How friendly can Australia v India actually be?
Sunil Gavaskar versus Dennis Lillee. Venkatesh Prasad versus Michael Slater. Andrew Symonds versus Harbhajan Singh. Ricky Ponting versus Zaheer Khan. Gautam Gambhir versus Shane Watson. David Warner versus Rohit Sharma. Virat Kohli versus Steven Smith.
Australia versus India has become synonymous with individual encounters, many of them ugly ones. The Harbhajan v Symonds narrative overshadowed an entire summer, while Kohli’s verbal and mental duels with Smith in 2017 included accusations of systematic cheating by India’s captain. Even the 2014-15 summer, played out in the shadow of Phillip Hughes’ death, contained more histrionics and confrontations than anyone expected.
So what to expect this time around, when Australia are seeking to remake themselves in the wake of the Newlands scandal, while India under Kohli glimpse their best chance, perhaps ever, to win a series in this country? Kohli and Tim Paine’s teams will exchange handshakes at the outset of the encounter, in a custom the Australian captain has introduced post-Newlands, but the visiting captain was under no illusions that attempts to get under each other’s skin would take place.
“I don’t see stuff happening, which has happened in the past, where both teams have crossed the line but still it’s a competitive sport, it’s international cricket,” Kohli said in Adelaide on Wednesday, the eve of the first Test. “We do not expect guys to just come in and bowl and just walk back. There are going to be times when you have to put the batsmen under pressure, not necessarily crossing the line but just get into their heads, which you expect from any side in the world, not just Australia.
“It is going to be there, but it’s not going to be at the level that has happened in the past where both teams have lost control. But the competitiveness will be there because you eventually want to get guys out if the situation is going your way and you understand you’re up against an important guy in the opposition, you will go hard at that person.
“Be it in your body language or just putting in a word or two. But I don’t see anything radical happening, because the skill-set is high, so we necessarily would not need to get into anything. But at times where the situations are difficult, you do find ways to upset the batsman’s rhythm and I think a bit of banter there is not harmful at all.”
Last week, Paine told ESPNcricinfo that he would not be averse to allowing his players to pick fights should they decide they needed to for reasons of motivation, with the significant change that this should now never lurch into the sort of abuse seen when Warner and Quinton de Kock became embroiled in Durban earlier this year.
“It depends on the individual. I know some guys enjoy it, some guys it doesn’t matter,” Paine said. “In Test cricket and with some of the guys in the Indian side, there’s going to be times where there’s a bit of heat out in the middle, and guys are going to be right into the contest. The focus for us has got to be on delivering our skill as well as we possibly can, so if guys want to get involved in a bit of that stuff to get themselves going, then that’s great.
“But we now know the difference between what’s right and what’s wrong, and what’s expected. We’re not going to be going over the top, but certainly you’ve got to stand up for your team and your teammates, and I’m sure when the time comes for that we’ll be doing that. But the main focus for us will be to play the best cricket we can.”
However on match eve, he offered a simple message about how much things have changed for Australia since Newlands. Where once winning was the only thing, it is now one of two. “We play Test cricket to win, there is no doubt about that,” Paine said. “Clearly we’ve realised we needed to do some work in some areas, of gaining the respect of our country is as high a priority as is winning.”
The way that Australia will play, and the manner in which Paine will lead, will undoubtedly be influenced by home surrounds. As Kohli put it, there is no Australian team yet selected that is vulnerable at home, and that aura will remain evident even if Smith and Warner are absent. “There’s no doubt playing in Australia suits our team,” Paine said. “Having Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins back in as well is going to be different and the style of play in Australia compared to the UAE is completely different, but in terms of leadership style it’s going to be exactly the same we are going to go about it the same way we did over there, it’s just going to be tactically slightly different.
“It’s a huge honour, a massive privilege [to captain at home]. I just had an interview with Ricky Ponting and we went through the names of Australian Test captains over the years, so it is a little bit daunting to be in a bracket with some of those guys. At the same time I’m trying to keep it as simple as I can, I’m trying to be myself and do my job which is first and foremost to wicket keep and bat. I’m hugely honoured to be captain of Australia but I am not letting it weigh me down too much.”
For all those aforementioned duels, the distinct impression in Adelaide on series eve was that both Australia and India would prefer that this contest is boiled down to cricket’s most fundamental contest: that between bat and ball