Rivalling The Ashes is impossible, given the historical associations with the ancient Anglo-Australian encounters. The Indo-Australian face-offs took a while to rev up to the current stature. But, since the advent of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, the rivalry has been perhaps the greatest showdown of modern cricket…
Michael Slater religiously adheres to the age-old tenet: “If you slash, slash hard.” There is width on offer, and he frees his arms. The ball from the erratic and ephemeral David Johnson takes the top edge of his bat as it goes through the violent swing. The ball flies high, fiercely hard and wide, one of those innumerable occasions when it should thud against the boards in the fine boundary, the bowler will shake his head or bring forth a wry smile and the commentator will discourse about the moral victory to the fielding side. But on this occasion, the superman at slip almost flies diagonally up to his right and extends his arm. And because this superman answers to the name Mohammad Azharuddin, the ball sticks. Slater looks on in disbelief and then has to make his way back to the pavilion.
There were moments of reckoning and drama in the one-off Test in late 1996 at the Kotla. Nayan Mongia batting almost 500 minutes for that 152. Ricky Ponting falling to an off-spinner for the first time in India, the bowler on that occasion being Ashish Kapoor. Anil Kumble’s deliveries spitting off the dusty track like uncoiled vipers. Steve Waugh playing them tentatively during his unbeaten 67 in the second innings, the Australian commentator on television advising, “Steve, Steve… too difficult to play, get to the other end and study them. The match is lost anyway.” Well, those were times just before relentless pontification about individual vs team on social media, and hence the two sides in question had still not been anointed with two specific mantles in that regard. One could still hear common cricketing sense being voiced.
But that Azharuddin blinder is the defining moment that sticks to the memory after all these years.
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That was the first ever Test match of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. Aptly named after two (then) highest run-getters in Test cricket, and opportunely established as the sides faced off for the first time after the retirement of the great Australian.
It was opportune in other terms as well, and much of it due to happy chance. Because Indian cricket had just about graduated on the international scene. And they could take the Australians, the best side of the world, on equal footing.
There had been admirable Indian cricketers earlier as well. During the 1970s, for example, India did pull off some memorable victories. During the 1980s they did win in England and almost brought off a series win in Australia. However, they had not been a major superpower of Test match cricket, who went into games with the belief and intention that they could win against any opposition. That took place only in the 1990s, with one Sachin Tendulkar redefining the realms of impossible in drastic, unconventional, almost unimaginable terms. And then came Anil Kumble, the biggest match-winning Indian spinner till perhaps the advent of Ravichandran Ashwin. And then there was a clutch of world-class batsmen.
In short, when the Border-Gavaskar Trophy came into being, India could take on Australia without the necessity of punching above their weight.
Indeed that was the case. India won the one-off Test at Kotla and Sachin Tendulkar held the Trophy aloft. When Australia returned in 1997-98, it was the famous Tendulkar-Warne battle where the former unforgettably kayoed the latter, and India won 2-1.
Before the advent of the Trophy, the results had been hugely skewed in favour of Australia.
Don Bradman’s men had pulverised the inexperienced Indians in the inaugural series in 1947-48, Australia winning 4 of the 5 Tests and elements having the last laugh in the other. Since then, well into the 1970s, it had been a largely one-sided affair.
An ageing Australian side had visited the shores in 1956-57, winning the three-Test series 2-0. Although Jasu Patel’s canny use of a treacherous Green Park wicket (then called Modi Stadium, Kanpur) gave India their first victory in 1959-60, Richie Benaud comprehensively outspun the home team to win the series 2-1.
In fact, barring the drawn 1964-65 showdown with the heart-stopping Indian triumph at the Brabourne Stadium, Australia won every series played till 1977-78. That is 6 of the first 7 series contested. Even the Packer-ravaged third string Australians led by the 42-year-old back-from-retirement Bobby Simpson managed to beat the full-strength Indian side 3-2 in 1977-78 . But those were drab days of Indian cricket when success came few and far between, and winning had thus not yet become unquestioned birth-right of the fans. There happened to be a lot of celebration of that defeat because of the two Test wins.
It took a visiting Packer-depleted side of 1979, led by Kim Hughes, to give India their first ever series win. At long last, after 32 years and 8 series, India had tasted success.
This followed a saga of stalemates in the 1980s.
Australia dominated the 1980-81 series before India turned things around on the dramatic final day of the tour. After that the Australian side went into a phase of rebuilding after the passing of the greats from the field of action. They played two series in the mid-1980s and the Indian team was definitely stronger during those tussles. But they still could not close out the matches. The 1985-86 series in Australia was drawn in spite of India dominating, and there was that famous Tie in 1986-87, but a result was not managed through those six Tests in the mid-80s.
And by the end of the 1980s, the Australians had not only completed their rebuilding, but they were also on the verge of emerging as one of the greatest sides in the history of the game. Hence, when the visiting Indians were routed 4-0 in the 1991-92 tour, it did look as if the trend of Australian dominance would continue.
Till then Australia had won 8 series and India 1 while the three others had been drawn. Head to head, Test matches stood at 24-8. The record showed that Australia were way ahead.
If one was to suggest that juncture that this rivalry would be at par with The Ashes, the laughter in response would have emerged from the core Imperial belly of the structure of cricket.
The turning point
But the Border-Gavaskar Trophy was the turning point. Since then the results have been vastly different. Effectively it started a new chapter in the saga of contests between these two great cricketing nations.
The recently concluded Test match at Adelaide was the 45th encounter in this rubber. India have won 19, Australia 17 and 9 have been drawn.
There have been 14 series, of which India have won 7, Australia 6 and one has ended in a draw. Well, if the first one-off Test is not counted among the series, India and Australia stand at 6-6.
And the cricket has been riveting, top-class, with every skill coming to the fore. Whether it be pace or spin, the ability to bat on bouncy wickets or turning tracks, every aspect of the game has been tested.
There have been one-sided results in some series. In 1999-2000, the visiting Indians were thrashed 3-0 and again in 2011-12 they went back losing all four Tests. Similarly, the Australians have been swept aside 0-2 in late 2010, losing both their Tests, and then lost all four Tests in 2012-13.
Home advantage has had a distinct say in the world of cricket in the past decade and some of the results bear that out.
Yet, there have been thrilling contests. The 2000-01 series in India was one of the greatest ever in the history of cricket. The 2003-04 drawn series was full of drama, albeit aided by Australia bowling being well under full strength in the absence of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, and the periodic absence of Brett Lee. There was high voltage drama in the 2007-08 series, although some of it ending in the unsavoury Monkey-gate incident.
Even when they have visited each other in recent times the contests have not petered out to one-sided affairs loaded in favour of the home team.
The Australians conquer the foreign soil while visiting in 2004-05. That is something that India has still not been able to do. But big Wars, the inter-player battles and the overall closeness of the score-lines demonstrate that it is one of the best rivalries of world cricket.
Rivalling The Ashes is impossible, given the historical associations with the ancient Anglo-Australian encounters. The Indo-Australian face-offs took a while to rev up to the current stature.
But, since the advent of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy the rivalry has been perhaps the greatest showdown of modern cricket.
The current series has already started off in a fantastic manner. India-Australia encounters seldom disappoint.