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By Sunil Gavaskar
In 1977 Kerry Packer, the owner of the commercial channel nine of Australia, started World Series Cricket that literally shook up the cricketing world. Packer had got the cream of Australia, West Indies and some of the best players in the world to sign up with him to play a season in Australia. Packer had been bidding for the TV rights of Australian Cricket, but was not getting them as the Australian Cricket Board, preferred to give it to the national channel ABC. Annoyed and frustrated at not getting the rights and having met some prominent Australian and English players during the centenary match and finding out how poorly they were being paid, he realized that there was an opportunity to get the cricketers on his side and get international cricket on his channel. He signed up the majority of the Australian and England teams that had just played in the 1977 centenary Test match and then got the West Indians, who were the unofficial World Champs to come on board too. There were some other players from around the cricketing world including the South Africans, who were then banned from playing the game and with those signings he had a rest of the world team too. The cricketing authorities reacted by banning all those who had signed up with Packer and so teams like Australia, England and the West Indies had pretty much a new look team that year.
India was to tour Australia then for a five Test match series and with only the fearsome Jeff Thomson in the Australian ranks, fancied their chances of winning the series. India’s record till then was not at all impressive having lost all the four Tests that they had played in 1967 and the tour before that was twenty years earlier in 1947-8, where also the Australians had won everything. The 1977-8 series thus presented India with a golden opportunity to win not just a Test, but also the Test series in Australia for the first time. None of the Indian players had signed up for Packer’s World Series Cricket, though a couple had been approached and so India had a full strength team at their command.
Australia recalled Bobby Simpson from retirement to captain their inexperienced team and although he was 42 years old and struggled at the start of the series, he showed why the Australians had reposed faith in him by leading and guiding his young team to a 3-2 series win. India won a Test for the first time in Australia, but were unable to deliver the knockout blow and thus missed out on a wonderful chance to win a series down under.
The current tour presents another grab for the Indians to win a series for the first time and if they do that it will be the icing on the cake on the extraordinary careers of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Zaheer Khan. They have been to Australia more times than anybody else in Indian Cricket history and have done a terrific job, but that series win has been elusive. There is no better opportunity than now and who knows when the Australian team will be as vulnerable again.
For starters they are unsettled at the top of the order and go into the series with a new opening pair. David Warner has got a century, but the jury is still out on his temperament at the Test level. And while ED Cowan has been in good form in first class cricket including a century in the tour game against the Indians, that step up from first class cricket to Test cricket, can be big one indeed, and many others before him have failed to make that step.
The middle order too has been inconsistent with Ponting and Hussey in particular being well short of the runs, usually expected from them. The bowling also is inexperienced and does not have the variety that blasted and spun teams out not too long ago. The fielding also has been patchy with catches being missed and lapses occurring which were unthinkable a few years back. Moreover, for the first time the Australian media which is looked upon by visiting teams as an extension of their support staff have been baying for the heads of some of their senior players, instead of rubbishing the visiting teams. What that shows is that the so called bench strength that the Aussies used to pride themselves on is simply not there. The usual dismissive talk about visiting teams is conspicuous by its silence and having lost the Ashes to their old enemy England last year, the Australians know that they are not the awe invoking team that they were not too long ago.
However as the 1977-8 series showed the Australians can never be underestimated and they will fight every second they are on the field. Victory will have to be hard earned and there are no freebies that one can get from the Australians. If the Indians slacken up and relax they will get the surprise of their lives. They have to be ruthless and relentless just like the Aussies were in their prime. That is the only way that they will achieve what has been impossible so far. That is the only method to win a series in Australia for the first time.