The first Test between India and Australia starts belatedly on Tuesday at Adelaide. The circumstances are vastly different than would have been if that awkward bouncer in a Sheffield Shield match hadn’t reared to hit Phil Hughes on the head. In a regular build-up to a Test series Down Under, there would have been nasty barbs thrown at Indians by ex-Aussie players and commentators, fans and cab drivers alike. One of the more famous of such pre-season provocateurs, Glenn McGrath, had already begun the Aussie fusillade mid-November with a forecast of a 0-4 loss for India. Hughes’ death brought these mind games to an end, and the Indians had a peaceful couple of practice matches.
So, unlike at other times, the Test on Tuesday starts on a sombre atmosphere. The Australians are only now getting over the death of Hughes. In fact, the late batsman’s shadow will hang heavy over the match, indicated no less by the fact the selectors having named him as the symbolic 13th man of their squad. The Aussies have already shown an uncharacteristic side to their identity of give-no-quarter combatants. They have shown they can be emotional and vulnerable.
The unfortunate incident has robbed Australia of the usual belligerent welcome to a touring team. Part of their strategy has always been to daunt the opposition with verbal attacks on what are presumed to be their weaknesses. In India’s case, clearly it is the ability to play the fast bowlers on fast pitches. But in the wake of a death caused by a short-pitched ball from a fast bowler, it was clearly not politically, or morally, correct to tom-tom the Australian resources in that department.
In the pre-Hughes days, experts, both Indian and Australian, had prognosticated a loss for India. On fast wickets Down Under, with bowlers like Mitchell Johnson, Peter Siddle, Ryan Harris, even newcomer Josh Hazlewood, the Indian batsmen would have been tested. Fast bowling, and intimidatory bowling at that, was the one advantage Australia had over India and they would have ensured this played on the minds of the Indian batsmen.
So, the playing field has been levelled to some extent. Harris has already expressed some anxieties about his own capability to perform in the circumstances. And though, there were enough bouncers bowled in the last warm-up match, the Sydney incident will stick limpid-like at the back of the heads of the pacer — at least through the duration of the first Test.
Because of this, the odds are suddenly even: unnerved Aussies vs unsure Indians. If the Australian bowlers are a little subdued and the Indian batsmen find their feet, the first Test will not be a walkover for the home side that it was supposed to be. Plus, this time among the boys in blue are fast bowlers who can give it back as good as they get. Varun Aaron had a pretty good time in the two warm-up matches. Ishant Sharma has done well in Australia earlier. Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav are not there just to make up the numbers either. They could prey on the fears of the home batsmen. So what everyone presumed earlier — that a win for the hosts in the first Test would set the tenor for the rest of the series — probably does not hold now.
But don’t be deceived. They – the Australians as well as the Indians — are all professionals, and like professionals they will not let extraneous circumstances affect them for long. The chances for the Adelaide Test may have evened out, but this doesn’t mean India have it easy for the rest of the tour.