All Set For India–Australia Test Series
It is the marquee event in the Test calendar and everyone has a viewpoint
Such is the impact of an India–Australia Test series that it can do without any kind of hype. After all it is the marquee event in the Test calendar pushing even the Ashes into the background, especially these days when the two are the top teams in the ICC rankings.
No match-up has produced more engrossing cricket than a contest between these two sides particularly in the last 20 years starting from the memorable events of Kolkata 2001. Since then whether in India or Down Under, a Test series between India and Australia has generated unprecedented enthusiasm and the events as they have unfolded have produced the kind of feats and matches that generally are found only in fiction.
But even going by all these facts the build-up for the four-match contest starting at Nagpur on Thursday is quite unprecedented. Everyone has a viewpoint, the expert and the layman, on various aspects of the series. The strengths and weaknesses of both contestants have been analysed ad nauseam, predictions have been made in fair detail and one is sure that this will go on until the last Test is played early next month.
Of course the mind games, essential in this intense rivalry have started and this too will continue till the end of the series. This is acceptable as long as it doesn't turn out to be personal or controversial.
The main discussion, however, appears to centre round the surfaces for the Tests. The Aussies are sure that spinning tracks will be placed before them – if not those turning square from day one. So certain have they been of this that their preparations have been all about playing spin bowling.
From practicing on improvised similar surfaces back home to picking four spin bowlers in the squad to calling upon an ‘Ashwin duplicate’ to bowl to them at the nets at Bangalore they want to give notice that they are ready for such surfaces.
It is true that Indian pitches have generally favoured spin bowling. Without going too much into the past, the havoc worked by Ravi Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja while bowling India to a clean sweep 4-0 victory in 2013 is fresh in everyone’s mind. Interestingly enough four years later spinners Nathan Lyon and Steve O’Keefe kept Australia very much in the hunt till the visitors went down 2-1 in a four-match series.
If India’s strength is spin, Australia’s is pace whatever the surface. In the last 20 years Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Mitchell Johnson have had their moments even as Shane Warne hasn’t. But this was one occasion when Lyon and O’Keefe pushed the pace trio of Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins into minor placings when it came to the wicket taking act.
There was a time when Indians were the best players of spin bowling and while this theory still generally holds good there have emerged slight chinks in the armour of late. Just a couple of months ago they struggled against Mehdy Hasan Miraz, Shakib al Hasan and Taijul Islam in the Test against Bangladesh before Ashwin and Shreyas Iyar bailed them out.
Against that they certainly play pace bowling better now than in the past and given this it would be better if the visitors field a balanced attack with two spinners in the mix. Of course they will be handicapped in the first Test with Starc, Hazlewood and Cameron Green all unlikely to play but with three more Tests to play they have enough time to regroup should they be up against it at Nagpur.
Whatever difficulties they may have in deciding their bowling line-up Australia can take heart from their batting which is strong enough to come good on whatever surfaces are laid out before them. One just cannot see repeated failures from the likes of David Warner, Usman Khwaja, Steve Smith, Marnus Labuschagne, Alex Carey, Travis Head and Peter Handscomb.
Given their awesome record at home, they have not lost a Test series since going down to England in 2012, there is the danger that the Indians will tend to be complacent. They can also take heart from the fact that they have won the last three contests against Australia, one home and two away.
On the other hand Australia comes to India after enjoying a splendid run at home. After retaining the Ashes comfortably 4-0 they beat back the challenge from Pakistan, West Indies and South Africa.
Under the circumstances it is imperative that the Indian team management get their selection of the final squad right. The non-availability of Jasprit Bumrah and Rishabh Pant are serious blows, let there be no doubt on that count.
Like Australia, India too can count on their batting to come good but should they play two spinners or three will be the main problem they will have to sort out. And if it is three should it be Axar Patel or Kuleep Yadav given that Ashwin and Jadeja are certainties. Ultimately this is the same problem that the Aussies too have to solve. If they field two spinners should it be Agar, Mitchell Swepson or uncapped Todd Murphy to partner Lyon.
Ultimately, the pitches and getting the selection right may be the two decisive factors in a series which should be closely contested and feature high quality cricket.