After recent failings in Asia, Steven Smith’s men understandably start their four-Test series in India as underdogs, but can they learn from past misdemeanours and spring a surprise or two on the hosts?
It’s hard to believe that nearly four years have passed since Australia last visited India for a Test series. Although a great deal of water has passed under the bridge since then with multiple personnel having come and gone – somethings, however, remain unchanged – the Australian cricket team’s struggle with subcontinental conditions.
On Thursday, captain Steven Smith will lead out his men in Pune in the first of a four-Test series that will also include trips to Bangalore and the outpost cities of Ranchi and Dharamsala. Three of the four venues will be hosting Test cricket for the first time, but don’t be fooled the advantages are all very much India’s.
Under the stewardship of Michael Clarke, (and later, for one Test, Shane Watson), the 2013 touring party included the likes of Phillip Hughes, Brad Haddin, Ed Cowan, Mitchell Johnson, Xavier Doherty, Moises Henriques and Peter Siddle as well as 2017 returnees Smith, David Warner, Matthew Wade, Mitchell Starc, Usman Khawaja, Glenn Maxwell and Nathan Lyon.
Little did they know at the time, but that 4-0 whitewash was the beginning of four years of Australian torment on the subcontinent. Including the four defeats in India, they have played nine Tests, lost nine Tests since 2013. Their record in India is even uglier still. Since their final frontier 2-1 series victory in 2004 (Australia’s only series win in India throughout the past 48 years), they are yet to claim a Test victory in the country – in fact they haven’t even shared a Test there since 2010 when a Ricky Ponting-led side lost a three-Test rubber 2-0.
The 2013 tour will not only be remembered for embarrassment on the field and the infamous ‘Homeworkgate’ fiasco off it, but also for the reincarnation of Smith – the Test cricketer.
Originally taken as a spare batsman, Smith was unlikely to get a look in until both Watson and Khawaja were suspended for not adhering to team policy. Regardless, he took his opportunity with both hands when he compiled an assured first-innings 92 during the third Test in Mohali. With that he ensured a place on the Ashes tour of England later that year.
Smith is now the number one Test batsman in the world, but his task in leading the side in India certainly gets no easier than it was for his predecessor Clarke four years ago. The hosts are currently undefeated in twenty Tests on home soil with thirteen of those coming under the impressive leadership of Virat Kohli. Their recent form speaks volumes too. An improving England side were dispatched 4-0 with relative ease before Christmas, while Bangladesh were brushed aside by 208 runs earlier this month.
Against a formidable batting lineup unable to even accommodate Karun Nair – who scored an unbeaten 303 in his previous Test against England – Australia’s bowling arsenal will certainly have their work cut out both trying to dismiss and contain the likes of Kohli, Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane throughout the next six weeks.
With the selectors set to include three seamers in Starc, Josh Hazlewood and allrounder Mitchell Marsh, the spin responsibilities will fall on the shoulders of Lyon and Steve O’Keefe.
It will be up to Lyon and O’Keefe to tie down the home batsmen in the first innings and then create opportunities in the second when the notoriously dry Indian pitches will be expected to turn square. Early signs during Australia’s only warmup fixture in Mumbai last week were not ideal for the visitors. Despite the spinners sharing seven wickets between them they also received plenty of punishment from Indian A batsman Shreyas Iyer conceding economy rates of 4.20 and 5.61 in the process.
Both Lyon and O’Keefe still have considerable lingering doubts hanging over them. In Asian, Lyon has taken his 42 wickets at a costly 42.57 compared to his overall average of 34.07. In a part of the world where spinners are expected to take the bulk of the 20 wickets required to win a Test match, Lyon’s offspin has largely proven ineffective. Certainly when related to the success he’s accomplished when generating sharp bounce and overspin on the harder surfaces at home.
Meanwhile, O’Keefe’s skiddy left-arm bowling technique has the potential to thrive in Indian conditions providing he bowls with sufficient pace and accuracy. His history of untimely injuries could well count against him though, especially as he’s likely to be required to bowl lengthy spells in draining conditions.
If Australia are to achieve any success throughout the series, then it’s likely to arise from the success of the fast bowlers and Starc in particular. The left-armer wreaked havoc in the last Test series he played in Asia taking 24 Sri Lankan wickets at a cost of just 15.16. India will be different of course, they have a stronger batting order than the Sri Lankans and the SG ball used in India will behave differently to the Kookaburra used further south. However, should Starc and to a lesser extent Hazlewood and Mitchell Marsh get the ball to swing both early doors and later in the innings then perhaps they could restrict the Indian totals to something more manageable.
In the wake of last year’s failed Sri Lanka series, a “horses for Asian courses” selection policy was muted with a major view on this Indian tour for its inauguration. In other words, batsmen and bowlers who have had international success in Australia and other parts of the world won’t necessary be selected for a subcontinental tour.
The first casualty of this new thinking could well be Khawaja. Despite piling up 581 runs at 58.10 during the home summer, the elegant left-hander has previously struggled in Asia scoring just 115 runs at 19.16 during four Tests in Sri Lanka. Last year, his ineptness against the Sri Lankan spinners saw him dropped for the final Test alongside Joe Burns.
With Shaun Marsh reinstated to the middle order following injury, Khawaja will battle it out with rookie Matt Renshaw for the right to open with Warner. Last week’s tour match in Mumbai was in fact Renshaw’s only first-class match anywhere in Asia so his meagre returns of 11 and 10 will leave Trevor Hohns and Darren Lehmann slightly uneasy. Either opening option can be viewed as a risk but a middle order of Smith, Marsh and Peter Handscomb looks to be as equipped against the turning ball as any combination the Australians could have thrown together.
Marsh has successive hundreds in his two most recent Tests in Asia (albeit both occurred in Sri Lanka), while Handscomb has impressed observers with his ability to play spin bowling off both front and back foot in domestic cricket.
The spotlight will also be on wicketkeeper Wade. The visitors can ill afford for the Tasmanian to have a poor series behind the stumps. Creating chances against a powerful Indian batting line up is difficult enough without squandering them too. Four years ago, Wade was the incumbent keeper entering the series but a string of dropped catches and poor scores saw him replaced by the experienced Haddin. Although he’s worked hard on his keeping with Victoria over the past few years, is he really a better glovesman than the recently disregarded Peter Nevill?
For India, chief tormentors Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja will again carry the most threat, much as they did four years ago, when they combined for 53 wickets against the Australians. The duo will likely be joined by fellow spinner Jayant Yadav – who debuted against England late last year – and seamers Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav.
With a poor recent away Test record, especially in Asia, Australia will certainly be up against it. Many are predicting another 4-0 whitewash and history suggests that could be a real possibility.
Yet, with matchwinners Warner, Smith and Starc in the side there remains just a glimmer of hope that the visitors can pull off what would be regarded as one of modern-day cricket’s greatest upsets.