the battle of the bullies

Australia and India are part of the “axis of admin” currently running world cricket. That shouldn’t mean you confuse them for friends.

Administrators from both countries happily badmouth each other. Cricket Australia tells people they will hold the BCCI to their ethics. The BCCI tells everyone that they won’t be given moral lessons by the same Cricket Australia that runs the bully Australian teams.

On the field, it is often much the same.

There was a time when Australians completely ignored India. On the field, off the field, as a country. Australia spent decades without winning a Test series in India, but they also spent decades hardly playing a series there in the first place. Australia toured India five times in their first 50 years. They played for the first time in India 24 years after India’s first Test, which even when the Second World War is accounted for, is quite some time.

Even when Kerry Packer went around the world looking for players for World Series Cricket, the Indians weren’t tapped on the shoulder. Sunil Gavaskar and Bishan Bedi could have played, but one was a blocker and the other a spinner; it wasn’t box office. They weren’t playing the game the right way, the Australian way.

Before 2001, this was kind of how Indian cricket was seen in Australia. As this effeminate version of cricket that really wasn’t for Australians. They didn’t bowl fast. They didn’t smash the ball. They didn’t travel well. And Australians had to take food to their country just to survive it.

Australia hadn’t won in India since 1969, but now it was just a matter of time. Coming into India’s enforced second innings, Australia had won their last 16 and a half Test matches.

Then, VVS.

Australia first tried to take his wicket driving. He drove, they took no wicket. Australia then tried to take his wicket pulling. He pulled, they took no wicket. Australia then tried to take his wicket with slower balls. He waited, they took no wicket. Australia then tried to take his wicket with ring fields. He pierced, they took no wicket. Australia then tried to take his wicket with bowling in the rough. He smashed, they took no wicket. Australia then tried to take his wicket in the slips. He middled, they took no wicket. Australia then tried to take his wicket by giving up. He batted, they took no wicket.

VVS made 281. When India started to follow on, they were 274 behind. VVS beat the follow-on.

If you were taking on a team of Don Bradman, George Headley, Barry Richards, Viv Richards, Victor Trumper and WG Grace, you would not be unhappy to take Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Shane Warne with you. By the end, Steve Waugh used every player on his roster other than himself, probably due to health reasons, and Adam Gilchrist. Waugh had one of the greatest bowling attacks in cricket, and he was bowling Justin Langer.

VVS didn’t just beat Australia; he beat their entire system. He beat their will. He beat their ego. And he did it in such a way that Australia had to give up. India could no longer be ignored. India didn’t play cricket the Australian way, they played it the Indian way.

From there on in, you could buy DVDs of an Indian tour in Australian supermarkets. This was a country that only shortly before were happy enough to laugh, or at least cringe in silence, as former Australian Greg Ritchie did a long-running racist portrayal of Indians on TV. Australia went from a country that called Indians “curry munchers” to a country that was now desperate to beat them.

Then there was the money. India meant money. Not DVD sales but TV rights. The money jumped up every time Australia hosted India. Hosting 70,000 people at the MCG was nice, hosting India in a Test series was the greatest show on earth.

Then the Sydney Test of 2008 happened. Not many people come out of that Test well. Not either cricket boards or key players from either side. And when India threatened to travel home, Australia for the first time truly realised that they were no longer the masters of their relationship. To use the language of George Costanza, they had no hand.

This was India’s relationship, this was India’s sport, this was India’s money.

Matthew Hayden had called India third world and he had called one of their players an obnoxious weed. Yet, in the corner of N Srinivasan’s India Cements office there is a bat given to him by Hayden. Now Hayden can be seen doing embarrassing video selfies for an Indian TV company.

Thanks to the IPL, Australian cricketers were treated more like rock stars in India than they ever had been at home. At the Wankhede stadium there was once a 30-foot-high picture of Aiden Blizzard. In Australia he could wear an “I am Aiden Blizzard” sandwich board in Bourke St and not be recognised. Before most Australians knew who Aaron Finch was, he could be seen in hair product ads in India.

Steve Waugh had taken to India out of love for the country. And Australian cricketers had always felt much love from Indians. But now they felt it in their wallets. Brett Lee ended up in Bollywood films. Even John Buchanan has given speeches on business in India.

Then there is the Australian success in the IPL. They win a lot of titles, as captains, as coaches. Their players win a lot of personal awards. Many have pointed to the amount of useless Australian players in the IPL as a weakness of the tournament, but they are there because they have shown a lot of success. The IPL rated David Warner and Glenn Maxwell as much as, or in some cases long before, the Australian selectors did.

These same players are often now team-mates one week, adversaries the next. It has forged strong friendships and epic feuds. The more you know someone, the more chance you will like them or despise them. And with the IPL, Champions league and Australia v India matches being seemingly played 11 months of the year, it can brew a lot of hate.

You could see that when India lost the last Test series. Even during the Test that was as close to a memorial game as Test cricket has produced, the players got in each other’s faces. Some former team-mates, others constant rivals.

India were easily beaten on the field, but with their mouths they fought out more than the two draws they managed. They didn’t seem to even turn up for the ODIs in the tri-series; they even lost to the second-tier ODI side England. They haven’t lost since.

This is all different. This is a bragging right over your friends and enemies for life. This can help a cricketer turn from a hero to an immortal. Madan Lal played 39 Tests, but he is remembered for one ball in a World Cup. This matters to virtually all fans. Even the Test fans who still look down on ODIs. This is a World Cup semi-final. Australia are playing for a home final. India are playing for back to back. And they are playing each other.

For years India wanted to prove they could be the best. Now they want to prove they are better than the best. They’ve won three ICC tournaments since their World T20 in 2007. They probably should have won more. Last World Cup they lost to South Africa and tied with England. This time they have been magnificent. So a loss now, as champions, to Australia, is unthinkable.

For Australia, this is their World Cup. Even the promos have sometimes forgotten that New Zealand existed. Even their loss to New Zealand was so tiny, dramatic and chaotic that it was seen more as a great bad game of cricket than an actual loss. But a loss to India, at the SCG, will not be explained away, it will fester.

Australia are attacking with bat and ball. Their only spin option is a batsman who often talks better than he bowls. They have so many players who can hit sixes, a few of whom do it better than they rotate the strike. Their fielders are loud and athletic. Their bowlers are fast and aggressive. There is no doubt, even at a glance, that this is an Australian ODI team.

India are batting slower than they did last tournament. They seem to be backing themselves to get near 300 on autopilot. Their batsmen are almost all below 100 strike rate. Their fast bowlers seem excited by the two new balls and the bounce in the tracks. The rest of us are excited by their wickets. R Ashwin is in control. MS Dhoni wrote the program on modern ODI cricket. It’s sensible caution with flashes of all-out attack.

This is a clash of strategy. And of methods, culture and politics. This is a new-era rivalry. Not as ancient as the Ashes, or as passionate as India-Pakistan. Two countries that are so different, yet share rampant egotism, high self-opinion and a belief that being born in their country is superior to other births. This brings together a belligerent bunch of brats, bullies and braggers.

This is the “battle of the bullies”.

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