When I first travelled to New Delhi to watch Australia play cricket in 2013, just leaving my hotel to confront the onslaught of this relentless, illogical city felt like a small victory.
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The walk into the Sydney Cricket Ground is one of my favourite things to mark the new year.
It means I’ve probably had a great breakfast, the banter between my mates is already flowing well and, despite whatever has happened in the Test series beforehand, we could be about to see the greatest day of Test cricket since the game began.
For nigh on two decades now the four of us have been making this walk into the SCG on Day 1. And I deliberately say ‘for nigh on’ because despite redoing the tally only a few summers ago, we’ve actually lost track of how many years we’ve being doing this.
My suspicion is today is number 19; I don’t think we’re at 20 yet. And if I’m going all out on honesty, I’m not entirely confident a few of the first years were necessarily Day 1 either. We saw Steve Waugh’s last ball ton for the ages, for example, and that was on Day 2 in 2003. But then again, we’ve done multiple days on more than a few occasions, too.
Whatever the number, this has been how we’ve brought in the new year. We’ve all married and had kids now, and those families have certainly grown over the years. But for a couple of days in early January each year we pick up a conversation that first started around the mid-point of the Waugh reign as Australian skipper.
But this year is going to be different. We’ve trudged up to a few dead rubbers in our time, and we’ve even knowingly walked into a few Tests that were always going to tough to start well, never mind win.
I can’t recall walking into the SCG to oversee what already feels like a lost cause.
That’s not to say that I think, or that we think, Australia cannot win this final Test of the Border-Gavaskar series.
But it’s more a reflection that it’s almost impossible to get a handle on where this Australian team is ‘at’ currently, or where it’s heading.
And as cricket fans, that’s what keeps us coming back every year. We want to feel like we’re part of the journey so that we can enjoy the triumphs and so that we do feel the pain along the way.
It doesn’t feel like we’re on the journey this year, because the journey is as uncharted as it gets.
It started with from a position of stability but has taken all kinds of detours since. There have been dalliances with second spinners – genuine spinners – there have been players dropped and players recalled. There’s been another detour down what has long thought to be a picturesque all-rounder route, but once again the view has been underwhelming.
This last week has felt like the classic trip taken by covering your eyes and pointing to somewhere on a map. You have no idea where you’re going to end up because you’ve got no idea where you’re pointing to.
A thought bubble at the end of the Melbourne Test that hypothesised Marnus Labuschagne being recalled as the second spinner is set to pop, with the young Queenslander now highly likely to walk out to bat at first drop.
I wish the guy well, as we all do, but it’s exactly this kind of logic-deprived selection lotto that leaves us – pretty typical Australian cricket fans – shaking our heads.
We just don’t know what’s going on anymore.
I’ve been trying to sum up how this game has brought unprecedented anxiousness among the four of us, but it turns out I didn’t have to. My mates were keen to have their say.
Ralph is the wordsmith of the group, someone who thinks about the game more intellectually than any amateur analyst should. He went straight to the heart of the matter.
“Ugh, the batting. Australia has always been something of a breeding ground for good batsmen and it was decent bowlers we sometimes struggled for. Now it’s the reverse.
“If you’re going to be competitive in Test match cricket, you need to be able to bat for days. Our batsmen have barely made it past 100 overs. They also seem to have become second-innings specialists. How many Test matches are you ever going to win when you’re not posting 300 runs?
“Probably the biggest difference between the sides is Cheteshwar Pujara, who can drop anchor and face a lot of balls. With Khawaja out of form and our only two truly world-class batsmen in exile, we don’t have anyone who seems even remotely capable of doing the same, not consistently.”
Ian has overseen lunch since day dot, and if I’m honest, that’s often his most valuable contribution. But every now and again he’ll come up with something that reminds us he knows what he’s talking about.
“I reckon the selectors are the ultimate optimists. They picked a ‘keeper who at the time couldn’t get a game for his state and was a week away from changing the occupation on his tax return from ‘cricketer’ to ‘salesman’. And then promoted him after a dressing room DIY discussion took a dark, literal twist.
“They picked a bloke to open whose state hasn’t always trusted him to wear whites, let alone trust him at the top of the order. They recalled a bloke who they had to drop because of his funky batting stance that made his front big toe a magnet for English yorkers after convincing everyone that his technique had changed. Summary: it hasn’t.
“And now it looks likely they’ll recall him again because ‘The Next Andrew Flintoff No.17’, surprise, surprise, still can’t transfer his Shield form for WA into the Test arena.
“Despite all this, they remain convinced they’ve absolutely, positively, definitely got it right this time. For reals.
“And we pay to watch this optimism! Who wants a chicken roll?”
Finally, Coops is the one most likely to pull out the soapbox. The one least likely to sugar-coat.
“I have no angst.
“I am apathetic, as the Australian batsmen seem to be regarding their wicket.
“The problem has been ten to 15 years in the making and we identified it years ago.
“I’m still sure Justin Langer is the man to guide them out of this, but it’s not going to quick and must start at the grassroots. Fix up the grade scene, stop neglecting the Sheffield Shield and maybe we’ll be okay. That’s all I ask now.”
Yet despite all this being said, there’s never been any thought given to not watching this Test like we always do, the way we always do it. At the end of the day we’re cricket fans, and watching Test cricket live is one of the great joys in our lives. Even more so when we do it together.
It’s been a testing summer, no doubt, but when we walk into the ground today anything will be possible.
And maybe it will be all the sweeter if it comes from what feels like the unlikeliest of Australian sources.