The on-going cricket Test series between India and Australia, being played Down Under has reached its apogee. The series stands at one all, one match heroically drawn and the deciding Test to be played at Brisbane over the coming weekend. Unlike match-ups between these two proud cricketing nations over several decades, when the Aussies ruled the roost and the Indian cricketers merely turned up on the morning to show that there’s no ill feeling, more recent encounters have been fraught with tension, neither side giving an inch, waiting to see who blinks first. In short, plenty of needle when they meet across the sacred 22 yards. It’s been hard to pick a winner. Further there’s no great ‘home’ and ‘away’ advantage or handicap. Players from all countries have become quite accustomed to playing in varying conditions around the globe.
In more recent times, India taking on Australia has always been the series to savour. Once upon a time, it was India vs Pakistan or Australia vs England vying for the Ashes, that caught the public’s imagination. The West Indies are in terminal decline. Apart from the deadly intent and the ‘take no prisoners’ approach of both these sides, the quality of cricket has been of the highest order. The likes of Dravid, Tendulkar, Ganguly and Laxman going head-to-head against Ponting, Gilchrist, McGrath and Warne have been mouth watering prospects. Add to that Sehwag, Kumble, Dhoni and Kohli squaring up against Smith, Warner, Starc and Lyon and you have a recipe fit for kings. It therefore comes as no surprise that post the T20 and ODI encounters this Australian summer, it is the gripping Test series that is avidly engaging cricket fans, making it an Indian summer Down Under.
As always, it is not just matters purely cricket that are contributing to the heat and dust being generated. On a previous tour, we had the ‘Monkey-gate’ scandal involving Andrew Symonds and Harbhajan Singh. This time round, Australia’s premier batsman and habitual offender Steve Smith, who seems to possess an uncanny knack of getting into hot water, casually erased Rishabh Pant’s batting guard at the crease. Though in itself not a serious infringement, it was childish and needless and Smith’s captain Tim Paine’s ‘explanation’ that Smith was just indulging in some harmless visualization or shadow play, as is his wont, simply did not wash. Not good enough, Tim. It is your defence of Smith that smacks of immaturity. The captain, for his part, did not cover himself with glory, when he engaged Ravichandran Ashwin in an endless, irrelevant banter to distract the batsman who, along with the stubborn and injured Hanuma Vihari, was denying Australia even a sniff of victory with impregnable, heroic defence. It is small consolation that Paine finally admitted that his conduct was unbecoming of an Australian captain and that he would like to put the incident behind him. With the final game eagerly awaited, let’s hope he is as good as his word.
In the midst of all this drama, the Indian team is fighting its own demons in a completely different area. Namely, the fitness of its players, which is now becoming a matter of considerable concern. The injury list grows longer by the day. Try this on for size. Mohammed Shami bowed out with a fractured arm during the first Test, Umesh Yadav pulled up with a muscle cramp while bowling during the third Test, ditto Hanuma Vihari while taking a quick single, Ravindra Jadeja takes a lethal one for the team on his thumb, Cheteshwar Pujara is playing with pain killers after a finger injury, Rishabh Pant gets painfully hit on the elbow but the blow was thankfully not too serious, K.L. Rahul declares himself hors de combat at net practice, Ashwin wakes up with a back strain but battles on, Mayank Agarwal gets bonked on the arm, again during nets and horror of horrors, our bowling spearhead and lethal weapon, Jasprit Bumrah has an abdominal tear and will most likely sit out the final Test in Brisbane. At this rate, the head coach, Ravi Shastri might have to pad up and be ready for action! Let’s hope he does not bend down to pick up a dropped napkin at breakfast. At his age and fitness level, that will be another one for the stretcher. One can only hope that the rest of the team’s players, including its stand-in skipper, Ajinkya Rahane, are being preserved in moth balls, lest more harm should visit them.
Now here’s the thing. I can understand players sustaining injuries during actual play. Even then, given the number of batsmen who get rapped on the knuckles or arms, our medicine men and physios should be able to provide better protection in terms of quality of gloves or arm guards. Perhaps they should be given a rap over the knuckles. This is the 21st century, for heaven’s sake. Gavaskar’s home-made skull cap is a thing of the past. That said, I simply cannot understand why our players should consistently find themselves copping serious injuries during net practice. What is more, cricketers playing football as a means of keeping fit is another disaster waiting to happen. A contact sport, for crying out loud. That’s simply asking for trouble. I would strongly recommend chess as a viable alternative for our cricketers. What they might lose by way of physical fitness, they can compensate by sharpening their grey cells and besting the enemy on strategy. Man for man, the Aussies are all taller, more muscular and would weigh-in as heavyweights, whereas our players would all classify as somewhere between lightweight and welterweight. However, we possess more grey matter. Brain must prevail over brawn. Physical confrontation would be a no brainer.
To add to all our woes, the final nail in the coffin (an unfortunate metaphor), is the constant reminder that no visiting team has ever beaten Australia at Wooloongabba (the Gabba to its friends) in Brisbane, the venue for the 4th and final Test, since 1988. We are being constantly reminded of this both by Indian and Australian media channels. At least the Indian media should look for more positive portents from Brisbane’s cricketing folklore to give our boys some cheer. Chances are the wicket is tailor-made for fast bowlers and the big, strapping Aussie quicks will be hoping to make early inroads into our depleted batting line-up. At least, that is how the Australian cheerleaders, many of them abusive, would like to write the script. Adding insult to injury, the Indian team was checked into a hotel in Brisbane which did not provide room service! Sacré bleu! Whatever next? This is carrying mind games to ridiculous extremes.
Not to worry. The present Indian side, led by the unassuming Rahane, is made of sterner stuff. In spite of all the doom and gloom, we should be of good cheer. Our boys have more than held their own during the last three Tests on this tour, barring that one nightmare innings at Adelaide which we would all like to forget. Injuries or not, our lads have shown fighting qualities above and beyond the norm. Ashwin and Vihari have been the embodiment of courage, Pujara and Pant have met fire with fire, Gill and Rohit have given us good starts and the bowlers have readily come to the aid of the party. If only we accept the catches that come our way. This is no time for butter fingers. Rahane has led the side with maturity and sagacity in the absence of superstar, super dad Kohli. Come to think of it, now that the baby and mother are well, why can’t Kohli fly back for the Friday Test? After all, Dhoni stayed back in Australia when his baby was born. Finally, barring Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne, the Aussie batting has not been all that it is cracked up to be. If only we have the bowling strength to exploit those cracks. And that’s the rub.
Yes, my friends, the odds are against us. That should not deter us. I would ask our eloquent coach Ravi Shastri, to recite these lines from Shakespeare’s Henry V, as the King’s troops ready themselves for battle.
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
Frankly, if that doesn’t do it, I don’t know what will.