There was a time when the rivalry between India and Australia appeared to have come within one chirp of actual physical blows on the field. India’s tour to Australia in 2018-19 had all the makings of being the ugliest ever, but before that happened, we had the Cape Town ball-tampering scandal, and something changed.That series featured mostly amusing banter but nothing remotely as nasty as we had become accustomed to seeing when India played Australia. Later last year, during the World Cup, India’s captain Virat Kohli asked the Indian fans to stop booing Steven Smith, who had done his time and paid his dues to come back on the field for the first time after his ban expired.
Thus, before the start of the 2020-21 Test series, we have reached a stage where some have been left wondering if this new-found respect between these teams will actually compromise the intensity and integrity of the Tests.
On the eve of the first Test in Adelaide, which starts on Thursday, Kohli was asked what the reasons for the better relations were, and his answer summed up the evolution of the rivalry: these teams play a lot of IPL together and thus they know each other better. All the characters of this narrative are also older, wiser and surer about their place in the world.
Since the Cape Town incident, Australia have acknowledged they were wanting when it came to their behaviour and so have strived to find the right balance between competitiveness and model behaviour. That said, this has been a year where people have reviewed their priorities in life and realised how unwanted certain things had been.
“It is a combination of all those factors,” Kohli said. “I think this year also has made people realise that a lot of things might not have been necessary in the past where you hold grudges and you have unnecessary tension between teams and individuals, which is absolutely pointless. You are still going to be professional and make sure you are positive and aggressive in your body language and the way you go about things on the field.
“But I don’t think that things are going to be as personal as they used to be before also because of the fact that we understand that we are contributing to a larger cause. And it is the quality of cricket that has to stand out. Obviously, you are going to try to get people out, you are going to try to score runs, but at the end of the day the unnecessary stuff is going to get filtered out pretty much by itself.”
Australia’s assertions of trying to be better behaved have not always been taken on face value, but Kohli did acknowledge they had changed “to an extent”. “It could be a culmination of playing IPL together, a lot of IPL cricket, Australia changing their approach to an extent, and also just the way the things have panned out this year,” he said. “Everyone is just grateful for the opportunity to be back on the field. It is not like the games haven’t been as intense or as competitive, it is just the unnecessary stuff that has been filtered out. I feel there is much more respect between sides. You can see that on the field, and I hope the cricket continues to be competitive.
“We should not compromise on the quality of the cricket. Banter is going to go on here and there all the time. That is the highest level of cricket we play, and it is going to be very competitive. There is going to be tension, there is going to be stress, there are going to be emotions flaring every now and then. I don’t foresee anything getting personal anymore. I think we are also – all of us – getting smarter, and [are] a few more years into our careers. So we are going to make better and smarter choices, and make sure the quality of cricket remains.”
We are going to try to make things as difficult as possible for the opposition, and that’s the beauty of Test cricket. You can appreciate the efforts put in by both teams at the end of five days and make sure you don’t carry anything off the field is what I meantVirat Kohli
The dichotomy in all this is that Kohli is well regarded in Australia because he gives back as good as he gets; in the words of Greg Chappell, that makes him the most Australian non-Australian. Kohli was asked if the players felt vilified doing what they are at certain times, which is to give it their all within the rules to win the match for their sides.
“The media has absolute full right and space to see things and perceive things as and how they want,” Kohli said. “For us, as cricketers, we understand that we do what is required for the team in that moment. To make sure that we are moving forward as a side – whether it is standing up to some chirp on the field or just being aggressive in our plans or our body language as a side.
“At the highest level, the quality of cricket cannot be compromised. If you are stepping onto the field thinking we will have smiles and handshakes throughout the day – and you know, we are not going to be as competitive or as aggressive in our body language – then I think it is the wrong idea to have. You have to maintain the dignity of the sport, but you also have to understand that you are competing at the highest level with two quality sides going at each other.
“And there are going to be moments when things are going to get difficult and teams are going to stand up against each other but not in a disrespectful way is what I meant. There is definitely a lot more to Test cricket. Appreciation for someone’s performance or someone’s grit and character comes at the end of five days is what I believe.
“And through the five days, obviously the crowds are going to try to make things as difficult as possible for us. We are going to try to make things as difficult as possible for the opposition, and that’s the beauty of Test cricket. You can appreciate the efforts put in by both teams at the end of five days and make sure you don’t carry anything off the field is what I meant.
“But on the field, things are going to be competitive, it is going to be high-voltage cricket because there are quality players in both sides hungry and eager to perform for their teams and make sure they help their team win. It is definitely going to be as competitive as it has always been over so many years between India and Australia.”
In other words, hard but fair. How much more Australian can Kohli get?
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
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