No Steve Smith. No David Warner. No Cameron Bancroft. Australia were dealt – or they dealt themselves – a heavy blow earlier this year, and they are still trying to come to terms with it.
Does that make India favourites to beat Australia in Australia in a Test series for the first time? Yes, absolutely. But this game of ‘favourites and underdogs’ is just played on paper. Many of us felt India were favourites to beat England in England earlier this year – didn’t quite happen, did it?
Have Australia done well to deal with the absence of Smith-Warner-Bancroft (and Darren Lehmann too, it mustn’t be forgotten)? Yes, they have.
It was a crippling blow. Besides, the team was also without its three premier pacemen for a fair part of the recovery period, with Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins missing in action for extended periods, and only Starc then making the trip to the UAE in October when Australia lost 1-0 to Pakistan.
Not the best result. In fact, had it not been for Usman Khawaja, it might well have been 2-0 to Pakistan.
Just around a month before that, in England, India lost 4-1 – that wasn’t the best result either. Not to forget, had it not been for Virat Kohli, that ‘1’ might have been ‘0’.
India are the No.1 Test team in the world. Australia are No.5. But despite all the booming exhortations from coach Ravi Shastri and we’re-the-best appeals from Kohli, much of the domination has been scripted at home.
In 32 overseas Tests in the last five years (a fair period to take into account), India have won 10. Not a bad number in these times of travel travails for most teams. But that number becomes five when India go away from the subcontinent, and then three when we remove the West Indies from the equation.
This is important. Because while most teams have done much of their good work in familiar conditions over the past many seasons, we’re currently talking at the start of an away tour for India – it’s their best chance, after all – and how good they travel is a key part of the discussion. Oh, they don’t, like most others.
That said, it could well be their turn – not just to win a series in Australia, but also add to their somewhat sickly overall record: Five wins and 28 defeats in 44 games over the years. Whether they can or not, however, will depend on a number of factors.
Kohli can; can the others too?
Because Kohli has been so dominant, it’s easy to forget that some of the other Indian batsmen also have very decent records in Australia, mostly from that last tour, in 2014-15.
Murali Vijay, for example. If Kohli averages an excellent 62.00 from eight Tests in Australia, Vijay actually has 60.25 from four. Just one century unlike Kohli’s five, sure, but that’s 482 runs in one series, inclusive of four half-centuries.
Ajinkya Rahane averages 57.00 from four Tests in Australia (2014-15 again), while Cheteshwar Pujara has a significantly lower but not inconsequential average of 33.50, and KL Rahul and Rohit Sharma have also scored runs Down Under before.
But Vijay averages 21.18 in six Tests this year, and was dropped midway through the tour of England before being brought back. Rahane has 29.66 from nine Tests, Rahul 24.70 from 10 Tests, and Sharma 19.50 from two Tests. Slightly above them is Pujara, with 31.81 in 10 Tests.
Now contrast them with Kohli’s numbers – 59.05 from 10 Tests this year – and it’s easy to see why much of the responsibility for keeping India’s innings totals in the 350-400 range will fall on Kohli. But Test cricket, unlike the 20-over game, can’t be won by individuals.
Starc, Hazlewood and Cummins are back
You have excellent pairs when it comes to fast bowlers, but not often triumvirates of the quality of these three gentlemen.
They haven’t played much this year – though Starc did go to the UAE – but are all back in the squad for the India Test. It’s the big series of the season, and the three of them, in their part of the world, will be a handful, or more.
Kohli or no Kohli, the Indians will have it tough against the pace, accuracy, lines and lengths of these three masters of their craft.
The Indian pacers aren’t bad either …
… though no one really needs to be reminded of that. In South Africa at the start of the year and then in England, lead pacers Jasprit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami were all excellent. There have been injuries here and there, but whoever among them – as well as Umesh Yadav – have been on the field has done well.
In fact, much of India’s renewed hope of success in foreign climes is based not on their batting riches but because the country has a pace attack that can make opposition batsmen hop and nick.
Is that attack as good as what the Australians have? Comparison is pointless, but it must be said that there isn’t much to choose there.
New kids on the Australian block
Aaron Finch (kid?!) and Travis Head made their Test debuts in the UAE and more than held their own.
With Warner and Bancroft out, Khawaja did exceedingly well in the first Test before missing the second with an injury. Now we have Marcus Harris in the mix, an extra opening option to go with Finch and Khawaja.
Circumstances have forced Australia to dip into their bench reserves, and what they have brought out has looked fine. Harris might not get a look-in if Australia go with the likeliest combination of Finch, Khawaja, Head, the Marsh brothers Shaun and Mitchell, Peter Handscomb and captain Tim Paine, but that lot is a good lot, especially at home against the bouncing ball.
The Indian pacers – and the spinners – are all more than competent, but so are these batsmen on the playing fields at home.
Nathan Lyon v Ravichandran Ashwin
On paper, this is a no-contest: Lyon has picked up 139 wickets in Australia in 37 Tests, at an average of 33.74. It doesn’t get much better than that for a spinner there. Outstanding as Ashwin is (as are Ravindra Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav), he has played only six Tests in Australia for 21 wickets (17 in four last time) at 54.71.
Australia will expect more of the same from Lyon, keeping one end tight as the pacers do the bulk of the damage and pick up two-three wickets along the way. India will hope for Ashwin to do the same, while at the same time hoping that their pacers don’t leave Ashwin with too much to do.
Talk and counter-talk: Will the spice be missing?
In the lead up to the first Test, Kohli has said that he has mellowed and won’t be chatting with the opposition players without reason. Yeah, right!
But this one’s not about the Indians – they can do what they want. It’s about the Australians, who have all been put on their guard at the end of perhaps the most testing period for cricket in their country.
They might want to talk, but thinking the retorts through in their heads before letting fly takes quite a bit of the edge off the whole thing.
“We’ll just play it by ear; if there’s a time when we think we need to have a word with him, I’m sure we will. If there’s other times when we feel like we’re bowling well against him and are troubling him, then you don’t have to do it,” Paine has said. Sure. It’ll be worth waiting, and watching.
Any team without their two best batsmen will be hamstrung – think the West Indies in the 1970s and 1980s without Viv Richards and Gordon Greenidge, or India in the 2000s without Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid. So Australia are hamstrung. Especially against a team that has Kohli, who doesn’t seem to let conditions – familiar or otherwise – faze him.
But it’s home for them, and they certainly have the bowlers to keep India honest. From the outside, it does look heavily loaded in favour of the visitors, but it’s what happens inside that matters. When it comes to that, the hurting Australians will be sure to concede not an inch, much as the Indians feel it’s theirs.
Dean Jones summed it up well the other day, conceding that India are ‘miles better’ than Australia, and that “if India don’t win this series, they will never win in Australia”. That’s too big a prediction, but it seems pretty fair.