When, soon after Independence, India toured Australia under Lala Amarnath, rival skipper Don Bradman advised them to play the matches on covered wickets, saying “it would be more advantageous”. It was a gesture from an established cricketing nation to one making its first tour of that country. But for some reason, India insisted on playing on uncovered wickets.
“The Indians suffered grievously through being caught on wet wickets,” Bradman recorded in his autobiography. The final result — of the four Tests Australia won, three were by an innings and one Test was drawn — might not have been too different, with or without covered wickets but, as Bradman said, “the end was expedited.”
India were not able to send their best team, with Vijay Merchant, Mushtaq Ali, Rusi Modi and Fazal Mahmood withdrawing for one reason or another.
Bradman was not too far off the mark when he wrote, “…it must have been obvious to experienced observers that the Indian tour would make very little if any profit…”
That was seven decades ago. It is interesting how things have changed. Thanks to television and a large audience at home, Indian cricketers are the most popular tourists wherever the game is played.
The Indian diaspora in and around cricket-playing countries has ensured that almost every ground they play on is India’s ‘home ground’. Other players have pointed out, half jokingly, that they have felt like outsiders at their own grounds.
Back in April, the Chief Executive of Cricket Australia had said that by August, the governing body would be broke. Salary cuts and redundancies struck alongside the COVID-19 pandemic. The board still expects a deficit of around 120 million, but some tough decisions have made a difference.
It is a measure of our times that, as an important series approaches, two non-cricketing, but related issues lead the conversation: finance and the pandemic. The fresh outbreak in South Australia has added to the problem. The white ball series is only days away, and not all the tension is due to purely cricketing matters.
An India-Australia series, whatever the colour of the ball, but especially if it is red, is the finest the game has to offer currently. While Australia might have to rethink their plan to allow small crowds in the stadiums under the current circumstances, things might change later. In March, a spectator at the Women’s World Cup final in Melbourne had tested positive for the coronavirus, and authorities will be mindful of that as well as the later cases.
The texture of the Indo-Australian rivalry has always been different from the Anglo-Indian one. This is partly because Australia traditionally paid India the compliment of sending their best teams to this country, partly because Australia demonstrated — in the days before Sourav Ganguly and Virat Kohli — how you could play a brand of cricket that was tough but fair, and mainly because there was, in the early years when such things mattered, far less condescension from the Australians than there was from the English.
The Indian connection with Australia was established long before the first Test series between the two. Frank Tarrant, an all-rounder for Victoria and Middlesex, had served as cricket aide both to the Maharajahs of Cooch Behar and Patiala.
“A canny adviser and an astute lobbyist with impeccable connections, Tarrant helped lay the foundations of Indian cricket,” wrote Mike Coward whose book on Tarrant has just been published. Some reckon Tarrant was probably the finest player not to have played Test cricket. He umpired the first two Test matches played on Indian soil in 1933-34.
Some months later, he organised a private tour of Australian cricketers to India, led by Jack Ryder, Bradman’s first Test captain and having in their ranks Charlie Macartney. Writing in The Hindu after the tour, Macartney said, “We have done our best to please…Maybe our work has been of some little instruction to some and if so then that will give us added pleasure.”
As Kohli’s men get ready, it is not pre-Independence history they will be thinking of so much as the more recent one. India are the holders of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, having won the last series in Australia. But that team did not have either Steve Smith or David Warner, suspended for ball tampering. That should not be an issue for India, likely to be unchanged from the team that made Australia follow-on in the final Test then.
India are ranked No. 3 in Tests as well as T20Is, while Australia are at the top in both. In ODIs, India at No. 2 are two places higher.
With the finalists of the World Test championships next year likely to be decided by percentages of victories or split points over series not played, the series that are actually played take on greater importance.