By Manik Sharma
n the morning of December 16, 2003, Rahul Dravid walked out onto the pitch at the Adelaide Oval. A few time-zones away, it was a cold winter morning in India, one that I braved by peeping at the television from behind my quilt. India needed 230 runs to win their first Test match on Australian soil in two decades. The opening pair, though, had been sent packing with 48 on the board. Hours later, having seen half his team fall, Dravid cut a shot through square, clenched his fist, and raised his cap in victory.
“He batted like a god,” his captain Sourav Ganguly would say later. Indeed, he had, and not for the first time, Dravid almost single-handedly won a Test match away from home. In an interview to Harsha Bhogle later, he cried, because it had been that kind of feat. Not because India had won away from home – all things considered, it was only a single Test match – but because they had defeated the mighty Australians, the greatest Test team in the world. A team that must now look dreary-eyed at the way their legacy has perished.
India’s recent series win Down Under is laudable, no doubt. But it should really have been easier than it looked. While it says a thing or two about the batting prowess of the likes of Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara and the bowling of Jasprit Bumrah, India’s cakewalk through the latest Border-Gavaskar trophy says more about the hosts Australia. To say Australian cricket in 2018 was in turmoil is an understatement.
In March, three Australian players, including Steve Smith, their captain and best player at the time, were found guilty of ball-tampering against South Africa. They faced sanctions, and were banned from cricket for a year. Australia’s cricketing culture, their penchant for sledging and mind games isn’t new. They invented the dark arts, and often pushed rules, but most noticeably without breaking them. This, however, didn’t seem like the street-smartness of yore, but the desperation of a team that has seen better days. It must be noted that any player who dons the Australia cap has a prospective greatest-in-the-same-role compatriot he shall always be compared to. This after all is nation of Bradman, Lillee, Ponting, McGrath, and Warne.
Australian cricket has touched heights that no other country has seen. Between 1999 and 2008 the Australian team played 93 Tests and won a stunning 72 of them. Of the 28 series they played during this time, they won 24. Not to mention the two World Cup trophies they picked up on the way. This level of dominance is unparalleled and perhaps even more so because it came at a time when most countries offered their own golden generations: India’s Big Five (Tendulkar, Ganguly, Laxman, Sehwag, and Dravid); the Pakistan of Inzamam, Younus, Shoaib, and Yousuf; Kirsten, Pollock, Rhodes, and Cronje repping South Africa, and so on. Australia beat not only the best other teams had to offer, but the best cricket has had to offer for a long, long time. It is no wonder then that the popularity of T20 cricket and the decline of Test cricket have coincided with the downfall of Australian Test cricket, the gold standard of the gentleman’s game. After all, they can take credit for the 9-slips (Denis Lillee in 1976), the McGrath school of irritable and perfect line-and-length fast bowling, and arguably cricket’s greatest leg-spinner in Shane Warne.
After watching Australia’s insipid performance in their own backyard, spectacularly lacking in cricketing menace or quality, one can’t help but feel how dry world cricket feels without the Australians at the top competing for each prize, given how their ferocity and siege mentality is something the likes of Kohli and co have built on. Australia’s domestic system has longed served as a conveyor belt of talent. This year though, this irresistibly sleek piece of apparatus has finally come undone, worn down by the very edge it lived on all these years.
The year 2018 must be the worst in Australian cricket’s history. But its repercussions and implications must not be lost in the delusion of dominance that India enjoys now. India’s coach Ravi Shastri said this was a win bigger than the World Cup win of 1983. To be honest, it isn’t even the best performance by an Indian team Down Under, at least in the modern era. That would be 2003.
Dominance is of course cyclical. But it is hard to say how good the Indian team really is, considering how mediocre and troubled almost every other cricketing nation looks at the moment. India, even if they sleepwalk through the next World Cup to a win, cannot be declared anywhere close to being the complete package, the inimitable juggernaut that Australia were. There simply are no challenges, both on and off the field, in sight. Losing Test matches in South Africa and England hints that we aren’t as good as we’d like to think. After all, perspective is hard to come by in times of jingoism. Conversely, after that win in 2003, Ganguly humbly claimed, “We are the second-best team in the world.” Of course, you can only beat what is in front of you, but bearding a lion in his den and putting a bell on a housecat are two distinctly separate things. It perhaps meant more to usurp a win from a tyrannical Australian squad in their own backyard than to run-over their sorry-looking successors, who seem despairingly close to sporting demise.
Any sport is richer, and its victories more meaningful when the best are at their best. Like Italian football, therefore, the decline of Australian cricket must be for everyone to mourn.
Manik Sharma writes on art and culture