India’s best chance in 70 years

Four decades ago, it was Packer. This time, it is Sandpaper. Steve Smith and David Warner’s bans may have just tilted the odds in favour of Virat Kohli’s team in the India vs Australia series.

Plucky Aussies: Bishan Bedi’s strong Indian side came up against an Australian combination largely composed of retirees and debutants in the 1977-78 series down under. But the Aussies posted a 3-2 series victory.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

In 1947, just a few months after Nehru had announced India’s Tryst with Destiny, the first cricket team from independent India set out for a tour of Australia. India could not have chosen a tougher assignment, for facing it were Don Bradman’s soon-to-be-labelled Invincibles. Bradman scored 715 runs and Vijay Hazare answered with 429. A young Vinoo Mankad piled on 306 runs and took 12 wickets. Lala Amarnath, captaining the side, picked up 13 victims. But in the end, it was no surprise that an inexperienced India was comprehensively outplayed and lost the five match series 0-4.

The 0-4 result was repeated a few times in the ensuing decades – in 1967 under Tiger Pataudi, in 1992 under Mohammad Azharuddin and under M. S. Dhoni in 2012. Sachin Tendulkar’s 1999 side did a mite better at 0-3, Dhoni redeemed himself with a 0-2 result in 2014 and Anil Kumble came away with an honourable 1-2 result against a formidable Aussie outfit in 2007.

India’s best results thus far have been the 1-1 split under Sunil Gavaskar in 1980, 0-0 under Kapil Dev in 1985 and the 1-1 achieved by the Sourav Ganguly-led team in 2003.

Seventy years after the first tour, as Virat Kohli takes the world’s top-ranked Test side Down Under, he will be acutely aware that history is firmly against his side coming back victorious. But for the first time in its history, India is carrying five world-class fast bowlers to Australia, each bowling consistently at well over 140km per hour. Together, they have proved as formidable on juicy South African and English pitches as on benign Indian ones. The spin attack is bolstered by the presence of one of the best wrist spinners in the world today, Kuldeep Yadav. And R. Ashwin has a point to prove overseas, most of his 333 wickets having come at home.

Detractors will tell you that the recent tours of South Africa and England showed up India as paper tigers. It is true that the team has largely flattered to deceive overseas, but writing them off on the basis of those results would be premature and ill-advised. The harder pitches in Australia are likely to suit the batting styles and abilities of the Indian batsmen far more than the extraordinary lateral movements of English pitches.

And this time it is indeed different. Four decades ago, it was Packer. This time, it is Sandpaper.

In 1977, the Kerry Packer ‘circus’ was steadily spiralling out of the control of the Australian Cricket Board, and Bishan Bedi’s India was greeted with rare enthusiasm. With all the main players other than Jeff Thomson under contract to Packer (he would join the following year), the Aussies brought 42-year old Bobby Simpson out of retirement to captain the side, a role he had last performed a decade before. Leading a strong Indian side against a combination largely composed of retirees and debutants, Bedi knew it was India’s best chance to win a series in Australia. He picked up 31 wickets in the series, the highest for either side. And yet despite some wonderful individual performance including Gundappa Viswanath’s 473 runs, Simpson led his team from the front, scoring 539 runs and ensuring a 3-2 series victory.

Fast forward 41 years and the situation India finds itself in is not entirely dissimilar.

Without the two pillars of modern Australian Test cricket, Steve Smith and David Warner, banned following the ball-tampering scandal earlier this year in South Africa, the odds might have just been tilted in favour of Kohli’s team.

(The writer is a senior banker.)