THE BIG TWO
THE RIVALRY: Talk about great modern cricketing rivalries, and it’s easy to talk about India-Australia. From the days of Sachin Tendulkar and Shane Warne if not earlier, it has always made for a sumptuousmealforeveryonewatching, risingtoazenithinthepasttwodecades.
Probably, it reached a crescendo when India started off on their golden run in Test cricket under Sourav Ganguly. From VVS Laxman bringing out the magic at Eden Gardens in 2001, to Rahul Dravid and Ricky Ponting scoring runs blow-for-blow in 2003, to the conquest of the ‘final frontier’ in 2004, and then onto some controversial times in 200708, this match-up has always been tasty.
Off late, the sting has gone a bit as the home factor has taken precedence. India lost 4-0 away in 2011-12. Australia returned the favour in 2012-13. The last series, in 2014-15, was a bit about change oftheguard.MSDhonipassedonthebaton to Virat Kohli, and Michael Clarke handed it over to Steve Smith. For both teams, they were transitional times. Can this series be the end of that cycle and live up to its rich, engaging past?
VK vs SS: Kohli scored 692 runs in four Tests on that 2014-15 tour. It was payback for a poor trip to England. Meanwhile, Smith amassed 769 runs in that same series, going one better than his counterpart. The bowlers can step aside now, for this is the new rivalry that defines any India-Australia contest.The two have taken different routes getting to this juncture though. Kohli has almost followed the path destined for him — India’s premier batsman across formats and indeed captain. But at no point, has he ever been complacent, working hard to get to the top. Alternately, starting out asalegspinner,Smithhadtofightforhis share of international cricket, and it has been a long struggle for him, unusual for an Australian cricketer who rises to such high stature. Perhaps this aspect is what brings them together, in their contrasting styles, and sets the stage for round two of this intriguing battle.
WARNER vs ASHWIN: Of course, there has to be a support cast otherwise the show can get boring. Ajinkya Rahane would’ve made a superb second to Kohli on this stage, but his run-in to this series has been a bit patchy. Mitchell Starc could’ve been Smith’s understudy, but his fitness is always under cloud. As such, David Warner and R Ashwin come to the fore.
Thatsame2014-15tourwasvitalforboth aswell.AshwinwasleftoutinAdelaide,a shockingsnub,andreturnedinBrisbane with almost a second wind to his Test career. He overcame the disappointments endured during India’s overseas cycle in 2013-14, and has become the world’s foremost all-rounder — not just bowler or spinner mind you — ever since. Warner toohasgonefromstrengthtostrengthin this interim. He scored 427 runs in that 2014-15 series, but another statistic holds more weight herein. Before the start of that home summer, he averaged 47.47 in 32Tests.Sincethen,ithasrisento51.10in 28Tests.Assuch,whileAshwinremains a primary threat to the Australian lineup, to what degree Warner supports Smith will likely decide the outcome of this series.
PITCH: “I don’t think there’ll be any notewor t hy bou nce or movement here at all,” said pacer Josh Hazlewood on Tuesday. “This pitch bears a very dry look even one day before the game,” said Smith on Wednesday. “The pitch in Pune is usually very dry at this time of the year. The grass covering is just there to hold it together,” said Kohli ahead of the first Test.
Yes, we get it. The pitch at MCA stadium is bone dry and is expected to turn on day two, if not day one itself. If so, it’ll be a keen departure from the wickets laid out during this long home season. Neither England nor Bangladesh played on a similarly dry track. Perhaps New Zealand experienceditinKanpur,buteventhen, it didn’t turn alarmingly and there was enough in it for the batsmen. So, the question is, if Australia can ignore how the mental aspect of how the pitch looks and get on with their job instead?
SPINNERS — TWO OR THREE? The pitch will impact team selection though. Kohli has been very wary of dry, raging turners.Heplayedsixfull-timebatsmen in Galle against Sri Lanka (2015) and at Nagpur against South Africa (2016), in a bid to be safe than sorry. It didn’t work the first time, but he has learnt from that Galle experience. If he continues to think along similar lines, Karun Nair will expectedly make a comeback to the eleven. If not, Jayant Yadav will play.
Even so, the combination of Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja ought to be lethal enough on a turning wicket. The spotlight would then be on Australia, and whether Smith goes in with three spinners. Ideally, he should play safe, with Peter Handscomb at no.5 and Mathew Wade at no.7, and bank on an additional batsman in the line-up. It’d allow him to opt for a five-bowler attack, two pacers in Starc and Hazlewood, two spinners in Nathan Lyon and Steve O’Keefe, with Mitchell Marsh doing the all-round job. Simply put, if two spinners can’t do the job for Australia, the third won’t help. According to the ICC’s Test rankings, the top two batsmen (Steven Smith, Virat Kohli) and top three bowlers (R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Josh Hazlewood) in the world will all be playing in this Test
India haven’t lost a Test since August 2015 — a streak of 19 consecutive Tests — when they lost to Sri Lanka in Galle
At home, India have won 17 and drawn 3 in last 20 Tests. Last time they lost at home was to England in Kolkata in December 2012
Australia have lost their last 9 Tests in Asia
Last time India hosted Australia for a Test series, Ashwin and Jadeja combined for a tally of 53 wickets Test Ranking: 1 Captain: Virat Kohli Coach: Anil Kumble Squad: Virat Kohli, Murali Vijay, Lokesh Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Ishant Sharma, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav, Karun Nair, Jayant Yadav, Kuldeep Yadav, Abhinav Mukund, Hardik Pandya
Beat Bangladesh in one-off home test Beat England 4-0 in five-match home series Beat New Zealand 3-0 in three-match home series Beat West Indies 2-0 in four-match away series
Test Ranking: 2 Captain: Steve Smith Coach: Darren Lehmann Squad: Steve Smith, David Warner, Matt Renshaw, Usman Khawaja, Shaun Marsh, Peter Handscomb, Mitchell Marsh, Glenn Maxwell, Matt Wade (WK), Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Jackson Bird, Nathan Lyon, Stephen O’Keefe, Ashton Agar, Mitchell Swepson
Beat Pakistan 3-0 in three-match home series Lost to South Africa 2-1 in three-match home series Lost to Sri Lanka 3-0 in three-match away series Beat New Zealand 2-0 in two-match away series Australia wins India wins India wins Australia wins Draws Draws Tied Tied
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