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By Suresh Menon
Denis Lillee, Greg Chappell and Rod Marsh never played a Test in India. They made their debut after the 1969-70 series, and by the next tour ten years later had been lost to Kerry Packer.
Greg Chappell nearly made it to the team where his brother Ian was seen as the best player of spin bowling. But he was passed over for Western Australia’s Jock Irvine who must have been an excellent fielder because he was 12th man in all five Tests. Irvine never played a Test – and lent his name to the Irvine Club in Australia which is for those who nearly made it!
Yet, in the years when England’s cricketers routinely pulled out of tours to India, Australia usually sent out their best teams. The texture of the India-Australian rivalry, therefore, has always been different from the Anglo-Indian one. Victories against England always came accompanied by an irritating asterisk. India beat England 1961-62 for instance, but this was a team without Colin Cowdrey, Fred Trueman, Brian Statham. In 72-73, India beat a team with a captain, Tony Lewis, who was making his debut and did not have Ray Illingworth, John Snow or Geoff Boycott.
Such things might be difficult to believe now when cricketers are tripping over themselves to come to India to play club cricket even. Yet a couple of generations ago, Boycott deigned to tour only so he could break the world record for the highest aggregate. England spinner Phil Tufnell was ready to pack it in early, saying he had “done the elephants, done the poverty".
In contrast, Allan Border came with every Australian team to the subcontinent in his time - ten of them - played 19 Tests and averaged 57.63. Steve Waugh's charity work and Brett Lee's commercial work may have endeared them to Indians, but of all visiting players, it is Border who has a special place in the hearts of Indians for his professionalism and for the declaration that led to the only tied Test on Indian soil, 24 Septembers ago in Chennai.
Australia have traditionally paid India the compliment of sending their best teams, so a win against them was always real.
The Indian connection with Australia was established long before the first Test series between the two. Frank Tarrant, an all rounder for Victoria and Middlesex, had served as cricket aide to the Maharajahs of Cooch Behar and Patiala. "A canny adviser and an astute lobbyist with impeccable connections, Tarrant helped lay the foundations of Indian cricket," wrote Mike Coward who has written a book on the Indo-Aussie relationship. Tarrant also umpired the first Test on Indian soil, in Bombay in 1933-34.
Victories against Australia were treasured. Jasu Patel and Kanpur in 1959-60, Chandu Borde and Indrajitsinhji scoring the final runs in Mumbai in 1964 after two fine innings from skipper Pataudi, Prasanna and Bedi setting it up in Delhi 1970, and then the series win in 1979-80 after Australia had lost key players to Packer were part of folklore in the pre-Tendulkar era.
By the turn of the century, India was designated the ‘final frontier’ by Waugh, and beating India was seen as most significant since it was India who provided the stiffest opposition to Australia. Both countries have been No 1 in the ratings – India hold the position currently.
Ricky Ponting and his men thus come to India as respected rivals, but there will be more to the series than that. In a cricketing world reeling under the renewed threat of match fixing and ball tampering where the survival of Test cricket itself is threatened by pretenders, the series will be seen as a chance for the real thing to reassert itself.
Those who have led their respective countries to the top of the pile from Sachin Tendulkar to Ricky Ponting might not get too many chances to square off against one another again. On three levels, therefore, the individual, the team and the sport itself, this series promises to be special.