India were a year on from the game-changing World Cup win of 1983 when Australia arrived to play their first ODI series here. That was an Australian side decimated by generational change. Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee, and Rod Marsh had retired at the start of the year, and though we didn’t know it at the time, Kim Hughes would only go on a couple more months before the teary breakdown after yet another pummeling at West Indian hands.
But in India, you would have had trouble recognising which team were world champions and which one was lost in transition. The matches in Trivandrum and Jamshedpur produced no result, but Australia won the other three with a measure of comfort. The tone was set in the opening game, the first day-night ODI India hosted. With the athletics track at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Delhi making sure there would be no acrobatic dives to save boundaries, Australia eased to a 48-run win. Kepler Wessels made his only ODI century that afternoon, and Carl Rackemann, who would join a rebel tour to South Africa a year later, wrecked the Indian chase under lights.
Further weakened by the loss of players to the lure of the apartheid-era rand, Australia lost 2-3 in 1986, but their competitiveness in these conditions was an omen for what was to follow. Few gave them a chance at the 1987 World Cup, but a one-run win against India at Chepauk in their opening game laid the platform for a tremendous campaign where they lost just once – to the hosts in the return fixture. David Boon, Geoff Marsh and Dean Jones provided the top-order solidity, and the think-tank of Allan Border (captain) and Bob Simpson (coach) could also call on the superbly accurate fast bowling of Craig McDermott, whose 5 for 44 in the semifinal in Lahore would plunge Imran Khan and Pakistan into days of mourning.
Allan Border with the 1987 World Cup trophy after Australia beat England in the final in Kolkata
India hosted no bilateral games after that for more than a decade. Australia contested the Nehru Cup in 1989, and played India at the 1996 World Cup and the Titan Cup that followed, but bilateral contact resumed only in 1998, when Steve Waugh’s side were beaten 2-1. The World Cup game of 1996 is recalled for Sachin Tendukar’s sensational 90, even as it was Mark Waugh’s sublime 126 that turned out to be the winning hand.
By 2001, Australia were emphatically the world’s best side across formats. But after an epic Test series that India came from behind to win, the ODI contest was no less dramatic. The recalled Virender Sehwag’s all-round prowess won India the opener in Bangalore, and Tendulkar went past 10,000 ODI runs in Indore, but it was Australia that reeled off the last two games to take the series 3-2.
By the time the teams clashed again in 2003, Australia had added a third World Cup to the trophy cabinet, and they were far too good for India in the tri-nation TVS Cup that also featured New Zealand. And the trend of rubbing Indian noses in it continued four years later as they romped to a 4-2 victory, months after the Ricky Ponting-led side had clinched a hat-trick of World Cups.
That series was to have far-reaching consequences for the relationship between the two sides. In the weeks preceding the tour, India had won the inaugural World Twenty20, and Andrew Symonds’ comments about the over-the-top celebrations didn’t go down well with the Indian support. The colour of his skin didn’t help either.
In Mumbai, the final match of the series where India logged a consolation win, Symonds was subjected to horrendous abuse from the stands. Grown men and kids alike made monkey gestures and primate chants, and Harbhajan Singh said words that had no place on a cricket field or anywhere else. A few years earlier, Indian fans in Adelaide had been subjected to ‘coolie’ chants from inebriated home supporters on the hill near the old scoreboard. This was the other side of the ugly racism coin.
A few months later, with the relationship between the two sides fractured beyond repair, we would get Monkeygate, and a tour of Australia that was nearly called off. And though the inception of the Indian Premier League (IPL) did a fair bit to repair broken bonds, emotions still ran high in 2009, when Australia won a seven-match series 4-2. The highlight of that series was undoubtedly the game in Hyderabad, where Australia held on to win by three runs despite Tendulkar playing one of his finest innings, 175 off just 141 balls.
India had the better of a rain-hit three-match series in 2010, and the World Cup game in 2011 that would end Australia’s remarkable dominance of the global event. By the time a team captained by George Bailey arrived in India four years ago, the old order had very much changed. Australia had come back to the pack, and it was India that triumphed 3-2 in a high-scoring series.
James Faulkner’s devastating 30-run takedown of Ishant Sharma gave Australia a 2-1 lead in Mohali, but Rohit Sharma’s thrilling 209 in Bangalore, a couple of days after he, Shikhar Dhawan (100) and Virat Kohli (115 off just 66 balls) had helped India breeze past a target of 351 in Nagpur, sealed the deal.
Unfortunately for India, it was Australia that won the next match that mattered – the 2015 World Cup semifinal – and the global event will be very much be on both teams’ minds as they embark on this five-game series. Australia have won 25 and lost just 21 of their 51 ODIs against India in India, a ratio that gives you some idea of the weight of history that Kohli and his team have to overcome.
If murmurs from administrators tasked with working out an ODI championship structure outside of the World Cup are to be believed, not too many more of these elongated bilateral series will be played in future. But in a country still in thrall to the white ball, especially when the opposition is wearing green and gold, don’t let anyone tell you that these games don’t matter.