Chennai: History beckons Virat Kohli and his men down under. No Indian team has won a series there since ties began with the 1948 tour by Lala Amarnath’s team. Beating the Aussies at home used to be considered the most arduous task in the cricket world. Clive Lloyd used to say a visiting team had to be twice as good as the Aussies to win in their lair. Of course, conditions have changed in the modern era with neutral umpires and the decision review system in place.
Australian hegemony was founded upon a number of factors, not least of all the home umpiring. A different cricketing ecosystem on hard and sporting pitches with bounce and carry and the Kookaburra ball not swinging as much as in other lands meant the attack had to be direct ad intimidating with the shiny cherry. And to sustain mental strength across a full tour of Australia with all that sledging and ‘aggro was a challenge that has proved beyond any Indian team in history.
The home team’s batting looks very weak and can be exploited by what has been Team India’s finest armada of fast bowlers in a long time, impressive as much in its numbers as in its capabilities besides pace. Let’s face it — if they can’t do it this time, it might be a case of Never Never for Indian cricket for eternity. When again will we have a performing batsman as Test captain who is on a roll and who has a proven record in Australia on a previous tour?
Balancing the pace attack is Ravichandran Ashwin’s offspin, a traditional bugbear of the Aussie batsmen if the weapon is consistently deployed. The close-in catching may not have been of the highest standards of late — as seen in the England series - but in the clear light and air of Australia it might be simple enough to up the standards of slip fielding. And we do have a couple of safe hands in that area, including the deputy skipper Ajinkya Rahane and a young ‘keeper capable of covering ground in both directions.
Kohli must remember that finer Indian teams have gone to Australia on voyages of hope but failed for various reasons. Kapil’s 1986 team should have won the series 2-0 but for rain in Melbourne bringing the curtains down on an Indian chase and some shoddy umpiring in the Sydney Test where routine use of the pads by home batsmen in the closing stages replicated events that are usually looked upon with an avuncular forgiveness by home umpires. The 1985-86 side was one of the finer Team India combinations.
I remember the Sydney Cricket Ground Trust hosting a couple of us visiting journalists for lunch on the final day and what should have been a long afternoon of wine, crackers and cheese plus fine fare at the table during an obviously drawn game became a nervous one for us as the alarm bells against spin went off in the Aussies. As wickets began falling post-lunch, we rushed back from our long lunch hoping to record a triumph. Alas! It was not to be. The Aussie experience may have hardened that Indian team even more into that winning performance in England a few months later.
The Melbourne triumph of 1980-81 is still worth telling as one of India’s great wins in Australia. I was told that the previous effort in 1977-78 that ended in 3-2 win for the home side, which was without the A-lister Packer players like the Chappells and Lillee and ‘Thommo, may well have ended in India’s favour had Dilip Vengsarkar not ended a resplendent fourth innings effort of 78 with an extravagant pull that he skied to deep mid wicket, if memory serves me right.
I had been given a most believable forecast of an Indian win, straight from the horse’s mouth, on the fourth evening of the Melbourne Test. This was by none other than Dennis Lillee. Having crossed over for the evening presser, I was pulled aside by Dennis who whispered to me — “If I were a betting man I would put a few bob on India.” Not being a cricket betting man yet at that time, I merely quoted Dennis in the newspaper. Australia were 24-3 against a target of 143 on a wearing pitch and a fine final day in the reckoning with Australia leading 1-0 after India had been routed in Sydney and drew in Adelaide.
Kapil Dev was down with a strained thigh muscle and needed steroid shots to get ready for the final day. Doshi had a broken instep in his right foot and he needed painkilling injections too. Two main bowlers who could make a difference had spent a sleepless night. They summoned the courage and the sheer physical grit to bowl through the pain and run through Australia for just 83 in what was to be titled the ‘Great Escape at MCG’, that too after Sunil Gavaskar, with smoke coming out of his ears, having on the fourth day threatened to give up the match when he pushed a reluctant Chetan Chauhan out along with him after being given out LBW to Lillee.
MCG was a remarkable Test match with a sting in the tail. Outplayed for 89 days, Team India was to bounce back to share the honours. We held the Aussies at bay through the ’80s and things began downhill only with Azharuddin’s touring team of 1991-92 when Team India proved incapable of even sniffing at a win despite so many splendid batting performances by Sachin Tendulkar and Ravi Shastri’s double hundred at SCG. Not even a rejuvenated Kapil and Manoj Prabhakar proved incisive enough a combination to be able to bowl Australia out cheaply enough.
We saw one of the greatest modern Test innings by Sachin in the Perth Test on a flyer of a WACA pitch with the Fremantle Doctor blowing fiercely and Mike Whitney, a left arm fast medium bowler built somewhat like a Sherman tank, kept hitting the deck with noticeable awesomeness. He hit the widening cracks in 7-27 on the final day to leave India wrecked at 4-0. Try as they might, Team India was never able to pull off a series victory Down Under. What we have now is more than great expectations. This is the greatest opportunity to beat the Aussies — in their den....