crux in this assessment.
In the context of sporting rivalries, a wait this long has deep implications and consequences. Imagine the cumulative pressure of expectation that has been built up over seven decades on Indian teams and players, and particularly in the last 25 years, when reciprocal contests between the two countries became frequent?
In one respect, after every series, the onus kept increasing on India’s players to deliver. In another, because success was proving so elusive, Australia looked seemingly invincible when playing at home. So much so that even drawing a series Down Under was considered a triumph of sorts. Imagine then the burden on the current team, ranked no.1 no doubt, but having to fight a none-too-happy legacy.
To give this perspective, after Javed Miandad hit Chetan Sharma for a last-ball winning six in the 1986 AustraliAsia Cup final in Sharjah, it took Indian cricket more than five years to recover from the setback. To win a series in Australia has taken 71 years. Think of the mental block that had to be overcome!
The argument that India faced a weak Australia in the absence of Steve Smith and David Warner, while theoretically correct, is churlish disregard for the fantastic performances by the team, glosses over history and is terribly flawed in understanding the crucial part psychology plays in sport.
STRENGTH & PERFORMANCE
Yes, Australia were weak on paper this time. As they have been in the past too, but were still never beaten. In 1977-78, for instance, ravaged by Kerry Packer, Australia put together a team of young and untested players against the Indian team led by Bishan Singh Bedi.
The only players of renown were skipper Bobby Simpson, who at 41 was called out of retirement to help tide over the deep crisis, and star pace bowler Jeff Thomson who had opted out of the Packer Series.
The Indian team, on the other hand, reads like a roster of legends. Apart from Bedi, there was Chandrashekhar, Prassanna, Gavaskar, Vishwanath, Amarnath, Vengsarkar, Kirmani. Everybody believed India would win easily, but it wasn’t to be.
That five-Test rubber was among the keenest and most entertaining among the two countries. In fact, it helped thwart Packer’s disruptive bid to hijack the sport. Yet, in a ding-dong battle that had the cricket world in thrall, it was Australia that prevailed 3-2.
In 1985-86, Australian cricket was again in a crisis with the simultaneous retirement of Greg Chappell, Rod Marsh, Dennis Lillee and Kim Hughes stepping down as captain. But Allan Border led a team of rookies to stymie the ambitions of Kapil Dev’s powerful Indian side.
In this millennium itself, in 2003-4, Australia were hamstrung by injuries to main wicket-takers Glen McGrath and Shane Warne (though the batting was at its strongest), and the riveting series was squared 1-1.
BEST TEAM DEBATE
The inescapable fact is that beating Australia in Australia had been the most difficult task for an Indian team. While the scoreline in the recent series shows 2-1 in India’s favour, what it doesn’t reflect is the huge psychological breakthrough achieved.
My contention is that India would have won the rubber even if Smith and Warner were playing. Such was the all-round superiority of the team, highlighted by virtuoso performances of Pujara and Bumrah, that Australia were made to look weaker than they were, then systematically dismantled.
Which raises the next interesting debate: Is this is the best Indian Test side ever?
Given some of the outstanding players and combinations that have represented the country, many of them featuring in the teams mentioned at the start of this piece, this is would be a tempestuous call to make. Had all three overseas series in 2018 been won, my hand would have gone up straightaway.
I’ll reserve my verdict for now with the proviso that the present team is the best in the world at the moment. And if it can win consistently at home and overseas the next few years too, it might go down as one of the great sides in the history of the game, not just India.
Meanwhile, there’s this win to savour. Let not cynics and misanthropes pour rain on the parade of Virat Kohli and his magnificent men.
(The writer is a senior cricket analyst and views are personal)