By Ian Ransom
ADELAIDE (Reuters) – For many Australians, the first ball of a home test series marks the start of a gradual winding down, when workers breathe easier in the leadup to Christmas and enjoy tuning in to watch the toil of the country’s best cricketers.
For Tim Paine’s team, however, Thursday’s opening delivery of the first test against India marks the start of a long summer job to win back the hearts of a sceptical public.
Nine months on from the Cape Town ball-tampering scandal, fans will turn up to Adelaide Oval as always, some having ducked out early from their workplaces in a city that loves the sport like few others.
Many will be curious about what to expect.
Some will nurse a rare feeling of apprehension having read reports about the country’s worst ever batting lineup set to take on an Indian team with a rare surfeit of quality pacemen.
Others will feel Australia are barely recognisable from their last visit, when Steve Smith’s side hammered England by 120 runs on the way to an eventual 4-0 Ashes triumph.
With Smith and David Warner serving bans for ball-tampering, Paine’s team have had little to celebrate and even less inclination to indulge in chest-thumping aggression.
Defeat does little to lift the spirits, and Australia have lost a string of series across formats since the Newlands scandal.
A barrage of cultural reviews linking the team’s past belligerence with a descent into cheating has hardly helped the mood.
Fears abound that Australia have lost their mean streak, as if a sneer and a nasty remark on the field could trump skill with bat and ball.
Former captain Michael Clarke lamented that Australia would not win a game without re-embracing their anger.
Paine has drawn criticism for pledging Australia will be better behaved but has steadfastly argued that winning and good sportsmanship are not mutually exclusive.
“We play test cricket to win, there’s no doubt about that,” he told reporters at Adelaide Oval on Wednesday.
“And clearly we’ve realised that we needed to do some work in some areas and gaining the respect of our country and our fans is as high a priority as is winning.”
Regaining respect is not something Virat Kohli need worry about, with the captain and his number one-ranked team idolised in the cricket-mad nation.
Kohli has plenty of respect Down Under, too, having plundered Clarke’s side for 692 runs during the 2014/15 series.
But Australia and its unforgiving pitches have been kryptonite to Indian cricket, and Kohli’s starring role in the last series was in a losing cause.
Pundits have nonetheless backed Kohli’s side to do what no other Asian team has done and win a test series in Australia, though for that to happen the skipper will need his team mates to chip in with more runs than they did in series defeats in South Africa and England.
“I personally don’t think any Australian side is vulnerable at home,” Kohli told reporters at Adelaide Oval.
“They still have the skill to dominate at home. We’re not taking anything for granted.”
Australia’s 2-0 win over India in 2014/15 was marked by a string of conduct violations, with Kohli one of the chief antagonists in a heated series.
Scorching weather forecast for the opening days could see tempers fray quickly in the field.
Kohli said the series might be played in a better spirit than the last tour but there was always a place for chatter.
“Yeah, at times when situations are difficult you do find ways to upset the batsmen’s rhythm,” he said.
“I think a bit of banter there is not harmful at all.”
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)