If the Border Gavaskar Trophy 2023 began like Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur, it ended like Sooraj Barjatya’s Hum Saath Saath Hain. This is true not just for the extremely contrasting nature of surfaces, but also for the kind of cricket that was played on those surfaces.
Even in terms of pictures, we went from the snap of a selectively watered pitch in Nagpur (a regularity in India) being called devilishly doctored, to a picture of both the captains standing hand in hand with their respective Prime Ministers, which resembled a pre-election coalition announcement picture more than a Test match.
But, that’s what you get when you play Test cricket in India right? You already come expecting the expected (spin, turn, dust bowls), and go back experiencing all that you thought and a lot more. This time too, Australia were expecting turners, and they expected them to turn big. So enamored were they with the turning dust bowls, that any piece of evidence of the pitch being such was exaggerated to an extent, where the inanimate 22 yards of soil turned into a ghost haunting Australia and their plans.
Nagpur was more or less a typical red soil wicket, with more dry areas in the full-length region of the left handers. India’s left-handers Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel scored half-centuries and India scored 400. Australians (spooked with the ghost of a selectively watered pitch) meanwhile, dropped Travis Head and collapsed in a heap in the second innings. The match ended in 2.5 days. Head would then play from the next Test, and would end up as Australia’s second best batter on the tour.
The next one at Delhi lasted almost the same duration, albeit the Aussies showed a lot more fight led by Usman Khawaja, Nathan Lyon and Travis Head. If not for that hour of madness where Australia misunderstood sweep shots as oxygen to survive on a slow and low Delhi surface, the score line would not have read 2-0 in India’s favour.
Both these Tests, once combined, would not have lasted the complete duration of a five-day Test match. Add to it the fact that due to the nine days-long break between the second and third Tests, one almost forgot that there was a marquee Test series going on between India and Australia. It was like watching a four-episode mini-series on OTT where you binge-watched the first two episodes, but you took a week-long break before watching the next two episodes. You are still following the story, but the intensity of emotions you felt for it earlier, got lost in the break you took.
However, it was a really captivating and thrilling story when it played out, as the cricket was top quality. Indian batters, especially Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli, who were under a lot of fire for batting poorly against spin. They applied themselves on some of the trickiest pitches India has played on in recent times. Kohli’s 44 and Usman Khawaja’s 81 in Delhi weren’t recorded as major milestones in both their careers, but both those innings exemplified batting against spin in India.
Todd Murphy and Matthew Kuhnemann ensured that Indian batters didn’t make merry against the second and third overseas spinners as they usually do, as both bowled with a lot of control and precision on a helpful pitch that demanded just that.
The quality of cricket played in this series was at par with some of earlier renditions of BGT in India, however what was different this time was the lack of drama that incinerates social media. Such sights were very common during the 2017 BGT, which truth be told, sometimes felt like a Priyadarshan movie from the 2000s.
Alas, this time Matt Renshaw’s bowels had no time to experience pressure as he hardly spent any time at the crease. Steven Smith was too old for a brain fade, and there was no Wriddhiman Saha to play out an adult scene in the middle of the ground while taking the ball out of Smith’s pads and claiming a catch. All that was definitely missed, but the way the last Test of the series began, it compensated for the lack of drama in the earlier Tests.
The match began more like a political rally than a cricket game, with the Indian PM Narendra Modi hosting his Australian counterpart Anthony Albanese to celebrate 75 years of India-Australia friendship through cricket.
However, it was anything but cricket.
The two premiers boarded a custom-designed golf cart and went around the ground named after one of them, as people who were especially brought to welcome the Prime Ministers clapped and cheered on. They soon went back to the buses that had brought them, as the true cricket fans remained waiting for the cricket to start amidst the hullabaloo.
The political ostentatiousness reached ludicrous territories when PM Modi and Albanese presented Smith and Rohit Sharma their Test caps on the makeshift stage, as if they were making their debut.
However, if one keeps all these vacuous pre-match proceedings aside, the enormity of the event highlights how big the India-Australia cricket rivalry has become. In a nutshell, it is the defining modern rivalry of cricket, which even offered a big enough stage to host the most powerful men of both these countries.
After the action packed start to the Test, which saw players not even being allowed to warm-up before the game, its end was completely anticlimactic as batters batted long and big on a pitch which was slow and more dead than death itself. The intense drama of the previous Test match where Australia came back with aplomb in Indore was missed.
However, it was the camaraderie and professional respect shown by both the Indians and the Aussies that stood out. Lyon was constantly talking with Kohli. Jadeja shared some tricks of the trade with his fellow left arm spinner Kuhnemann, who was keen to learn from one of the best in his business. Kohli also bestowed his jersey upon Khawaja at the end of match, and Indian coach Rahul Dravid heaped loads of praise on the young Aussie spinners Murphy and Kuhnemann who impressed everyone.
After all, isn’t this what cricket rivalries are supposed to be? Mutual respect, camaraderie, learning from one another and getting better. Yes, that drama adds a lot of OTT value to it, and the long breaks impeded the captivating story of the series, but the cricket was top quality and at the end that’s what we all were there for right?
It may have started like Gangs of Wasseypur and ended like Hum Saath Saath Hain, but it was still a success because of the substance it held in the middle.