From the window of his hotel room in Sydney, Sadagopan Ramesh could see the distant explosion of the streaming flames, inking the sky in plumes of pink and purple, ushering in the new millennium. If they stretched their necks, they could spot the sails of the unreally illuminated Opera House. But inside the hotel room, he felt restively hollow. The series sewn up, they were dead-horses waiting to be flogged. Ramesh, twitching and turning on his bedspread but careful not to hurt his right thumb, felt a cold sweat slivering through his body. His mind was constantly revisiting the fiendish bouncer that fractured his thumb. He came to bat the morning after the blow, on the last day of the Boxing Day Test, but the pain was so excruciating that he retired hurt after the first over. He had injections and pain-killers and stoically willed himself to bat the next morning. But he simply couldn’t.
While the physical pain of the blow subsided, the psychological torture of it only accentuated in time. The sight of Lee, his flock of blonde hair bouncing in the breeze, or in the whizzing fury of his run-up, and the wicked bouncer recurred in his mind’s scape. Often, batsmen remember the balls that hurt them than those that nailed them. It’s something of a mental clutch.
Back home, the fallacies of his technique were dissected and exaggerated. Even in Ranji matches, some muck-as-any fast bowler would barrage him with bouncers. He would disdain them to the fence with alacritous felicity. But the shadow of Lee and that vicious bouncer still lingered, like a distasteful smell of the past. He was promptly shunned, and even though he did make a comeback, his international career folded in unfulfilled.
Then Ramesh was just another of the countless, now faceless, youngsters who left the rough Tasman shores with a heavy heart and heavier brunt of defeat. For touring cricketers, it was a sporting death row, or a crucible from which only few emerged unburnt. From his own colleagues, only four returned for the next tour, another four never played Test cricket again. His skipper, Sachin Tendulkar, was to shun captaincy for good. Kapil Dev, never ventured into the business of to coaching. There were few plausible excuses for a series where they showed neither fight nor guts.
Only Tendulkar tallied 40-plus and VVS Laxman 30-plus. Among bowlers, only Ajit Agarakar had a respectable aggregate of 31. It seemed, the rest had just turned up. But Australia, then, was a different beast. At that point, Steve Waugh’s men had yet to be likened to Bradman’s ‘Invincibles’ or christened the “Untouchables’—the India whitewash was their ninth successive win. There were hushed whispers, but the hype was just building up.
The Channel Nine feed for the 1990-2000 series was unusually grey, or was it really? The greyness of the frames, though, was in sync with the mood. But when Tendulkar’s men were touching new depths, a restless West Delhi boy would, groggy-eyed, was hooked to his idol on telly. He, like most, would switch off the television when his idol got out. He like, many, would have felt the angst of his idol perishing to umpiring howlers.
But it was not just his idol that left an impression on the 11-year-old. There was something so appealing, or even admirable, about the adversaries led by a tiny-eyed man who hardly winked or smiled. He batted, if needed bowled, fielded and even led his side as if in a trance. The painted faces, the volleys of advice (abuse), the prototypically Australian will to win, left an edifying impression on the young fella’s mind.
Maybe, that’s where Kohli’s captaincy ideals were loosely formed, at least subconsciously. The template was set deep. And when his chance arrived to lead his country, he has led them with the same set of ideals his young mind had soaked in while watching that gloomy feed of Channel Nine. Or so it seems. Dare we liken Kohli’s India with Waugh’s Australia? It sounds nigh blasphemous—a stronger case shall be put forth if Kohli can replicate a similar streak of success overseas. But we are only suggesting, or even imagining, that Kohli’s India is like Waugh’s Untouchables.
There, though, are irrepressible threads that compel comparison. Let’s begin with their immediate predecessors. Mark Taylor became Australia’s captain, because he was the best captain. The vagaries of his fluctuating form were balanced out by his tactical whiz—the master of bluff as he is so famously deigned. So with MS Dhoni, who was captain, because he was the best captain around; not because he was the best batsman. But Waugh became the captain because he was the best batsman just as Kohli was. After 23 matches, their record is beguilingly similar. While Kohli won 15 and lost only two, Waugh too has the exact number of triumphs but a defeat more. At home, both were yet to taste a Test defeat—Waugh, in fact, never lost a Test series at home. Let alone being defeated, both sides have looked remotely beatable at home.
The margin of victories paints a clearer picture of their infallibility at home. Under Kohli, India’s lowest margin for victory in India has been 108 runs, the only time they chased a target, they did so with eight wickets in hand. Half a dozen of those wins were by a handsome margin of 200 runs or in excess (twice by 300 runs), and twice were England inflicted innings defeats. That’s domination.
Just as Waugh’s was at a similar stage. India were thumped by 285 runs, 180 runs and by an innings an 141 runs. Before them, Pakistan were beaten by 10 wickets, four wickets (the closest they ever came to defeat) and by an innings and 20 runs. Later, West Indies were inflicted a brace of innings defeats and a humungous 352-run thrashing.
Soon upon assuming reins from Taylor, Waugh encouraged his batsmen to race along at a minimum of four runs an over. Most of them, readily took on that challenge. Even the others were forced to change their tack, like Justin Langer. Ditto for Kohli, unless the situation warranted attrition or caution. To draw another refrain, Kohli’s Langer is perhaps Pujara, whose batting has a newfound enterprise. Thus while Waugh became the most successful Australian skipper at breathtaking speed, Kohli is galloping to the helm himself—he is already the third most successful Indian skipper.
The loudest appraisal of the invincibility of Waugh’s side came from the toughest of his adversaries, Brian Lara, after they were steamrollered 5-0. “There is something remarkable about this team, and about the way Steve has led and inspired them. At this moment, they look unbeatable,” he said.
Almost kindred in spirit was Waugh’s observation on Kohli. “Virat Kohli’s leadership is also very contagious. The Indian players feel positive and they feel they can do anything. It seems that the new Team India can achieve anything,” he added.
While Kohli is not yet a Waugh when it comes to his charisma or aura (and by the way Kohli hasn’t published a single tour diary, while Waugh wrote as many as nine without a ghostwriter), he like Waugh has drilled in a sense of aggression and ruthlessness and cohesion. Also like Waugh, he has moulded a set of personnel who could put a fist through the wall for their skipper.
There was a favourite anecdote of Richie Benaud on how Ricky Ponting, Waugh’s successor, won the trust of his teammates. In the selection meeting for the 2003 World Cup, Ponting wouldn’t get up from the selection table until Symonds was picked. Finally, the selectors relented. Then arrived the moment for Symond’s reciprocation. Australia were reeling at 90 for 4 in Johannesburg, with Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis in their ethereal zen. Ponting then told Symonds, “I want you to listen to me, because I’m going to ask you to do something for me. I want you to be here at the end.” Symonds nodded his head and rattled off an unbeaten 143. You can expect any of Kohli’s colleagues to do it for him too.
“Bhoot gaya toh palit aaya,” admits Irfan Pathan. While both his tours to Australia were memorable, the first in which he issued a memo of his potential to the world and in the second which restored his merits, there was a hint of admiration than contempt for Australia’s batsmen, as any bowler who had toured Australia at the peak of their powers would say. “Dangerous batsman gaya toh doosra aaya. Australia se match ke time pe bahut jyada mehnat karni padti thi because they kept a benchmark,” he adds.
Pathan’s words ring true for the present Indian team as well. Just as a wet-behind-the-ears Pathan was overwhelmed by the ritual proficiency of Australia’s colossus of batsmen, a retinue of bowlers who had toured India of late would vouch for the combined and personal prowess of India’s new-age batting galacticos. You dislodge KL Rahul and Murali Vijay early, you still have Cheteshwar Pujara to weather the storm, then the mightiest of them all, the skipper himself, who when he bats seems to be obliged with a perpetual mission to raise the bar of his batsmanship. Then if you’ve, somehow contrived to see their backs, you still have to chalk up measures to whittle out Ajinkya Rahane and a more than canny lower-order. Perhaps, India lacks the ingenuity of Adam Gilchrist at No 6, but England bowlers will fully attest to the faculty of India’s lower-order batsmen, who then take turns to harass them with the ball.
The Australians didn’t necessarily need any undue instigation to go hard at their opponents. They seemed to be entirely driven by the killjoy to see their adversaries writhe and bleed in mental and physical agony. “If you are bowling 140 plus they will come down the track to you. They will do whatever they can to demoralise the opponents. This is what the Indian team is doing now, they are demoralising teams,” points out Pathan. Like Ramesh a decade and a half ago. Ask Ben Duckett or Ross Taylor.
Like great teams, they instil into the opposition an inferiority complex, sometimes even before they land. This aspect, more than skill, distinguishes this Indian team from the predecessors. While the best Indian teams of the past had a tinge of romance—which ascribed to a tendency to not always squeeze the pulp out of their opponents, even if the situation beggared to—Kohli’s batch is perhaps the most pragmatic Indian team ever. Hence, the absolute lack of heightened drama when they win matches. It’s a de rigueur.
They are not bereft of cracks—as was Waugh’s great side which couldn’t brag about a quality all-rounder (whether they needed one is a different debate)—but they are obscenely useful at papering over their weaknesses. And at no point would they ever concede an impression that they have a weakness. Man for man, barring Kohli or Ravichandran Ashwin in this form, none of them are automatic entrants to an all-time Indian XI, or even a 21st century Indian XI. But they have, at least, numerically shaded their predecessors. Even on a philosophical plane, for you can’t recall any India side that has flaunted such schadenfreude, or cockiness. If Pathan felt playing in Australia was like going to a war, playing India in India is now akin to a war. A war that encompasses within it a variety of battles—of skill, words, and wits.
Steve Smith was unusually low-key in his first press conference upon landing India. Maybe, unlike most of his predecessors, he is mild-mannered by nature. Or perennial cynics of Australians as we are, we might conjecture that he had deliberately embraced a meek, almost self-depreciating self. Whatever the reasons be, missing was the famed Aussie braggadocio, which is not just atypical, but antithetical to the very outback spirit of the Aussies. It nonetheless left a void, rendering the series a little blase, and stripping it off some lively pre-series verbal kitsch and false-intrigue. Even more surprising—perhaps reflective of the phase Australian cricket is treading now— was his response to the very obvious question of stopping Kohli. “We are trying to form a game plan,” he mumbles. Verbs like “try” and “hope” wouldn’t have tumbled out of their lips.
Maybe, it’s a consciously conceived ploy to not talk big. After all, it could gloriously backfire. A likelier case is that they have plainly resigned to the reality (the present and impending), which shows they have been pottered around by a Sri Lankan side in transitional shambles, then harangued by an AB de Villiers-less South Africa, and a Test later Steyn-less South Africa.
The chastening at the hands of Sri Lanka was more morale-battering. It was their third successive series whitewash in the subcontinent, and at the end of the series, which had begun promisingly with them skittling out the hosts for 117 in Kandy, Smith was a wind-beaten man. He could just lament, “It’s a hard one to really grasp.”
It isn’t hard to grasp for neutral eyes. Australia’s grim reaper was spin—their batsmen’s inability to negotiate spin on turners and their bowler’s inability to prise out wickets. It’s an age-old conundrum for visiting teams in the subcontinent. The touring sides that had triumphed in the subcontinent had all exemplary spinners as well as players of spin. Australia of 2004 had Damien Martyn, Michael Clarke and Matthew Hayden, England of 2012 had Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell, and Alastair Cook. And Australian batsmen, even of recent vintage, were masters in masking their weaknesses. “They will make you feel that they can tackle anything be it spin or slow wickets. Such has been Australian teams that they will never show the struggle,” points out Pathan.
The present group, as Harbhajan Singh says, doesn’t inspire dread. “You look at Shane Warne, there isn’t a bowler half as good as him, there is no bowler half good as McGrath or Gillespie. Their batting order just doesn’t match with Langer, Hayden, Ponting, Martyn, Steve Waugh and Gilchrist. They are a different lot,” he says.
Maybe Steve Smith, like Allan Border in the dynamics-shifting Ashes of 1989, would catalyse a sudden, unprecedented shift in fortune. The resurgence, cricket historians claim, began with a needling sledge. “I am prepared to be as ruthless as it takes to stuff you,” Border apparently told David Gower before the first Test at Headingley. Australians, then distant odds to reclaim the Ashes, won it back 4-0 with a fledgling side.
Smith looks too likeable to repeat a similarly loaded line to Kohli. He looks as tetchy as Tendulkar in that forgetful series at the turn of the century. It’s tempting to foretell a Tendulkar-like calamitous narrative awaiting Smith—the skipper waging lone battles, his callow support cast tied in notional knots, the bowlers reaping frugal fruits of labour. Throw in a couple of umpiring howlers (which DRS would punctually nullify), and the series will have a 1999-2000 feel about it. A mirror reflection, in fact.
(With inputs from Devendra Pandey)