Testing times

Australian cricket captain Michael Clarke (2nd L) helps carry the coffin of Australian batsman Phillip Hughes from the hall in his home town of Macksville in northern New South Wales.

This is a build-up to a series quite unlike any before it. And may it never be so again. This is a troubled time for our sport. May it never have to go through this again.

By now, fans in India should have been excited at the prospect of what is a very inexperienced Indian team taking on a side that, a bit like itself, wins at home and struggles overseas.

We should have been asking ourselves if, dare it even be whispered, an Indian team could field four fast bowlers at the Gabba; indeed even whether the word "fast" could, just for once, be an appropriate description.

We should have relished the opportunity of seeing a young and extremely talented batting side playing on what Sachin Tendulkar recently called the best batting pitches in the world.

And we should have been checking to see if Virat Kohli could indeed be the heir, a word bestowed on us by our history and our politics, to the Indian captaincy!

By now, we should have had Australian cricketers of varied vintage writing India off for, in truth, no team plays against only 11 Australians; they play against a nation and a culture.

There should have been talk of putting the "fear of death" into India's batsmen, a statement once so common and now suddenly so vulgar and inappropriate. Fingers would have been pointed at India's overseas record, so meagre that a draw is often seen as a favourable result.

And we would all have been looking forward to sunshine and glorious cricket.

But this is a series quite unlike any before it. It is a series that neither side is really prepared to play. It is not uncommon for India to be underdone for the lessons of history have often been wasted. It is my sixth tour to Australia and four times India have lost the first Test and, only once, battled to save it.

India should play at least two first-class games before the first Test. To play two two-day games against opposition cobbled together is to practise on sand dunes before an expedition to a mountain peak.

India haven't played a Test match since the tour of England where the dramatic win at Lord's was followed by a slide of rather epic proportions. The West Indies went home and the one-day series against Sri Lanka was a feast against unprepared, dare one say unwilling, opponents.

And what of Australia? A nation that sees itself as tough and unrelenting, whose coat of arms beseeches it to never take a backward step, is grieving uncontrollably after the death of Phil Hughes, felled by a bouncer.

I have often believed Australians to be sensitive people trying their best to hide behind a different, carefully cultivated image.

The Australian way in sport is to wade into situations, to puff your chest and appear to be twice the player.

But underneath every combative sportsman lies a human being who bleeds the same way, who as Shylock said in another context is "fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer…"

If India have played too little cricket to be prepared, Australia have seen too much sadness to be prepared.

But cricket must be played not just because it has been decreed but because at almost every other time in our existence, it has symbolised joy. There is little in it of the narrowness of sectarian politics or the intrigue of territorial ambitions.

On the field there is a bat and there is a ball and the skills of those that wield them have held us in rapture for generations now. Cricket must return there.

It must refresh and invigorate us, must continue to light up our summers and erase the gloom of winter.

Cricket has often stood up as a celebration of all that sport can do. Now it seems it must be played under the shadow of what it can do. But only cricket can nudge that shadow away, hold our hand and guide us back to the joy that still resides within.

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