When Australia and India toss the coin to start the upcoming cricket Test in Adelaide on December 6, the series will begin with an unprecedented balance of power between the two teams.
Ever since India’s first Test in Australia in 1947, which began with a walloping from an Australian team captained by the legendary Sir Donald Bradman, the series have followed a familiar script.
Some brilliant individual Indian performances have produced occasional one off victories, but ultimately the home team has triumphed and re-asserted its dominance as one of world cricket’s foremost nations.
This time, however, the scenario is completely different. India has high hopes for its first ever series victory in Australia, a result which would be the culmination of its long rise to the top of the global game.
But the shift goes beyond sport and into economics and culture. It tells a story of India’s 21st century ascendancy and the corresponding decline of Australia’s performance in an area long considered a bellwether for national identify and pride.
Cricket in Australia is in the doldrums, beset by poor on-field performance, off-field scandal and stagnant participation rates among younger male players.
Australia’s two best players, former captain Steve Smith and batsman David Warner, are serving year-long bans after the infamous “ball tampering” affair in South Africa in March, where they were caught illegally changing the condition of the ball to create an advantage.
The domestic response was outrage and shame, and a feeling that Smith and Warner had betrayed the values of the entire nation. Without its two best players, Australia’s depleted team has been on a losing streak which has been another cause of national embarrassment.
Since the bans, the national coach and the chief executive of the governing body Cricket Australia have resigned. An ethics enquiry into the scandal was highly critical of the game’s culture and forced the resignation of the Cricket Australia’s chairman.
India, in contrast, is riding high. Under their charismatic captain Virat Kohli, the top ranked batsman in the world, India is also number one in the Test rankings.
Of the ten Test playing nations, Australia are ranked fourth – one lower than New Zealand, another team they have traditionally considered easy-beats.
For India, victory in Australia would crown a decade of cricketing dominance. In ten years, the Indian Premier League (IPL) has become the world’s biggest and most lucrative domestic competition, with the five year broadcast rights sold for US$2.55 billion in 2017.
The International Cricket Council was once a rubber stamp for administrators in London and Melbourne, but now dances to the tune of the sub-continental nations led by India.
The rise of Indian cricket has also paralleled India’s economic rise and growing affluence, as the country has sloughed off its post-colonial doubts and emerged as one of the world’s most dynamic economies.
For Australia, India is an increasingly important trading partner. Bilateral trade has grown from A$4.3 billion (US$3.1 billion) in 2003 to more than A$20 billion (US$14.6 billion), and Australia is now pushing for a two-way free trade deal.
When Sir Donald Bradman’s team played India in 1947, there would have been a negligible number of Indian fans at the game.
When the First Test begins in Adelaide, however, there is sure to be a large contingent from the local Indian population, drawn from the Indian diaspora in Australia which is numbered at 586,000, or 2.3% of the population.
In 2011, India became the largest source of permanent migration to Australia at 15.7%, and at any time there are another 70,000 Indian students in Australian universities on study visas.
None of this, to be sure, has occurred without some tension. In 2009, there was a spate of reports about racially motivated crimes against Indians in Australia, which led to mass protests in Melbourne and a swift decline in student numbers from a high of 97,000.
There have also been business controversies. Indian conglomerate Adani Group paid A$1.83 billion (US$1.3 billion) in 2011 for a 99-year lease on the Abbott Point Coal Terminal in Queensland.
It has since been pushing to develop a controversial A$16.5 billion (US$12.1 billion) coal project and a A$1.5 billion (US$1.1 billion) rail link, for which it has asked for government assistance. This week, Adani announced it was proceeding with the mine on a self-funded basis.
Adani’s rich project has become a focal point for Australia’s ideological battle over climate change and renewable energy, with activists mobilizing a major campaign against the company, which is strongly identified as Indian.
So when India’s cricket captain Virat Kohli tosses the coin with his Australian counterpart Tim Paine on December 6 to see who will bat first, the Test Match will be played in a context much larger than the game.
Victory for India would not only make sporting history, but deliver a strong statement about the nation’s rising status in the 21st century.