It’s been said that summer doesn’t officially start until the solstice on the 21st of December, but in Australia the moment is usually even more specific, at exactly 11am on the day of the First Test.
A fearsome fast bowler standing at the top of their mark, a brand new Kookaburra ball glistening in his hands and the familiar voices as recognisable as your own parents reach fever pitch in the commentary box. The 2018/19 edition will be different in many ways - it remains to be seen if it is a rebirth or the continuing marginalisation.
Dwindling attendances are a cumulative result of greater sporting options to pursue in a once cricket-dominated environment, scandals from racism, boorish behaviour, match fixing and cheating, and an incompetent Cricket Australia board have all contributed to the significant drop off in competition from formerly powerful opponents.
It is this same CA board that has missed a massive opportunity to build on one of the few positive initiatives introduced in recent years, the Day/Night test in deference to their financial captors, the BCCI. Apart from the incredible visual presentation of a test match under lights on a balmy summer evening, with the pink ball providing a perfect contrast between the resplendent creams of the combatants, the manicured grassy outfields, and the city of churches at night, the later start time brings the game to a much wider audience.
While cricket and more specifically the traditional form is still facing its sternest test of relevance in an ever fast-paced and consumable world, the lure of a marquee match up between India and Australia holds enough interest to ensure at least a successful commencement of this series.
To my mind, the allure of test cricket will always be the beautiful battle between bat and ball, the mental strength to outlast an opponent. That, combined with a lifetime of memories embedded at the front of my consciousness, able to be recited at any given time, makes the long version of the game special to me. This is in stark contrast to the modern evolution of the Twenty20 format. While games and unique skills can be enjoyed, and no doubt are more family friendly, they are instantly forgettable.
If asked to name the winners of BBL1 through BBL7, one could take an educated guess, but I distinctly recall day 1 of the New Zealand Test series in 1989. My primary school teacher indulged one of his passions and allowed a TV set in the classroom for the first hour. Chris Cairns on debut and Dany Morrison were wayward in their opening spell as we enjoyed another special treat, icy cold cordial.
Likewise memories abound of Australia vs India throughout the years:
Running home from school listening to a Walkman to catch the dying moments of a Perth test dominated by Mike Whitney’s seven wickets in ’91, and importantly for this patriotic little cricket obsessive, the debut of two Vics, Wayne Phillips and Paul Reiffel.
The unforgettable 2001 series in India, most definitely in the top 3 series I’ve witnessed as Matt Hayden came of age, Harbhajan Singh took a remarkable 33 wickets in three tests and the ‘Follow on’ strategy was forever shelved by Aussie skippers.
The infamous 2008 New Years test in Sydney which almost saw the touring team return home, abandoning the series.
Paul Wilson, Adam Dale, Peter McIntyre, Jason Krezja, Cam White among other luminaries to debut and essentially play their entire careers in the oppressive conditions of India.
This summer however brings a different dynamic; India ranked number one in the world and with a formidable batting line up, against an Australian side decimated by the suspensions of Smith and Warner for their role in one of the darkest incidents in cricket’s rich history.
India have never won a test series in Australia, but with a top 6 that includes Vijay, Rahul, Rahane and Sharma who have all previously made test centuries in the unfamiliar Australian conditions, along with their irrepressible captain, the peerless Virat Kohli, even the impressive Aussie pace attack of Hazelwood, Cummins and Starc will hold no fears.
A transitional Aussie top order, will be under extreme pressure from experienced Indians Ishant, Shami and Ashwin, and will struggle to contain the unorthodox bounce and pace of Bumrah. A courageous selection decision from the NSP has handed test caps to first gamer Harris, Finch, Handscomb and Head along with mainstays, Khawaja and Shaun Marsh. Long time supporters applauding form over potential or team balance as the criteria for once.
I predict the visitors will be too battle hardened to allow the Australians to dominate games as they have in the past, and will finally reign triumphant on antipodean soil, although I do believe the home side has the makings of a strong unit again in the not too distant future. A competitive outing against the best can fast-track that return to pre-eminence.
Importantly though, public interest and the timely refresh of the broadcast rights with captivating and qualified commentators has once again returned this reporter to his pre-teen days of eager anticipation of one of life’s great joys - the start of an Australian cricket summer.
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