In the next few hours, India’s tour of Australia is all set to begin and thus, unfurl a string of ‘what-mights’ that can easily make the series one of the most exciting all year around.
The central question, apart from so many, is this: can the visitors, who won back in 2018, stake a claim in the year-ending India’s tour of Australia?
But let’s get one thing right. Beating Australia in their own backyard in Test cricket has always been one of the toughest challenges for any touring side. Not that they are any easier to face anywhere else, but they have shown time and again what an incredibly dominant force they are at home. Team India would be aware of that as they prepare for their much-awaited 4-match Test series against the Aussies starting December 17. They would take confidence from their performance here on their last tour in 2018-19 when they managed a historic 2-1 series win. It was their first-ever Test series win in Australia and was understandably celebrated with much abandon.
But, as good as that series win was, Australia were without the services of two of their biggest batsmen then – Steve Smith and David Warner. The two were serving bans for their roles in the infamous ball-tampering episode and that left the Australian batting pretty fragile then.
Things will be different in this series, though. While Warner will be missing the first Test in Adelaide due to injury, Smith is all fit and raring to go. Missing that last series against India at home wasn’t easy to digest for the No.1 Test batsman in the world and he would be eager to make amends now.
India should be wary. Smith doesn’t just love Test cricket, he particularly fancies the Indian team. His record against them is phenomenal: 1429 runs in 10 matches at an average of 84.05 with 7 hundreds and 3 fifties. Moreover, the last time Smith played against India in his own backyard, in 2014-15, he amassed a whopping 769 runs in 4 Tests at 128.16.
So, yes, India needs to be wary of Smith. In fact, he could be the biggest thorn in their flesh given the form he’s been in of late.
Then there’s Marnus Labuschagne, Australia’s blossoming new Test star who seems to have been born to play Test cricket. In the 14 Tests he’s played so far, Labuschagne has already collected 1459 runs at 63.43 with 4 hundreds and 8 fifties. He wasn’t in the squad in the 2018-19 series but is likely to be a big threat for the visiting Indian side this time.
Once Warner returns from the Seond Test onwards, things will only get that much more difficult for the touring party. After all, the aggressive opener would also be hungry and would also be eager to make up for the last series he missed against them.
India’s issues, however, don’t just end with the challenges they will face in Australia’s squad. They have plenty of headaches of their own this time. For starters, their captain Virat Kohli would be unavailable from the Second Test onwards as he leaves for India to attend the birth of his first child. That will leave a gaping hole in the Indian batting unit which will be hard to fill. He’s their best batsman across formats, after all, and his presence alone would have made a huge difference. So will the lack of it.
India is also yet to figure out their opening combination and we are still not sure who will be partnering Mayank Agarwal, who’s not that experienced himself, at the top for them in the first Test. That isn’t really a healthy sign before the start of a high-octane overseas Test series.
To make matters worse, Ishant Sharma, India’s senior-most bowler, has been ruled out from the series as he recovers from a side strain injury. This is perhaps an even bigger blow to the Indian side as Sharma is a vastly improved Test bowler now and his wealth of experience would have been crucial on an overseas tour. It remains to be seen how the likes of Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammad Shami function in his absence.
This doesn’t mean that India will be walkovers, of course. They still have a potent bowling unit, at least on paper. Bumrah and Shami had collected 37 wickets between them on the last Test tour and were two of the chief architects of the series win. They might well repeat that show. Then, India also has Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane in their ranks.
Pujara. The man who bored the Australian bowlers to tears with his marathon stays at the wicket on the last tour and was the leading run-getter of the series, collecting 521 precious runs for the team at 74.42. Rahane, who is likely to lead the side once Kohli leaves, has shown that he can be the team’s best batsman on overseas tours and will have added responsibility this time.
India’s chances on this series will depend a lot on how these two batsmen handle the likes of Pat Cummins, Josh Hazelwood, and Mitchell Starc. Yes, all the three bowlers, along with off-spinner Nathan Lyon, were present in the 2018-19 series too. But they will be a different proposition altogether when the batting unit is delivering, which is likely to be the case this time around.
So, to reiterate the point, things won’t be the same for Team India this time when they face Australia. Whether they manage to put up a surprisingly good challenge and retain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy remains to be seen. But even if they come close to it, we might have a Test series to remember.