Australia last won a Test series on Indian soil in 2004. And it was Adam Gilchrist who captained the side to glory in the absence of an injured Ponting. The legendary wicketkeeper-batsman tells Derek Abraham that the selectors have done well by having faith in Harbhajan.
Not too long ago, an India-Australia series was a marquee event. But now, the teams are going through a transitional phase. Do you think the series has lost sheen?
Look, I think it’s still a marquee series in Cricket Australia’s mind. There is a lot of talk about the team’s preparation. They flew out before the Australian cricket summer was over. In fact, Australia played the Twenty20 game against the West Indies without their main players. So the players left early to acclimatise themselves to the conditions and prepare for the challenges of playing in India.
The lower hype around the series is probably due to the fact that some significant big names are no longer part of both teams. And you are right, these are transitional times. There is a lot of difference between the Australian team of 2004 and now. Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey are two iconic players, two huge names missing. And on the Indian side, there’s no (Sourav) Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman to name a few. That does have an impact on the build-up. But that doesn’t mean the series will not be well-fought.
Do you remember your first trip to India?
I do, very vividly. It was in late 1996. I was there for the Titan Cup as a replacement for Ian Healy who was down with a calf injury. I played in two matches and we lost every game on that tour (laughs). It was a tough introduction to Indian conditions. But look, it forged a relationship with India.
The epic series of 2001 was all about Australia’s desire to conquer the ‘final frontier’. The team did realise its dream, albeit in 2004. And you were the captain…
That’s the highlight of my career. Not me being captain, but that victory. We invested a lot of time and energy. We drew a lot from our experiences in 2001; it probably even went back to 1998. So we were gathering information, experiences and learning from them. The 2001 experience (1-2 loss) was a tough lesson. And the feeling of excitement and achievement in Nagpur in 2004 is something I will never forget.
Was the Australian team spurred on by the loss in 2001 and India’s performance in the 2003-04 series Down Under?
Yes, obviously. It was a source of inspiration and motivation. It was our desire to learn from our experiences. It was very satisfying when we won in 2004. The respect the teams had for each other was the real highlight. India played really well in 2003-04; they challenged us in our conditions. And we knew it was a contest between two top-class and very evenly-matched teams. If you got to be the best, you have got to beat the best. India were playing at their very best during that period of time.
You said you prepared a lot for the 2004 series. Could you go into the specifics?
Not only did we learn from out setbacks, but we also took in the cultural differences that we would come across. So we decided to try and strategise. Steve Waugh had said the conditions in India could be draining and taxing, physically and mentally. What we did during that series was give ourselves a week off. We decided to stay away from each other. I flew to Singapore to see my wife and children. In fact, my second child was just born. Some of the guys went to Doha for a beach holiday, some flew to Mumbai. Whatever it was, the idea was to get some free time and stay away from each other and away from cricket. And then we came back together, re-energised for the third Test in Nagpur. And it showed in the way we played. We were fresh in Nagpur and it seemed like a new tour.
Was your job made easier by the reported infighting in the Indian team? Also Sachin Tendulkar missed the better part of the series with a tennis elbow…
I am not someone who takes too much notice of what’s happening in the other camp. At a superficial level, there was something, and the press was talking about issues, but we did not focus on that. Apparently, there were leadership issues, but I don’t know if it was true.
Your favourite India-Australia Test?
Calcutta 2001, easily. That was just brilliant. I was out for a first-ball duck in both innings (laughs). But at the end of that game, and series, regardless of what side you were on, you know you were part of something special. It was not just a great cricketing contest, but one of the greatest sporting contests ever. It was phenomenal. We won the first Test in Mumbai inside three days and then India turned it around exceptionally in Kolkata.
It was one of the best comebacks in the history of all sport. And it felt amazing to have been involved in it. We were physically and mentally exhausted after Calcutta, but we fortunately took ourselves up and played competitive cricket in Chennai. Sachin and Harbhajan played well. It was a wonderful experience; an experience you can learn a lot from not just about cricket, but life.
What do you think will be the main contest in this series?
Michael Clarke has had a phenomenal 12-18 months with the bat. And if someone like Pragyan Ojha plays, that’s going to be a terrific challenge. Ojha is the right man to bowl in India, with the ball going away from the right-hander. And Clarke is a terrific player of spin. Also, I am really happy to see Harbhajan named in the squad. He has done really well. He has had his controversial moments and drama, but his record against Australia is quite extraordinary. I think it’s a great ploy by the selectors to pick him, but whether he plays or not is up to them. But it’s intriguing. And Australia have a very, very strong group of fast bowlers. They can bowl quick and they are pretty good exponents of old-ball and reverse-swing bowling.
But Australia don’t have spinners of the class of Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann. And the pitches are going to be turners…
The pitches are going to be dry and dusty, but the seamers will come into play. Look, Australia need to get their tactics right. Clarke debuted here in 2004; his memory will be very fresh and he will be very clear on the strategy. If the pitch turns, Nathan Lyon and the other spinners will be happy. There’s Glenn Maxwell and we also have an unknown commodity in (19-year-old left-arm spinner) Ashton Agar.
Look, I have never predicted the scoreline. I leave that to journalists (laughs). Or you know, maybe you could ask Glenn McGrath!
—The interaction was facilitated by Kings XI Punjab