Virat Kohli and Tim Paine had a running verbal battle for large parts of the Perth Test  © CA
Virat Kohli and Tim Paine had a running verbal battle for large parts of the Perth Test © CA

MELBOURNE: Was this really Australia? Yes, they sported the five stars of the Southern Cross proudly on their chests. Yes, they gusted it and didn’t give up. Yes, they fought tooth and nail, refusing to roll over and allow their opponents to walk over them.

But hey, these guys were smiling. They were quiet. Where were the snarls and the barbs? Was this really Australia?

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It was, but it also wasn’t. The Adelaide Oval was Australia’s first Test at home since March, their first appearance in the longest format in their own backyard since the abrasive sandpapergate that flung the game into disrepute, flung Steve Smith and David Warner into temporary exile, and flung those in the powers of corridor in Australian cricket to distant outreaches of the cricketing world.

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Australia were polite and silent, if not timid and lame, in Adelaide, in the first of four Tests against their fiercest, noisiest, more intimidating competitors of late. Their new-found love for ‘elite honesty’ seemed to override everything else as they were unusually gracious in defeat. Maybe, they had got used to defeat – after all, it was their fifth loss in six matches since the low of the Cape Town ball-tampering saga.

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Perhaps stung by the defeat, or perhaps no longer able to retain their elite smiles in place after their jaws starting aching, Australia reverted to type, almost, in Perth. There were growls and taunts, jabs and jibes. Several of the verbals were harmless fun, replied to in kind by the no-longer-timid Indians. A few others were dangerously close to the invisible line Australia have pushed and pushed and pushed for so long. Such as Tim Paine’s sledge of Virat Kohli, through Murali Vijay, helpfully relayed worldwide by the stump mic that has acquired a new dimension with the arrival of a new host broadcaster here.

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“I know he’s your captain but you can’t seriously like him as a bloke?” Paine told Vijay after Kohli’s dismissal in the second innings. Personal much that, Tim?

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Kohli and Paine had a running verbal battle for large parts of the Perth Test and were at one stage both chided by umpire Chris Gaffaney. That the two captains who both pledged before the start of the series to minimise confrontation were in the thick of things didn’t do anyone any favours, but at least now, everyone knows that there is a battle on. And that Australia and India are going head-to-head in more ways than one.

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Until 2001, Indo-Australian series were largely quiet, peaceful affairs. India would come to Australia and be beaten squarely, Australia would visit India and walk to their doom on turners. There was lip, but only minimally. Everything changed after that sensational Indian comeback in 2001; Australia couldn’t believe that India had had the temerity to stop their all-conquering march, while India were no longer content in being the nice guys who lost with a smile and a thank you.

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Since Sourav Ganguly’s (unwitting, he swears) tactic of keeping Steve Waugh waiting at the toss, Indo-Australian face-offs have witnessed needle, bad blood, acrimony, allegations and counter-allegations, Monkeygate, Fingerflip, Brainfade… The quality of cricket has been exceptional, barring in 2011-12 when India were comprehensively battered Down Under, but often, it has been overshadowed by unnecessary drama and mischievous provocation, with the media a willing pawn in the relentless game of one-upmanship.

Now, the intrusiveness of the stump mic, the use of the Spidercam as an on-field interview tool even at drinks breaks, and the stalking of players right up to the middle by a remote-controlled camera have combined to take ‘offering a different viewer experience’ to ridiculous levels. “We’re not using the stump mics to trap people at all, we’ve got no interest in that at all,” Steve Crawley, Fox Sports’ head of television, has been quoted as saying. And yet, the video footage with audio of the public spat between Ishant Sharma and Ravindra Jadeja on day four of the Perth Test has wended its way into public space. Wonder who else had access to visuals of that pow-wow.

Test matches between Australia and India, no matter which country they are played in, don’t need extra hype to attract the masses. In all, 112,500 fans patronized the Adelaide Test, just 131 short of the record for a match between the sides at that venue. Perth Stadium’s debut as a Test ground wasn’t particularly promising, but then again, even 20,000 fans hardly register when the capacity is 60,000. Contextually, no matter what the teams’ respective rankings might be, there are fewer showdowns with greater import or interest. What the Perth result, and the ingredients that pushed the game towards its denouement, have achieved is ramp up the hype leading in to next Wednesday’s Boxing Day Test at the MCG.

India were the happier of the sides after Adelaide, but the scales have been turned in the last week going into the mini-break before Act Three. Australia are riding the crest after a much-needed win, India are licking their wounds, counting their losses (including the return home of Prithvi Shaw) and damage-controlling internal bickering. There’s everything to play for at the MCG and then the SCG, with India’s dream of an historic series triumph in Australia still very much alive. 1-1 with two to play has to be the commercially invested’s delight. Thankfully, it is much the same for those invested cricket-wise as well.

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