Strangely, to a measure comfortingly, the prologue to this series hasn’t featured the familiar retinue of ex-players-turned-pundits soothsaying score lines and whitewashes. Remember, Glenn McGrath’s dismissive prediction of a 4-0 drubbing before India arrived on these shores in 2014; three years later, on their return tour, Harbhajan Singh mocked that Australia, if they played really well, could escape with a 3-0 defeat. Both McGrath and Harbhajan proved they were daft at the guessing game, but that’s besides the point here.
The absence of outright prophesying – there still are hushed estimations, but nothing remotely dramatic or contemptuous – before a Test series involving Australia gives one a queasy feeling that the world has tipped on its head overnight. In a sense that suitably reflects the underlying tension and intrigue simmering in both camps – where everyone, from players to coaches and pundits to audience, are judicious with their words, betraying a disturbing edginess, a sense of insecurity that’s reflective of the last 10 months their respective teams have endured. Even the players dictate their answers with reason, not passion. Like made-up camaraderie between two warring nations who’ve waved the olive branch.
If one transposes the series to the start of the year, the backdrop and atmosphere would have been starkly different. There would’ve been no shortage of verbal bluster, or posturing or strutting, from either side. But these are two sides on rediscovery and validation, though the premise couldn’t have been more different. Australia seek moral catharsis, from the still-ringing echoes of the Sandpapergate scandal while India need that supremacy-establishing overseas victory, which has turned out to be more difficult to accomplish than it was perceived to be.
But Australia, purported to be the weakest since the World Series defections, could be where Kohli finally achieves that era-defining triumph. His captaincy tour de force, the rewards of his ferocious ambition, which he had stated before India embarked on their quest for global dominance nearly a year ago – “I want this team to be remembered as one of the finest Test teams ever.”
Ten months into his quest, Kohli’s quite far from scaling the heights he had dreamt. No doubt they were utterly competent in South Africa and England, but they couldn’t quite negotiate series triumphs. It’s rare these day for teams to win overseas, but India were not far from pulling it off. A session here or a session there, a little good fortune then, and India wouldn’t have been in such dire desperation as they are now in Australia.
Kohli, though, has remained unflustered. Some leaders easily dispose their will, but some like Kohli are only emboldened by defeats. As he said during an interview on Australia radio: “This series is not about personal glory, but about the team winning. It wouldn’t matter how many runs I score if we don’t win the series.”
England was both, but where Kohli the batsman came out of the crucible with his reputation enhanced as the best batsmen in contemporary cricket, Kohli the captain fumbled and floundered, his rationale, permutations and field settings questioned and sometimes vilified. In the end, his batting muted all those voices. But it hankers and preoccupies his thoughts much more than his batting, so much so that it’s not one of his worries, but his only worry.
Losing in Australia might not yet dwindle Kohli’s captaincy days, nor dim the aura of his batsmanship, but there might not beckon a greater opportunity to pouch that elusive overseas Test series. He might still keep the Test Kings’ mace in his cabinet – India are still eight points ahead of South Africa – but he could feel vacuous at the bottom of his heart, without the historical greatness that could only be achieved away from home.
Besides, his is an ageing group, Murali Vijay, pushing 35, wouldn’t be around for another trip Down Under. Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Ishant Sharma, Rohit Sharma and Kohli himself are 30 or thereabouts. Some of them might still have the wind for another battle, but the caprices of age would have caught up with them. This opportunity, thus, should not be passed on. It doesn’t sound like hyperbole to say that this series, starting in Adelaide, could be a defining one for this generation of players.
More so for the batsmen, who have come under intense scrutiny since the South Africa series. None of them average more than 30 in overseas tours this year – most of them have hideous figures. Bafflingly so, at a time they are at the perceived peak of their prowess. Historically, the 27-33 age-bracket is when they hit the high pitch, when youthful vigour is counter-balanced with worldly wisdom. But for some of the Indian batsmen, most tellingly Rahane, the pattern seems inverse, his career plummeting, flickering only sporadically, after his previous trip to Australia.
Their recent form (or lack of it) justifies Kohli’s, and a nation’s, billowing trust in their bowlers, a privilege his predecessors could seldom dream of. He has a well-oiled battery to chose from – Bhuvneshwar Kumar, whose absence he rued more than anyone else in England, can be devastating with the new ball, if there is even the slightest hint of grass or moisture, a retooled Ishant has transformed into a nasty enforcer, Umesh Yadav provides pace, and Jasprit Bumrah is the rarest of Indian pace bowling gems, proficient with seaming the ball either way, capable of getting extra lift from good-length areas with a quirky release, and the lethal variations he can summon at will. Ravichandran Ashwin returns a more peaceful bowler and Ravindra Jadeja a more complete one. It’s not one bit exaggeration that they’re India’s best bowling firm ever, and history shows that seldom have Indian bowlers operated with such collective threat.
The hope of them kicking up the perfect storm, obviously, is heightened by the callowness of Australia’s batting. Rarely, if ever, had they seemed so fragile or inexperienced – certainly quite a few of them can turn a corner and announce themselves at this stage. But Australia’s problems neither end nor begin with their batting. It’s a bigger concern than whether their batsmen can muster up the courage and quality to torment the Indian bowlers, or whether their pedigreed bowlers can blow the Indian batsmen away, or whether they can win the series at all. It’s a series wherein they would be judged not only by runs, wickets or victories, but their on-field demeanour, gamesmanship and integrity. It’s a series where they’ve been unusually conscious (and subconsciously concerned) of their image. An unusual image-makeover is gnawing at them. It remains to be seen how it would be when push comes to shove, if the mask of artificiality peels off.
Surely, it could all change of course, but one can’t miss the absolute lack of needle, brags, put-downs and verbal aggro, the elements that have embellished the Australianism myth over the years. It’s the moral vulnerability of the adversaries that brightens India’s quest for their maiden series win in Australia. But even Australia at their most susceptible wouldn’t be mere pushovers. As their coach Justin Langer had said before the Pakistan series: “we might might not be most decorated or talented of the Aussie sides, but we certainly are one of the most determined ones.” They’ll keep digging deep, roll up their sleeves, and stick together, like Langer wants his team to be.
To sum the series up, it’s a contest between two identically flawed sides, carrying on their shoulders a historical burden. Such a series, theoretically, promises to be an intense affair, keeping the soothsayers guessing and us hooked till the epilogue.