Champions’ league

Sat 18 Feb 2017

Celebrated rivalries in cricket revolve, in the popular mind, around the Ashes or contests involving India and Pakistan. Both duels have the weight of history and are replete with anecdotes. But as Steve Smith’s men play and train under the Mumbai sun in their build-up to the four-match Test series at Pune, Bengaluru, Ranchi and Dharamsala, it is time to acknowledge the particular intensity that marks games involving India and Australia. It is a rivalry inferior to none, the folklore further amplified by riveting contests, especially in India. Be it at Kolkata’s Eden Gardens in 2001 when V.V.S. Laxman’s 281 helped India stage one of cricket’s most remarkable fight-backs, or at Chennai’s Chepauk back in 1986, when India and Australia played out only the second tie in cricketing history since 1877, the contests have ticked all the boxes: mighty individual performances, oscillating fortunes and a fifth-day cracker. When rival skippers Virat Kohli and Smith walk out for the toss at Pune’s Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium on February 23, they will take this legacy forward. Helmed by young men — Kohli is 28, Smith 27 — both the Indian and Australian teams are emerging from the struggles of transition; this series is their big chance at asserting greatness.

India at home is a daunting opposition, the ‘Final Frontier’ for Australia as Steve Waugh called it. The home team is in fine form, with emphatic victories against visiting teams over the last year, South Africa, New Zealand, England and Bangladesh. In its last 19 Tests, both home and away, India has remained undefeated, winning 15 of them. It is a validation of the squad’s evolution underpinned by the consistency of its two leading players, Kohli and off-spinner R. Ashwin, and augmented with others rising to the opportunity when it’s come — as Karun Nair did with his unbeaten 303 in the Chennai Test against England last December. A resolute captain and a calm coach, in Anil Kumble, have astutely guided the team. The odds favour India, and so does history. When Australia last toured India in 2012-13, it lost all four Tests. This season too, on balance, India appears to hold the aces. Australia may come in with a 3-0 triumph in home Tests against Pakistan, but before that while hosting South Africa it emerged second-best, and lost three Tests in Sri Lanka. The last of these has evoked concern about the team’s adaptability to subcontinental conditions. Much will hinge on Smith, his aggressive opener David Warner and left-arm fast bowler Mitchell Starc, while Nathan Lyon is expected to shepherd an under-cooked spin unit. In 1986, Allan Border arrived with a bunch that was written off; yet they left with one tie and a drawn series. As history shows, surprise is the second skin of tussles involving India and Australia.


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