When Australia begins their four match Test series in Chennai on Friday, one thing is for certain – they are set to face a huge battle against slow bowling.
The key battle of the series will be the Australian batsmen’s ability to play against what looks like is going to be a four-man Indian spin attack.
If as predicted, then K Parthasarathy – the MA Chidambaram Stadium curator, will provide a turning wicket and the Indians will go in with three frontline spinners in Ravichandran Ashwin, Harbhajan Singh and Pragyan Ojha as well as the allrounder Ravindra Jadeja, who will bat at six.
Australia’s past record against quality spin bowling in less than desirable, especially when it comes to the current crop of batsmen – who apart from captain Michael Clarke, have lacked the application to grind it out against quality international spinners.
After giving up bowling for the foreseeable future, Watson faces a big series in the Australian middle order. He has made no secret of his desire to bat at the top of the order and many Australian pundits have suggested that it should be him, not Cowan, opening the batting in Chennai.
After missing the final Test of the recent Sri Lankan series, the 31-year-old Queenslander, returned to make handy scores of 122 and 76 in the ODI series against the West Indies before top scoring in each innings with 84 and 60 at the top of the order in the second tour match against India A.
Since beginning his Test career in 2005, Watson has missed more Tests than he has played and his conversion rate of two hundreds to 19 fifties isn’t what it should be for a player of his calibre.
With Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey now settling into life after retirement, Watson, alongside Clarke, suddenly becomes a key part of Australia’s brittle middle order. Without his bowling to fall back on, Watson must ensure he makes the most of his starts against the Indian spinners and goes on to score heavily whilst at the crease.
Australia’s middle order remains thin. Gone are the generation of run makers and for that matter the generation of back-up run makers – so often readily picked from Sheffield Shield cricket. Phillip Hughes, Usman Khawaja and Steven Smith have all been tried and ditched in Test cricket over the past four years and now the trio return looking to cement their places for what remains one of Australia’s toughest years in recent memory.
Only time will tell if it is a correct decision to select three allrounder’s (Smith, Glenn Maxwell and Moises Henriques) in the touring party and what looks like just one back up specialist batsman in Khawaja.
I would have personally given a chance to Alex Doolan, who has impressed in Sheffield Shield and Australia A cricket this summer. Surely Doolan couldn’t do much worse than Smith as a batsman and the fact that Smith averages 73.33 with the ball in Test cricket – says all you need to know about his legspin bowling.
Another inclusion the selectors have missed out on is that of the former keeper Brad Haddin. After Clarke, Haddin remains the country’s best player of spin bowling and although the move to bring him in as a specialist batsman would be looked at by some as a backwards step with Haddin being 35, his experience and knowledge of the subcontinent pitches would be a valuable asset to this untried middle order.
As announced on Wednesday, Henriques will receive his baggy green, making him Australia’s 432nd Test cricketer. The Portuguese-born allrounder will bat at seven with Matthew Wade moving up to six, meaning the side will go in with four quicks (Peter Siddle, James Pattinson, Mitchell Starc and Henriques) alongside the lone spinner Nathan Lyon.
Coach Micky Arthur was impressed with the way Henriques performed in the two recent tour matches as he took 4-12 and 1-30 with the ball as well as scoring 16 and 33 with the bat. It was his lower order hitting that particularly impressed Arthur – as he hit three sixes and two fours in his 33 off 41 balls against India A. Although it was a short innings, he showed his prowess for attacking the spinners, a trait which his fellow teammates must follow in the coming weeks.
Judging by the performances of the Indian spinners in Australia’s two tour matches, facing slow bowling in the upcoming Test series is set to be a struggle for the tourists.
They were also dismissed cheaply in their first innings in their encounter with the India A. Slow-left-armer Rakesh Dhurv and off-spinner Jalaj Saxena shared nine wickets between them as the visitors were shot out for just 235 in reply to India A’s 451. Made to follow on, they reached a relatively comfortable 195-3 in their second innings, largely thanks to an opening stand of 116 between Cowan and Watson.
Concerns certainly remain over the Australian batsmen in turning conditions – especially the way that Watson and Cowan played with uncertainly against the wily Rangana Herath in their recent home series with Sri Lanka, and that was in unhelpful spinning conditions.
The quartet of Ashwin, Harbhajan, Ojha and Jadeja may not be the potent a force of the famous Indian quartet of the 60’s and 70’s in Erapalli Prasanna, Bhagwath Chandrasekhar, Srinivas Venkataraghavan and Bishan Bedi, but they have the skills to worry the visitors nonetheless.
The Australians struggle against slow bowling has not gone unnoticed by the Indian’s and they can expect slow turning wickets to be produced for all four Tests.
When facing the spinners it will be important for the Australians to rotate the strike as often as possible and not just get struck between hitting boundaries and defending. With four left-handers in the top six, (Warner, Cowan, Hughes and Wade) the Indian off-spinners will fancy their chances of getting regular breakthroughs and getting into Henriques and the bowlers early on.
On the other hand the Aussies must take heart from the way that the English Batsmen (Alastair Cook, Kevin Pietersen and Matt Prior) in particular played Ashwin and Ojha after their disastrous first innings decapitation in Ahmedabad.
Ojha finished the England series join wicket taker alongside Graeme Swann with 20 wickets at 30.85, while Ashwin was disappointing in taking 14 wickets at 52.64. Together the pair bowled the majority of India’s overs across the series with a combined 491.1 overs between them out of India’s total of 839.3 throughout the four Tests.
Harbhajan played only one Test of that series but has an excellent record at home against the Australians. He has taken 81 wickets at 24.48 in his 12 Tests to date, although his bunny Ponting is no longer in the Australian side and his effectiveness and confidence in the longer form of the game has also waned over the past couple of years as he has tended to operate more defensively.
The fact that Australia have averaged less than 32 with the bat in India since 1995 doesn’t bode well. They can though fall back on the knowledge that they are the last side before England to beat the Indians in a Test series on their own soil.