For a generation of Indian cricket fans nothing can compare to the India-Australia series of 2001. For sheer watchability, drama, aesthetic pleasure and the making of heroes no series played in India has come close to that. From Harbhajan Singh’s bucketload of wickets that included a hat-trick to India’s escape from jail in Kolkata, fuelled by V. V. S. Laxman and Rahul Dravid, a generation of Indian cricket legends had their steel forged in that furnace of pressure.
But there is another generation embracing cricket now, and for those in their late teens, 2001 might be too distant a memory. They would have read about it, watched highlight reels and special shows, listened to interviews and attempted to re-live it in every way possible, but nothing compares to the feeling of watching events unfold live. It is in this experience that a fan and a team become one, sharing the emotions of every dropped catch, every clattered boundary, every stolen single. For the future Indian cricket fan, India versus Australia 2017 will be the gold standard.
While the characters involved in 2001 and 2017 were very different, the manner in which the two teams competed in both series has several similar threads. For sheer aura it is impossible to match a team that had Steve Waugh and Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, but the performances this Australian team put in were no less intense. If the overall theme was a hard-fought Indian win, 2-1, when the pre-series predictions tended more towards a 4-0 scoreline for the whole team, there were multiple sub-plots that only added to the intrigue.
Steven Smith proved that he is a singular man, and showcased the astonishing transformation he has undergone, growing into one of the world’s best all-conditions batsmen despite starting his career as a leg-spinner who could bat a bit in the lower order. Smith’s dominance over India was so extreme that Darren Lehmann, the Australian coach, would call it Bradmanesqu by the time the series was done. To reduce Smith’s influence to runs scored does him no favours, but the statistics are so staggering they bear closer examination.
In four Tests, Smith ended one run shy of 500, with three centuries, each made on different pitches in differing match situations. In Pune, on a rank turner that the home side could not adapt to quickly enough, being bowled out for 105 and 107, Smith made 109. It was not a chanceless innings, but given the level of difficulty in playing shots, with the ball spitting and turning at times and shooting through along the deck at others, made it one of the most valuable knocks played by a visiting batsman. In Ranchi, on a pitch that had little in it for the bowlers, Smith was impossible to dislodge. Despite fidgeting around in his crease, shuffling even as the bowler steamed in and generally looking jumpy, Smith was in total control making an unbeaten 178 in Australia’s first-innings 451. In the decider, in Dharamsala, with a real shot at making history, Smith was at it again, making 111 when the rest of Australia’s batsmen faltered.
In contrast to Smith was Virat Kohli. The pre-series hype was built around India bullying the traditional Australian boisterousness and at the heart of that presumption was Kohli. Not only is he the most aggressive and expressive Indian cricketer in recent memory, he had bossed over all opposition in the lead-up to Australia’s arrival. England and New Zealand had felt the full weight of his considerable batting talent and it was almost taken for granted that he would be the one leading India’s war against Australia’s bowling. What unfolded, though, was completely different. While he did not seem to have an obvious technical flaw or a difficulty against any particular bowler, Kohli endured a rare series failure. In five innings, he never made it past 26, scoring a total of only 46 runs at an average of 9.2 in stark contrast to Smith’s 71.28.
Kohli will take heart from the fact that India won despite his run drought and in the knowledge that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with his batting. When he recovers from the shoulder injury that forced him to sit out the final Test, Kohli will have plenty of time to find form again in the Indian Premier League. He will have enough opportunities to bat with freedom on a true Chinnaswamy pitch that is always full of runs.
If Kohli ended the series slightly confused there were several Indians who came through with reputations seriously enhanced. The leader of this pack was Ravindra Jadeja. Although he is consistently excellent at home, he is usually overshadowed by Ravichandran Aswhin, whose success and rise has been nothing short of phenomenal. But, this was one series where Jadeja raised his game, with bat and ball, to draw clear of Ashwin. When runs were needed lower down the order, especially with India playing the extra bowler wherever warranted, Jadeja delivered. In previous years, Jadeja has been a bit of an enigma with the bat. Despite domestic triple-centuries under his belt, Jadeja has been unsure of himself. When he has not trusted his defence, Jadeja has chosen all-out attack and more often than not this has ended badly. Having put in a fair bit of work at the National Cricket Academy ahead of this series, Jadeja appeared to be a changed batsman. Not only did he choose his moment to attack wisely, he did not back down from a challenge, whether it was the fast bowlers or the spinners asking the questions.
And the Australian spinners, left-armer Steve O’ Keefe and offie Nathan Lyon, stunned the Indians more than once. O’ Keefe is unlikely to ever replicate his symmetric Pune performance of 6 for 35 and 6 for 35 at any level, but the manner in which he ambushed India will be a highlight of his career. On a surface so rough that natural variations exceeded the tricks spinners had up their sleeves, O’ Keefe stuck to the basics admirably. He bowled at a good pace, found his length and once that was done, did not waver. That the Indians were able to master him significantly in the Tests that followed should not take away from what was a match-winning effort.
If O’ Keefe’s success was a surprise, Lyon’s steadiness was completely along expected lines. Having grown up on pitches that do not grip as much as Indian surfaces, Lyon thoroughly enjoyed the added help he was getting. In Bengaluru, on a pitch that was far from a dust bowl, Lyon pulled the rug from India, snaring 8 for 50 in the first innings, with no batsman apart from K. L. Rahul able to resist the pressure he exerted.
The 90 that Rahul made in Bengaluru would prove to be his best score of what was a frustratingly good series. It was good in that Rahul was consistent, giving the team starts every time he walked out to bat, but frustrating in that he did not convert even one of his six half-centuries into a truly big score. On occasions it was a lapse in concentration that did for Rahul, but he will be the first to admit there was also times when his shot selection was less than judicious. Rahul is yet young, and there is no doubt that he will mature as a cricketer and when that happens there will be tall scores to look forward to.
If he wants a role model to learn how to construct an innings, Rahul need look no further than Cheteshwar Pujara. Not only did Pujara fire so strongly in the critical No. 3 slot that even Kohli’s lean patch did not cost India too dearly, he also showed that there was more than one gear to his batting. When it was needed, and the conditions allowed it, Pujara pressed on, when it was called for, he ensured that he did not loft a single delivery. With 405 runs at an average of 57.85 that included a marathon effort in Ranchi where Pujara faced a record 525 balls, this was a series that ensured that India will think twice before making the mistake of dropping Pujara, in future.
If the series ended on a slightly sour note, Kohli insisting that some of the friendships he had made with Australia’s cricketers being irreparably destroyed, it was not a complete surprise. After all, the Australians had grave misgivings about some of the pitches that Tests would be played on, even if some of this was misplaced. In Ranchi the surface was so true that it became difficult to force a result. In Dharamsala there was so much bounce and carry on offer that the scales were tilted in Australia’s favour, if anything. India will be especially pleased that they sealed the win on such a surface, leaving no room for complaints about home advantage, warranted or otherwise.
(This review was the cover story of The Sportstar, dated April 4, 2017)