Having fallen in love with night, Australian cricket fans will once again pay worship to the garish sun when the First Test between Australia and India commences this Thursday at Adelaide Oval. Along with fireworks and other baseball ephemera, Day/Night Pink Ball Test Cricket has become the ‘traditional’ format for the Adelaide Test. Three consecutive years constitutes an eternity in the era of T10 and T20 cricket, justifying the term ‘traditional.’ On the last occasion these two nations clashed in Adelaide though, no lights were employed. Indeed, Adelaide had been scheduled to host the Second Test of that rubber, following the ‘traditional opening’ of the summer Test scheduled at the Gabba in Brisbane.
However, the shock of the death of precocious young Australian batsman Philip Hughes forced the postponement of the Brisbane fixture. The players gathered in Adelaide still in grief and shock at the death of Hughes, and that Test Match was played in an outdoor shrine amid thousands of floral tributes. As successive Australian batsmen passed significant milestones they paid public tribute to their young mate. David Warner, Steve Smith and Michael all scored centuries in Australia’s gluttonous first innings of 7/517. Each paid elaborate homage to their fallen comrade on attaining their century. They looked skyward and Clarke paid tribute to Hughes on 37, which was 63 short of a ton. And again on 63, upon which Hughes was unconquered when struck on the neck during a Sheffield Shield Match in Sydney on 25 November.
In the ghastly days that followed the formal pronouncement of Hughes’s death on the 27th of November, cricket displayed its amorphous spirit and unified the nation. Families left simple bats outside their gates. Yet the game ascended to its greatest majesty by donning black rather than traditional cream for the fallen star’s funeral in his hometown of Macksville. In front of a live, national, television audience, cricket’s royalty, including Virat Kohli, marched behind the hearse. For a fleeting moment, Australia was uplifted. It was a Je Suis Philip Hughes 408 moment. The confluence of bereavement and cricket inspired a uniquely Australian response.
The Test series should have been an anti-climax, but it produced an epic contest. Ultimately, the Australians won convincingly by 2-0. The scoreboard was unflattering of the tourists. India had shown a steel and a hunger that had not hitherto been obvious in their tours of Australia. Kohli, upon whom far too much reliance has been placed for scoring on tours outside India, enhanced his reputation as prickly, aggressive and fiercely competitive. He scored his debut Test Century at Adelaide in January 2012 in the final appearances of Indian legends Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman. Kohli has since shouldered much of the burden borne by those two and the inimitable Little Master, Sachin Tendulkar, since that time. He holds the key to his nation’s aspirations to win a series in Australia for the first time since independence. As beloved Indian broadcaster, Harsha Bhogle, has observed, Kohli embodies the New India. Brash. Assertive. Determined to be taken seriously on the world stage. His fate and that of his nation’s oft blighted hopes will be synonymous over the next few weeks.
The Indian media sense that Australia is peculiarly vulnerable at home this year. Apart from the normal intensity of a Test series, Australia represents unfinished business for the number one ranked Test Nation. Although allocated Test status in 1932, the newly Independent Indian nation played its first series against Australia in 1947-48, but India is yet to win a series on Australian soil. The current generation has grown to maturity amidst the frustration of letting Australia off the hook in 2003-2004 and the backlash over sledging in 2007-2008. Indian players have long been bemused and enraged by the deeply personal nature of Australian on-field chatter. What is considered amusing (if perhaps insulting) among Australian cricketers forged in an unforgiving Grade system, is considered condescending and often racist by Indian and Pakistani men. That is especially the case when the targets are the wives and mothers of observant religious men.
There was sufficient blame to go around in 2008. However, the Indian Board of Control flexed its considerable political muscle to humiliate Cricket Australia. Australia blinked under duress with the BCCI threatening to cancel the rest of the tour after the spiteful Sydney Test. The weight of history falls heavily on Kohli and his men as this summer gets underway. He is a fiercely proud man, leading the team which most personifies the hopes of a rising economic and military superpower. That will to win encounters an Australian cricket apparatus beset by deep self-doubts, if not an existential crisis of identity. Australia are the underdogs, though India’s history here and its immediate past record in England and South Africa offer hope. How robust will Australia be? Who will exert more pressure and how will each cope with it? In the game more aware of its traditions and history than any other, history imposes great weight. My friend Harini Rana from India and I will offer our previews of the Adelaide Test later this week. After scandal and inquisitorial reviews, it will be pleasant to return our gaze to the delightful Adelaide Oval. Bathed in light. Of the traditional natural variety.