Virat Kohli-led Indian team provides skill, warmth and humour for jaded Australian cricket fans
Virat Kohli has responded to pressure with robust play and a sly sense of humour. (AAP: Hamish Blair)
In the absence of the Cape Town Three, it was hoped a hero would emerge this summer to elevate Australia’s chances and, as pertinently, lift the spirits of a somewhat jaded cricket nation.
A young batsman to fill the vacancies left by Warner, Smith and Bancroft and augment their contributions upon their return; or even a brilliant one-off season by an erstwhile battler to cover the cracks.
Or perhaps just an exuberant personality to inject some real humour at a time when the darker variety was much more prevalent.
Yet even allowing for the wonderful all-around contribution of Patrick Cummins at the MCG and the respectable efforts of his fellow bowlers across the series, there has been no new local hero to elevate Australia’s performances. Particularly at the crease.
Instead India has provided the luminous stars of a richly entertaining Test series with efforts on and even off the field that only the most parochial and joyless of Australian diehards could fail to appreciate.
India’s emergence as a team to be relished, not merely respected, is somewhat remarkable at a time when confected media support for the home team, and vilification of any opposition, tends to obscure the deeds of visiting athletes in most sports.
The reflex of sections of the media to taunt and belittle a touring team twitched sharply upon the arrival of Virat Kohli and his men, embodied by the infantile and ultimately ill-informed headline “scaredy bats” that accompanied one account of India’s chances.
Presumably, the editors who devised this headline believed they were acting in some sort of misguided national interest by attempting to humiliate and even intimidate a team that posed a threat to Australia’s already diminished chances.
Yet as the Indian batsmen played with skill, patience and perseverance befitting the team’s No 1 ranking, they not only belied the most ignorant of pre-Tour appraisals. They humiliated those who had betrayed their own readers with their asinine belligerence.
Thankfully, the stronger sense has been that even as India gradually took a stranglehold on this series with bat and ball, the Australian sporting public has not only appreciated their skill but also warmed to their personalities.
Indian captain Virat Kohli would always be a willing lightning rod for the scorn of the Australian crowds with his confident swagger and extravagant celebrations, not to the mention his potential menace with the bat.
The indomitable Cheteshwar Pujara has been in sparkling form with the bat. (AP: Rick Rycroft)
Yet in the spirit of those who have withstood the worst a well lubricated Australian crowd could muster — think Ian Botham or Richard Hadlee — Kohli has responded with robust play and even a sly sense of humour and inevitably won the respect of all but the most chauvinistic or xenophobic observer.
So much so that, belatedly riding the tide of public opinion, the same publication that mocked Kohli and his “scaredy bats” published a back page photo of the Indian skipper in heroic pose on the first morning of the Sydney Test.
This noble image was accompanied by a story lauding Kohli’s bravery of his net sessions on rain-affected wickets ahead of this series. A fitting tribute, albeit one that made you wonder why this inconvenient truth was overlooked in the earlier, far less flattering accounts of the world’s preeminent batsman.
The less likely hero of this Australian summer has been the indomitable Cheteshwar Pujara who, in compiling three centuries, has built a wall in front of his stumps and made the Australian bowlers pay for it.
In occupying the crease for longer than the entire Australian team, Pujara has not only made a vast contribution to India’s winning cause. He has held up a mirror to the home team’s deficiencies with his patience and tenacity.
So perhaps even those locals who fail to appreciate Pujara’s long occupation of the crease might one day thank him for bringing the virtues of long-form batting to the attention of the Australians during their long vigils in the field.
Rishabh Pant showed good humour with his mock acceptance to babysit Tim Paine’s children. (Instagram: Bonnie Paine)
The other master class has come from paceman Jasprit Bumrah. If there is anything better than a good fast bowler, it is a good fast bowler with a quirky style. And Bumrah’s stuttering run-up and stiff-armed delivery are already being imitated on Australian beaches, surely the ultimate tribute to a touring bowler.
As a nod to the nation’s growing confidence, once media-shy India has even provided the cheeky showman in this series.
With the bat, gloves and stump-mic, Indian keeper Rishabh Pant has been an irrepressible and, in his mock acceptance of Australian captain Tim Paine’s offer to babysit his children, good humoured presence. A character only the most parochial hometown curmudgeon could not warm to.
Thus as individuals and a collective, this Indian team has not merely won plaudits for the skill and professionalism of its play. It has dispelled the worst of the stereotypes and labels imposed upon them by the most jingoistic local cheerleaders.
Australia’s efforts have, in their own way, been heroic. The need to perform to the expectations and under the pressure imposed since Cape Town without the two best batsmen was an onerous task.
But a summer crying out for new heroes found them in the opposition nets.
For true cricket lovers, and hopefully also for mere lovers of Australian cricket, these Indians have provided rich entertainment and a warmth and good humour that will be long be remembered.