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BAD TIMES DOWN UNDER
- We go there, we get walloped, and we return

Fifty-four years ago, John Arlott succintly defined a cricketing phenomenon he termed “Australianism”. Any national side playing the baggy green caps, said Arlott, was faced with “Australian batting, bowling, fielding, captaincy, and ‘Australianism’. ‘Australianism’ means single-minded determination to win — to win within the laws but, if necessary, to the last limit within them. It means that where the ‘impossible’ is within the realm of what the human body can do, there are Australians who believe that they can to it —and who have succeeded often enough to make us wonder if anything is impossible to them. It means that they have never lost a match — particularly a test match — until the last run is scored or their last wicket has fallen.”

The first Indians to encounter this phenomenon in full force were Lala Amarnath’s touring side of 1947-8. The country had just won its independence; but against the background of a bloody partition. Conditions were terribly unsettled. This was reflected in the composition of the team that finally went. India’s greatest batsman, Vijay Merchant, dropped out for family reasons. His celebrated opening partner, Mushtaq Ali, was caught in riots in Indore and could not join the team when picked. The off-spinner, Ghulam Ahmad, was marooned in Hyderabad, whose Nizam was refusing to join the Indian Union. And another gifted cricketer, the Bombay batsman, Russi Modi, was unavailable through injury.

With these four players, India might have put up a decent fight; without them there was no hope of that either. We lost the series four-nil. A simple statistic conveys the staggering imbalance between the two sides. Whereas Australia scored an average of 47. 54 runs for every wicket lost, India averaged a mere 19.55 runs per wicket. All the fans could do was to take consolation in individual achievement. In Baroda, they spoke thus of Hazare’s hundred in each innings at Adelaide, while in Jamnagar they revelled in Vinoo Mankad’s two centuries, opening the batting against Keith Miller and Ray Lindwall.

The Bengalis too had something to celebrate. Thus the Kalighat Club in Calcutta organized a felicitation for the Indian team’s wicket-keeper, P. (Khokon) Sen. Here, the club’s president presented the cricketer with a silver salver, in recognition of his sterling work behind the stumps in the tests at Adelaide and Melbourne. In each of these two matches Australia had batted just once, scoring 674 and 575 for 8 declared respectively. But in those two mammoth scores there had been only 12 byes all told. The bowling had been indifferent, the fielding below par, but the man behind the stumps had displayed unflagging zeal and concentration. Sen’s work had brought glory to Kalighat, to Bengal and to India. Thus said the club president, and thus too thought the club’s members. In his reply, Khokhon Sen said that while he was mindful of the honour done him, he would like to point out that in all those hours behind the wicket, only five balls had passed the bat.

The most recent Indian side to encounter “Australi- anism” was the one that played the TVS-series cup final at the Eden Gardens on November 18. The home side lacked its captain, Sourav Ganguly; but the visitors were without its four finest bowlers. This was a handicap that would have crippled any other cricket team. Yet, throughout this tournament, the Australians played with imperious arrogance. The only time they were in any kind of trouble was in the final, when after Gilchrist and Hayden had failed to “fire” they ended with what — for them — was an altogether modest score of 235. On a slow, low wicket — the kind our batsmen are brought up on — we should have been clear favourites. Yet from the first ball of the Indian innings, it was clear that their opponents thought otherwise. The great Sachin Tendulkar was bottled up by accurate bowling and outstanding fielding; it took him eleven overs to hit his first boundary. Slowly, he found his touch, as did his partner, Rahul Dravid. Just when it looked as if the initiative had swung away from Australia, they got rid of Sachin. Dravid continued with his characteristic calm assurance; and Badani batted bravely. India once again looked on top. But the visitors kept chipping away, their resolve and persistence finding its reward in the end.

Australian cricketers play above themselves abroad; and they play above themselves at home. In nearly sixty years of trying, India still hasn’t won a series Down Under. (By contrast, we have won series in England, the West Indies and New Zealand.) In 1967-8, we lost four-nil. When we toured again ten years later, the home side had lost its best players to the cheque book of Mr Kerry Packer. But, as in India in 2003, their places were taken by young and ferociously competitive reserves. To lead them the Australians had called the veteran, Bobby Simpson, out of retirement. Chandrasekhar and Bedi bowled well, Gavaskar batted beautifully, but still, the best Indian side could not beat a second-string Australian team. We won our first two tests Down Under, yet they won the other three.

The Packer rebellion ended, leaving Australian cricket in a state of disrepair. The early Eighties were unquestionably the lowest point in that nation’s cricketing history. They lost regularly to the West Indies, and even (God forbid!) to England. It was in these years that India came closest to winning a series in Australia. In the winter of 1980-81, we drew a three-match series one-all, our victory coming in Melbourne, in a match remembered for an exquisite hundred by Gundappa Viswanath, for a threatened walk-out by Sunil Gavaskar, and for a marvellous match-winning spell by a heavily strapped Kapil Dev.

Five years later, we toured Australia again. The first test was a dreary draw, but in the second match we had much the better hand. We went in to bat halfway through the last day, needing a mere 126 runs to win. We had reached 59 for 2 by tea, but then a freak thunderstorm prevented further play. In the third and final test, India scored 600 for 4, batting first, and made Australia follow-on. On this occasion, victory was denied us, not by the weather but by the shocking partisanship of the home umpires.

The victory of Alan Border’s side in the 1987 World Cup was the beginning of the renewal of Australian cricket. In the winter of 1991-92, India was granted a five-match series for the first time since 1947. The result was exactly the same, four matches lost, one drawn. Consolation came in a hundred hit by the captain, Mohammed Azharuddin, in a double hundred hit by Ravi Shastri, and (especially) in the two separate hundreds hit by the 18-year-old Sachin Tendulkar. Eight years later, when India toured again, the boy had become a man. He batted bravely, as did V.V.S. Laxman, yet we lost all three matches we played.

This historical retrospective points to a fundamental and seemingly near-permanent asymmetry between India abroad and Australia at home. We go there, we get walloped, and we return. It will be no different this time. In 1947, the Indian captain, Lala Amarnath, did not have four of his best players. This winter Sourav Ganguly has precisely the men he wanted. Moreover, his side is not unduly short of self-belief. It has some fine batsmen, an outstanding coach, and the most non-parochial skipper since Tiger Pataudi. What it lacks is quality bowlers.

After the touring party was announced, Ganguly expressed regret that room could not be found in the side for Murali Kartik. I wonder if he, or John Wright, had read the scores of previous tours before the selection committee meeting. They would have found that our spinners Down Under have generally outperformed our fast bowlers. (Still the finest bowling performance by an Indian in Australia is Erapalli Prasanna’s 25 wickets in the 4 tests of 1967-8.) I think we should have gambled and taken one more slow bowler and one less seamer. Then we might have had an outside chance of winning one test; now, we should count ourselves fortunate if we do not lose all four.

I am a historian and not an astrologer. I still do not see any victory celebrations in India at the end of our tour of Australia. The most one can hope for is a fitting ceremony in Mohun Bagan Club, this to honour an individual who, in the face of the galloping gale known as “Australianism”, would have yet kept his reputation and honour intact.

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