Has there ever been a tour to Australia by a subcontinent team that hasn’t involved the talk of bouncers? It’s a cliché but has rarely been out of place. Over the years, even when the Indian team had the likes of Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, the talk hadn’t looked odd. In 2012, Tendulkar, in fact, had his head rammed by a Brett Lee bouncer. It isn’t just the skill levels of the batsmen concerned but also pitches with spice that used to trigger talks of short stuff. Especially against subcontinental batsmen not bred on such pitches.
But here lies the rub. Even Australian pitches are such flat beauties in limited-overs cricket these days that unless you are Mitchell Johnson in overdrive, it’s going to be difficult to bounce teams out.
The only hope for those who like a contest between bat and ball is that the first T20 game of the much-anticipated tour will be played in Brisbane, which has the fastest pitch in Australia now. India won’t play a Test here but that’s an issue for later.
And so, when Nathan Coulter-Nile talks about bowling bouncers to Rohit Sharma, he needs to give a context to it. And he does. “Rohit is an unbelievable player, he’s got a good record all round the world, so he’s definitely a player to watch … Big square boundaries here, so we might test him a little bit, he’s a good puller of the ball but he is compulsive as well. So we’ll try to get him out there.”
It’s an interesting way of putting it. As a ploy against the strength of a batsman. While in years gone by, Aussie pacemen used to target subcontinental batsmen’s perceived weakness against short-pitched bowling, in Sharma’s case, they hope to play on his ego. It talks about how much Sharma is rated by his contemporaries around the world. Sharma has already talked about how he grew up on cement tracks (in Borivali, a Mumbai suburb) which has helped him develop his pulls and hooks. So, Coulter-Nile throws in the aspect about the big square boundaries.
Doubt is, after all, the key factor in a limited-overs bowler’s arsenal these days. The conditions are so loaded against them that if they can induce even an tiny bit of doubt in an attacking batsman’s mind, it’s a minor victory. The intent is fairly straightforward: if we can get Sharma thinking about the boundary size, make him feel that he has to hit it really hard and it can upset his timing, it’s job done.
Coulter-Nile also reminded Sharma about how Australia got him last year in India. “I think Dorff (Jason Behrendorff) got him out last time we played him, hit him on the pad (with an in-swinger), so we will look to do that again early.” All in all, it seems a fairly sensible ploy: a mixture of swinging deliveries with occasional bouncers.
Sharma, too, has paid his respects to the Australian team in his interaction with the media. “Their bowling attack will challenge us whichever format we play,” he admitted. “Brisbane, if I may say so, is probably the fastest pitch in Australia. I have not played in Perth, the new stadium, but Brisbane, whenever we have played here, it has always challenged us as a batting unit. So, we are ready to accept that and this time around, we want to change our fortunes and come out with some exceptional performances. It is not going to be easy, we understand that, but we have quality in our group.”
So far, we haven’t seen much of the usual trash-talking from either team. Even Ravi Shastri has played it coy. Asked whether Australia have been weakened in the absence of Steve Smith and David Warner, Shastri said: “I don’t think [Australia has lost the aura]. Once you have a sporting culture in you, you’ll have that.”
The only slice of tough talk has come from fast bowler Pat Cummins. A day before India left for Australia, Kohli had talked about how he won’t be looking for any confrontations on field, but Cummins has said he doesn’t believe the Indian captain. “I think I heard him say in the media the other day he won’t, but I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t. He’s so competitive, he really thrives on that. We’ll hold our ground, we’re going to be competitive and all those things. We wouldn’t treat him differently to any others. I think you’ll see a lot of passion from both sides but nothing super fiery like we saw against India a couple of years ago,” he said.
Time will tell but something more interesting has already happened before a ball has been bowled on this tour. The contrasting ways the two broadcasters have gone about the promotions. India’s Sony TV has continued to tread on the juvenile, reaching for the baser urges of the fans. The promo shows hyper-ventilating Indians fighting with each other in gully cricket – with the voice over adding more silly drama and ending with, ‘when this happens outside India, it’s called India’s tour of Australia’. Sigh.
On the other hand, Australia, whose media too usually indulges in some trash talking and mental disintegration against the visiting teams, has turned coy. Fox TV, their broadcaster, has been running an effusive promotion centred around ‘King Kohli’ – even Kohli might turn a bit sheepish when he sees the video.
Has the policy of ‘Elite honesty’ seeped into the marketing world as well in Australia? The whisper in Australian circles is that it probably stems from the fact that there aren’t many stars in the Australian team to go gung-ho about.
There are also talks of Kohli being a possible candidate to become a brand ambassador for Tourism Australia – we won’t know the truth for now but it’s interesting to see the Australian media take this approach. How long this bonhomie lasts remains to be seen but in the here and now, the contrast in the two promotions can’t be starker: a juvenile attempt to sensationalise silly stuff in India versus a mysterious magnanimity in Australia.
This tour will be worth watching for the cricket on the field and the drama off it. Will Australians shed their reticence – their players seem almost as if they have been forced against their will and would India finally get over the line? Would Kohli take the next step as a leader and a captain? Will Rohit Sharma finally bridge the gap between his ODI and Test careers? Can Prithvi Shaw be the long-term opener that India needs? All that can wait for a while – it’s time for the shortest format first.