Newsmaker: Bring it on
A bitter and acrimonious Test series between India and Oz has just ended with the former winning 2-1 after being a game down in the series, which is most creditable for it shows mental resolve and combativeness. Over the last 17 years, cricket has had many edgy rivalries, the Ashes has returned to its erstwhile glory as both sides battle resolutely, Australia and South Africa have a different needle in their gladiatorial jousts, India and Pakistan remains hot button, but now it is limited to ICC tourneys rather than bilateral games. If there is war minus the shooting, then it is without doubt India vs Australia. The fervour, the level of intensity and the high standard of cricket has turned it into the number one marquee billed contest. It goes beyond the pale, beyond the Ashes and even beyond India vs Pakistan, it is a rumbustious thrill a minute clash which eclipses every other rivalry in cricket. Not only is it adrenalised and energised, it is mentally demanding. For the tasteless Aussies to now describe Virat Kohli as an ego maniac and classless over his no longer friends with Aussie cricketers comment means that the wheel has come full circle. Foul-mouthed Aussies have used their mental disintegration tactics to get under the skin of opposition players for years. They have been poking and now they are getting it back, six bags full.
Bad boy Ian Chappell turned the Australians into the Ugly Australians and successive captains thereafter have never let up on the lip. Fiercely competitive, Aussies don’t give a quarter nor ask for one, they play hard and party harder. When the Indians shunned the Aussie request for a beer after the series, a new UGLY Indian has emerged. One that chooses to meet lip with lip, it doesn’t back down. The close in catchers are constantly chipping, sorry chirping away, India’s pacemen have the necessary firepower to bounce out batters, while the spinners use guile and tweak to make them walk the gangplank to doom. One can argue that Kohli has taken aggression to a new, perhaps slightly distasteful level, but in the heat of battle, when it gets derisive and abusive, I guess one has no option but to hit back. Kohli like other Delhi team mates Gautam Gambhir and Ishant Sharma are new Indians, tough and uncompromising. Umesh Yadav’s spell where he was at the throats of the Oz batters in the Dharamsala Test is emblematic of the new Indian, just as Ajinkya Rahane’s counter attack against deadly dangerous Pat Cummins held a neon sign in the faces of the Aussies.
Stump cams now catch the verbal and if the OZ who practice a unique type of inverse snobbery were adept at giving it to Indians, Kohli’s men did not back down. The Australian newspaper chose to comment on this angry end to what was another eventful series – “If there were any doubts about the poor spirit between the Indian and Australian sides it was confirmed after the series when the home side shunned a suggestion the two sides drink together.”
Oz don’t like losing, but equally the new Indians hate losing. Twice now in the recent past, first in Sri Lanka and now at home against Oz, they have come back from a one zero deficit. Kohli and his men are young, educated and very much part of a modern and contemporary and rapidly changing Indian society. Indians are no longer meek and submissive on the cricket field. Ganguly instilled that self belief in Indian cricketers, Dhoni quietly validated that axiom, but it is Kohli who bears his fangs by going after the opponent, showing him for what he is. To call an Oz skipper a cheat takes gumption, but he called it. Despite being in strife right through the series, his batting imperiled, he just didn’t back down, verbalising his offensive strategy. Yes, we know that cricket is a gentleman’s game and bad behaviour is anathema, but Australian cricketers don’t believe in pretty please, they are rancorous, boorish and even malevolent. They deserve everything that they are getting and more. Andrew Flintoff was another cricketer who gave them hell. Maybe a beer after the series wasn’t a bad idea to bring down the mercury, but Kohli chose not to for reasons well known to him and his team. Getting under the skin is a particularly Aussie thing and Umesh Yadav or Bhuvaneshwar Kumar’s bowling in the second essay or Rahane and Rahul's batting in the final innings showed the virulence with which Team India was reacting to the Aussie verbal right through the series. Steve Smith calling Murli Vijay a cheat for a catch that he claimed only added high-octane fuel to a nicely burning fire. With this vitriolic nastiness, it was untenable for the teams to swig a glass of beer, one would think! Sledging took a new game face in this series with Ishant and Ravindra Jadeja memes of Steve Smith and even Candice Warner (David’s wife) jumping into the fray. It made headlines outside the stadium when Warner said that the Indians did not applaud Smith’s hundred, which led to a severe backlash on Twitter for all to see.
It all began under Saurav Ganguly’s stewardship in the series against Australia in 2000-01. Described by one and all as El Clasico, it was the mother of all epics. Steve Waugh had called India the ‘final frontier’ for a team, which was hailed by many as the best ever. Australia had not won in India since 1969-70 and this was their best opportunity to cement their legacy as Invincibles 2.0. India on the other hand had just emerged from the dark clouds of match fixing and were looking for inspiration under a young captain, Sourav Ganguly. But with their biggest match winner, Anil Kumble, sidelined, it looked like a tall order. India lost the first Test inside three days as the Oz attack of Glen McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Damien Fleming and Shane Warne ran circles around us. The Indians chose the Eden to showcase their gritty fightback with VVS Laxman, Rahul Dravid and Harbhajan Singh signing off on the modern classic. Following on after being bowled out for 171, it all looked uphill and lost. Laxman who had single handedly waged war with a defiant 59 in the first innings was promoted to number 3 and as a cornered pugilist, he slugged his way out in Calcutta’s humidity. In Ganguly and then Rahul Dravid he found willing accomplices and the trinity systematically brutalised the Oz psyches. In an energy sapping riposte, Laxman and Dravid stitched up a 376 run stand with Laxman in one of the singular test innings of its kind scored 281 while Dravid grounded out 180. In a tense final day, Harbhajan and Tendulkar spun the Aussies out to eke out a famous win. It set a new template for India-Oz encounters and since that day, the intensity has only been ratcheted up. The next game at Chennai's Cheapuk also saw Bhajji in spin heaven and India won the series 2-1.
Actually the tone for this bitterly contested rivalry was set in the previous Oz tour of India in 1997-98 when Tendulkar showed no mercy to his rival Shane Warne. India won the series 2-1. It was only in 2004-05 that stand in captain Adam Gilchrist managed to script a 2-1 vanquishing of India. Then came Monkeygate, something that disintegrated Australian psyches forever as Bhajji and Andrew Symonds clashed on field. Since the 2004-05 Aussie win in India, India have never lost to the Aussies at home. Imagine even the calm and unruffled Tendulkar has fallen prey to this sledging rivalry - Tendulkar decided to have a go at McGrath in an ICC Knockout Trophy game in 2000. Sachin who was in a blistering mood that day not only thrashed McGrath all over the park but also hurled some verbal volleys at him. It was uncharacteristic of someone like Tendulkar. There have been many such instances of sledging involving players from both sides - Shane Watson has been involved on a couple of occasions, Kohli on several.
It’s Monkeygate which remains the defining ugliness in these clashes. This is the touc-hstone that remains top of mind in any India-Oz match. India’s next trip Down Under should be fun, Kohli can expect to be barracked non stop from the hill. He’s been there and done that, so watch out.
Sandeep Bamzai