The return of men’s international cricket restores a normality to the Australian summer

As Australia prepares for its upcoming Test and limited-overs engagements against India, and fans emerge from varying degrees of lockdown, rarely have the harbingers of an Australian cricket summer seemed more welcome.

The old favourites are well established: the perennial pub debate about Australia’s best Test XI; the first crackle of match commentary on the radio and the ceremonial engagement of the TV’s mute button; the emergence of the next Greg Chappell (two this year, in the form of Will Pucovski and Cameron Green).

One tier below are the newer traditions. Groaning about the bloated Big Bash schedule almost qualifies as an old favourite at this point. More entertaining is David Warner’s now-regular promise of a sledge-free summer.

Warner earlier this week managed to combine old and new, entering the selection debate and immediately breaking his own sledging rule by relaying to reporters the news that he’d prefer to open the batting with incumbent partner Joe Burns than Victorian wunderkind Pucovski. In statistical terms, it assures Warner a 50 per cent chance of a very awkward pre-Test conversation in three weeks.

An Australian batsman walks of the SCG after being dismissed by New Zealand.An Australian batsman walks of the SCG after being dismissed by New Zealand.
David Warner has weighed into the debate over who he’ll open the batting with, leaning towards Joe Burns over Will Pucovski.(AAP: Dan Himbrecht)

Warner employed a familiar line. “As we know, it’s harder to get out of this team than get in,” he said. Of course, like so many of the best myths of Australian cricket, it’s not actually true, as Warner himself pointed out only moments earlier: “I’ve had over a dozen opening partners and it’s never been quite stable.”

Australia’s COVID-normality was perhaps better established by Ian Chappell’s annual suggestion that selectors adopt a youth policy: Burns out, Pucovski in. Chappell is right more often than anyone in Australian cricket, although like us mortals, not infallible: he once recommended Richard Soule over Ian Healy to replace Tim Zoehrer as Test gloveman.

Speaking to Michael Atherton in The Times this week, Australian coach Justin Langer reinforced that it is not unreasonable for such debates to dominate our thoughts of an impending summer. Langer admitted that Mitchell Marsh almost got the nod ahead of Marnus Labuschagne as Steve Smith’s concussion replacement in the Lord’s Test of 2019.

Will Pucovski raises his bat to acknowledge the crowd after his double century for VictoriaWill Pucovski raises his bat to acknowledge the crowd after his double century for Victoria
22-year-old Will Pucovski has been in stunning touch in the opening rounds of the Sheffield Shield competition.(AAP: Richard Wainwright)

Such has been Labuschagne’s dominance since, the intervening 18 months feel more like three years. The Queenslander has diversified and strengthened a batting line-up that previously hinged on Smith alone. It is not unreasonable to conclude that 22-year-old Pucovski, who has both Test pedigree technique and an insatiable appetite for time in the middle, could be equally transformative; Warner is now 34, after all.

Before all that, starting today, we have six limited-overs games in 12 days, a prospect that in previous summers might have presented as a chore but now seems like glorious relief from the onslaught of COVID-19 press conferences and football — all the better for Virat Kohli’s involvement before he heads home for the birth of his first child after the first of four Tests.

The greatest shame is that not every arena hosting these games can fill to capacity. The Barmy Army might blanch at the thought, but local Indian fans are now close to the best thing Australian stadium crowds have going for them.

Census data from 2019 revealed that 660,000 Indian migrants now call Australia home, closing on England’s 986,000. They create the atmosphere cricket desperately needs in order to maintain the primacy of the attendance experience over the comfort of home.

Indian fans, including a mascot, stand in the crowd as rain falls at the SCG.Indian fans, including a mascot, stand in the crowd as rain falls at the SCG.
Indian fans create the atmosphere cricket needs to get people to games, rather than watch them at home.(AAP: Craig Golding)

The cricket itself is an intriguing prospect this summer, not only because any contest between Australia and India comes with heightened stakes.

The limited-overs games will disappear in a flash, theoretically favouring whoever gets on an early roll. Yet the same could have been said of January’s three-game series between India and Australia (did that really happen in 2020?). In it, Australia raced to a surreal 10-wicket win thanks to twin centuries from Warner and Aaron Finch in the first game at Mumbai, then promptly lost the others decisively.

Aaron Finch kisses the badge on the front of his helmetAaron Finch kisses the badge on the front of his helmet
Aaron Finch celebrates his century during January’s first ODI against India in Mumbai.(AP: Rafiq Maqbool)

Australia’s only likely change to its XI from September’s 50-over games against England is more than handy inclusion: Smith for the injured Marsh. The bigger problem is fitting in everyone else. Glenn Maxwell’s man-of-the-series performance in the England series came batting at number seven. Green and Moises Henriques hover on the fringes. Alex Carey — who’d be playing Test cricket too if Tim Paine wasn’t such a level-headed skipper — might fancy a hit as well.

Assessing the quality of international cricket available to us in the next 50 days, you can’t help but feel overwhelmingly thankful to the players, millionaires as they may be.

Both teams battle the emotional strains and myriad inconveniences of hub life — the Indians more acutely, away from home so soon after enduring the misery of the IPL’s bio-secure bubbles. Even the IPL Australians have been separated from the rest of the ODI squad, the two camps only uniting yesterday, on the series’ eve.

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The sense, then, is of a playing field levelled. Even Kohli’s departure will be a symbolic blow more than anything. In India’s breakthrough Test triumph of 2018-19, it was Jasprit Bumrah and Cheteshwar Pujara who produced the series-clinching performances, not India’s captain. It rubbished another old favourite: India struggle against aggressive fast bowling on Australia’s hard pitches.

Australia should instead heed Edward Docker’s warning that Indian cricketers have infinite capacity to absorb punishment. With and without Kohli, they’ll provide a stern challenge.