India vs Australia: Stage set to steal the thunder, Down Under

With the players staying in a bio-bubble, it needs to be seen how they handle the pressure — both on and off the field.

India’s V. V. S. Laxman (left) and Rahul Dravid during their mammoth partnership in the second cricket Test match against Australia in Calcutta on March 14, 2001. “The 2001 series was probably the most competitive series we all participated in,” says Laxman.   -  V. V. Krishnan

“You never win silver, you only lose gold.”

The Australian cricketers seem to have taken this adage quite seriously, for generations. On the field, their only target has been to tame their opponents and clinch the title — be it a World Cup or a bilateral series.

They have never been afraid of playing hard and the Australians have always thrown strong challenges against India, especially in Tests.

And the rivalry — which started way back in 1947-48 when the newly independent India made its first official tour of Australia — has only grown more intense over the last seven decades.

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The times may have changed, the circumstances may be different now, and the game has evolved immensely, but even then, every time the Baggy Greens have taken on India, there has been quality cricket, controversies with a dash of acrimony!

While the iconic series of 1977-78 — which Australia won 3-2, with the series not decided until the last day of the final Test — witnessed some real competition, with both the sides displaying smart cricket, the Baggy Greens had the upper hand in most of the home Tests. While they struggled during their tours of India, the Aussies remained unbeaten at home for years.

The genesis of India’s fightback Down Under can be traced to the home series in 2001. India, led by Sourav Ganguly, defeated a star-studded Australia, which was captained by Steve Waugh, 2-1.

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The home team suffered an embarrassing defeat in the first Test in Mumbai — which was a record 16th win in a row (against all opposition) for Australia. And in the second Test, too, the visiting side was in the driver’s seat, scoring 445 and then bundling out India for 171 in the first innings — and forcing it to follow on.

And just when another victory looked imminent for Australia, there came V. V. S.  Laxman and Rahul Dravid.

India’s spirited show in the 2003-04 series Down Under earned praise from the Australian camp. “It was a developing rivalry. But when you look at great Indian teams and great Indian players, there have been a number of them, but probably they hadn’t come together as a potent force like this lot,” John Buchanan, who coached Australia between 1999 and 2007, says.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

 

The two batted for hours. While Dravid scored 180, Laxman played the innings of his life — hammering 281. And the two stitched a partnership of 376, which not only rescued India, but also paved the way for its historic win.

The cricket fraternity believes that it was this iconic series of 2001 that took the India-Australia rivalry to another level.

“The 2001 series was probably the most competitive series we all participated in,” Laxman tells Sportstar.

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“India did very well against Australia even before that series, but we struggled, whenever we toured Down Under. But the 2001 series gave us the confidence that we can beat the best, especially the way we bounced back after losing in Mumbai, and after being asked to follow-on in Kolkata...”

“The situation that we were in, it gave us the resilience to perform well against the best. That actually translated into excellent performance for us, when we went to Australia in 2003-04,” Laxman says.

According to him, India’s tour Down Under in 2003-04 was actually a ‘turning point’ for Indian cricket.

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While the series was drawn 1-1, it was a big boost for India as it managed to hold Waugh’s mighty Australia at home. And it was backed by some solid show, not just by Laxman and Dravid — who scored 148 and 233 respectively in the second Test in Adelaide — but also by Virender Sehwag and captain Ganguly, who set the tone by scoring 144 in the first Test in Brisbane.

“Beating Australia in Australia is the most challenging for any team from the sub-continent. And that team under Waugh had match-winners from No. 1 to 15. Those players were probably the most talented and aggressive and were the ones who could win contests on their own,” Laxman reminisces.

“The way we played on that tour, it was unfortunate that we could not win the series despite being in a very comfortable position in the last Test in Sydney. On the last day, we were unable to wrap up things and the partnership between Steve Waugh and Simon Katich helped them earn a draw…”

While India failed to seal the deal in the final Test, its spirited show earned praise from the Australian camp.

“It was a developing rivalry. But when you look at great Indian teams and great Indian players, there have been a number of them, but probably they hadn’t come together as a potent force like this lot,” John Buchanan, who coached Australia between 1999 and 2007, says.

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Having watched both the series from the dressing room, Buchanan distinctly remembers how things changed quickly for his side. “Once Sourav took over, he instilled a different way of not only playing, but also a different way of just conducting themselves against strong oppositions like Australia. It was a developing rivalry for sure, but Sourav was able to take it to another level,” Buchanan adds. “His presence in the side, the players that he brought in, made them a formidable unit. The team of course, had some very good players.”

Before touring Down Under, India had months of preparation.

“That was something that we all took pride in. We knew if we had to beat Australia at home, it was very important for us to score big in the first innings,” Laxman says.

“We were not dependent on just one or two batsmen, but everyone had to contribute to beat the Aussies. That’s exactly what happened, with Sourav leading the way with his century (144) in the first Test in Brisbane and then everyone contributed…”

And that series had an ever-lasting impact on the India-Australia rivalry. Even though the Aussies defeated India at home in 2004, the team battled all odds — including the Monkeygate controversy — to put up a brave show, conceding the Test series 1-2 in Australia in 2007-08. It also managed to win the tri-series. Irfan Pathan, who was part of the team, remembers how difficult it was to shrug off the odds and stay focused. “When you play in Australia, the mind games start way before the series begins. The home team, the local media don’t give you a chance. So, we were told not to read any newspapers and just concentrate on the game and stay positive,” the former India fast bowler says.

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“What happened in 2007-08 especially after the whole controversy (Monkeygate), we were aggressive as a unit and we knew that our target was to fight back and we just did that,” Pathan says.

“The team played outstanding cricket. The Aussies thought that they would beat us in Perth, but that did not happen and we proved that we will not go down easily. We had the intent to not just compete but to win — and we did that…”

Members of the Indian team celebrate after winning the Border Gavaskar Trophy in 2018-19. Despite hiccups in Perth, India won 2-1 and with Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara ruling the roost, the touring side enjoyed complete dominance.   -  Getty Images

 

While the tours of 2003-04 and 2007-08 redefined Indian cricket, the side had poor outings, when it toured Australia in 2011-12 and 2014-15. Despite some fine performances by Virat Kohli, the M. S. Dhoni-led team failed to find breakthroughs.

However, when Kohli returned to Australia — this time as the captain — in 2018-19, he not only let his willow do the talking, but also guided India to its first-ever Test series win in Australia. Despite hiccups in Perth, India won the Border-Gavaskar Trophy 2-1 and with Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara ruling the roost, the touring side enjoyed complete dominance.

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This time around, when the two teams begin their campaign in the Border-Gavaskar Trophy in December, it will be a new ball game altogether. With the players staying in a bio-bubble, it needs to be seen how they handle the pressure — both on and off the field. But then, the memories of the last tour would certainly motivate the Indians.

The stage is set, it’s time to steal the thunder, Down Under!