Series Preview: Indian Takeaway
What happens when India’s road woes meet a depleted Australian line-up? That’s the question that will be answered this summer.
The Indians have a Hindi phrase for a “bad trip”: buri yatra. We’re guessing it’s been used a bit lately, as the world’s no.1 Test team has travelled dismally. Australia, on the other hand, can be forgiven for thinking they’ve experienced a bad trip of another kind, and wouldn’t mind waking up from it anytime soon. It will make for an interesting encounter.
Australians and Indians have always served their cricket in entirely distinct ways: Australia with a meaty sizzle, India a spicy tang. The difference expresses itself in the way a shot is made, a ball is spun, a press conference is conducted, or how politics manifests itself. Cricket filters through two completely diverse cultures and serves varying purposes, takes on different guises, in each.
Still, it’s cricket, and cricket’s a superb generator of stories. And don’t we all love a good story? The Australia-India rivalry has, over the decades, spawned drama: the Chennai tie, “Monkeygate”, Simpson’s comeback, the ’69 riots, Mumbai 2001, Gilly’s win in 2004. There are many more. In the realm of cricket, these ferocious rivals have a shared language, common folklore. The colourful 2017 edition, printed in India and featuring Steve Smith, might have been part one of a brand-new series of stories, but for the fact that several significant characters have been written out.
These series generally have more colour than a Hindu temple. Will this one? For the second time in four years, the Indians arrive at a time of crisis for the Aussies. Its cause – or was it a symptom? – was the ball-tampering affair in South Africa. The embers from that bushfire are proving more deadly than the event itself as they gently alight, one by one, on the combustible eucalypts of Australian cricket.
Australian batting was in trouble before Smith and David Warner were barred; the entropic forces acting on first-class cricket have suddenly emerged in a Test team that currently seems to have few of the means to do what winning Test teams do.
It’s difficult to know how this Aussie team will go. In this year-zero for Australian cricket, what can we go on? They played Pakistan on the desiccated wickets of the United Arab Emirates and, as always, as anyone, struggled. India lost a hard-fought series in England, then whipped the West Indies on the subcontinent. But that’s par for the course – their tenth consecutive home victory, given their performances elsewhere, tells us nothing.
There are intangibles in the Australian team now. Unforeseen changes have occurred; ghosts gradually take form. The fighting draw in the UAE for example: was it some sort of turning point? Even a tipping point? It seemed so for a few days, until the Second Test, when it looked more like a capsizing than a tipping. Were we witnessing a thoroughbred foal struggling to its feet under the watchful eye of its Bart Cummings, or just ugly ungainliness?
Though it’s probably too early to ask whether we’ve already given new coach Justin Langer too much credit for little return, many ask it anyway. The Aussies foundered in infertile conditions under Darren Lehmann, but he was doing his level best to turn it around. Has something changed under Langer? Were the Aussies’ troubles over there in the past as much to do with impalpable attributes as the art and science of technique? Is Langer somehow better equipped to marshal these incorporeal forces?
Whatever it is he brings, it’s contagious. Tim Paine, already a leader of men, seems to have found a context in this new team. Paine’s captaincy wasn’t perfect. Certainly, his use of his fast-bowlers and the new ball drew heavy criticism that would have gained stridency had the team lost that first Test. The spirited draw cancelled it out, and Paine’s very own rearguard fight, added to his post-match comments, worked in his favour. He rebuked his team for celebrating the stalemate, mindful, perhaps, of a certain
astute English captain in 2005, who noted similar scenes on the Australian balcony after a thrilling deadlock, stored it and fashioned it into bullets. Langer himself was part of that Australian team.
Putting aside the abysmal Second
Test for a moment, where the loss might be attributed to a series of poor decisions, failure to capitalise on fleeting opportunities and two key injuries, we might have witnessed a watershed in the shortlived life of this particular team, but perhaps also in the life of Australian cricket. This new doggedness springs from a new spirit of sportsmanship – a hard-headedness mixed with big-heartedness that should never have just been squared off to “feel-good” events such as the Invictus Games.
Langer has had a bit more time to work with the team since then and knows how to make lemonade from the lemons of loss. The players are, reassuringly, being hard on themselves and resolving to improve. This new style of cussedness is decked out differently, as it was bound to be under Langer. The dress is neat casual. The material shall be Kevlar. This team has prevailed in one tough Test, and been thrashed in another. They’ve been to the brink together and, through introspection, have increased self-knowledge.
Recent public utterances from Paine and Nathan Lyon exude this new understanding. They now understand they have no laurels to rest on; they will need to scrap for every morsel of success. Ultimately – “ultimately” seems a long way off in their case – character translates into victory of some sort. As South African great AB de Villiers rightly pointed out in his autobiography, those with talent are judged by posterity nowhere near as favourably as those with fight. Langer himself embodies that truth. He’ll make them fight.
That’s attitude taken care of. But attitude needs complementary aptitude. We’re hoping this new combativeness doesn’t take them from bullish brats to stubborn sprats: tenacious, but tiny in terms of talent.
If character is enough to turn this Aussie team around, then their UAE sojourn, regardless of the result, resembles preparation of sorts compared with India’s six-day doddle to the corner shop against the West Indies.
Like a good sparring session, the Pakistan series quickly enabled the Australians to discover their limits. Indian cricket’s players and media make much of achievements like ten consecutive home series wins. Let’s hope they don’t pack smugness in their luggage. After all, Australia’s woes are mainly confined to their batting. At home, they have the munitions to devastate any delusional or delicate batting line-up.
So those are the intangibles. Now for empiricism. We see two very different batting line-ups, in two very different places. India’s top-six might not be clicking as a collective abroad, but it’s established and replete with champions and prospects. They’ve been infallible at home and generally unflappable, despite technical failures. Australia’s top-six are, at this stage, neither – although the Langer factor seems to have gone a long way toward instilling some sangfroid in our specialists.
Can the coach instil talent? Look, let’s face it: Australia’s batting is the pachyderm in the parlour. Does it have the ability at all not just to make a good account of itself, but to post big, match-winning Test scores, and in good time? With Warner and Smith in the order, this was not only probable, but likely a lot of the time.
THE FIGHTING DRAW IN THE UAE: WAS IT SOME SORT OF TURNING POINT? EVEN A TIPPING POINT? IT SEEMED SO UNTIL THE SECOND TEST, WHEN IT LOOKED MORE LIKE A CAPSIZING THAN A TIPPING.
Australia’s selectors lack choice. The first-class landscape is decidedly barren. They now rely on players they might once have summarily despatched. Of course, scarcity also presents opportunity. The unstintingly positive Langer sees it that way, but the old batsman knows that everything from the choreography of the crease to the deployment of defensive and attacking weaponry needs reappraisal.
Is Aaron Finch a Test opener? He’s popular, and has great qualities as a team man. But no one is more alone than an opening batsman, and the sufficiency of his particular range of skills is unproven. He got solid scores on debut in the UAE, but seemed to erode, slice-by-slice, under the angle-grinder of Mohammad Abbas.
Four years ago, Inside Cricket wrote of Finch's prospects at Test level: “has the native attributes: a sharp eye, range of shots and great reaction. He’s also the archetype of the batting blade. A risk-taker and the hardest of hitters. But even Warner constructs an innings, according to his own frenetic schedule. He’s like the builder who erects the frame before lunch and, remarkably, it’s unshakeable, compliant and perfectly ready for the weight it’s to bear. A 100-plus Warner innings, or at the very least partnership, done these days with neat briskness, is the foundation for a 500-plus team score.”
Australia needs Finch to serve Warner’s purpose. It’s not impossible. As Warner’s partner in the one-day team, he was an indispensable member of the Blitz Brothers. We now know his batting has subtleties not called upon in cricket’s truncated forms. He needs time to embed those talents into the long-form game.
The most visible improvement, in attitude, technique and understanding, is that of Usman Khawaja. His success in the UAE seemed the result of some kind of personal epiphany. If Australia’s current top-six boasts anyone world-class, Usman is our man, on form. His torn meniscus might prove to be a big blow if he doesn’t recover in time for the series.
In the absence of Smith and Warner, the Marsh brothers have been forced to fill duties higher in the order, just when it seemed they might make the five and six spots their own. The result has had a depressingly familiar flavour.
If ever there was a time for Shaun to take responsibility and develop consistency, it’s now. He’s proved he can harness his talents long enough to score a ton or two in a series. Mitch needs to continue his rise as a batsman. He’ll still be called upon occasionally to bowl, despite his assessment of the opportunity cost of doing both. He’s made it known, and proved, that he might have a bright future as a specialist. But those averages since the Ashes series (14 and 16 respectively) are beginning to annoy the cricketing public.
Travis Head? Marnus Labuschagne? Again, we quote Inside Cricket: “There are new routes to Test cricket, and more robust fame. But one thing hasn’t changed: the very best still don’t just peck their way out of the egg and into history.”
Qualities like those demonstrated by Labuschagne are required, but they come with a first-class average in the 30s. A cold, scientific eye will not anticipate the sort of transformation he and Head might undergo under a man like Langer, but it’s way too premature for us to make that sort of judgement. Certainly, Labuschagne’s leg-spin has been a revelation, and he seems comfortable with the all-rounder role.
Glenn Maxwell has so far been ignored and, as I write, is now trapped in one of
IF AUSTRALIA’S CURRENT TOP SIX BOASTS ANYONE WORLD CLASS, USMAN IS OUR MAN, ON FORM. HIS TORN MENISCUS MIGHT PROVE TO BE A BIG BLOW
those absurd cycles of modern cricket – told by Langer to go and get first-class runs to guarantee Test selection, he’s missed the start of Victoria’s Shield season because he’s in the UAE preparing for inconsequential one-dayers and T20s. Langer cannot possibly have failed to identify the effects of this self-dissolving reasoning over the last few years as cricket boards have tried to give equal weight to everything at once. It’s been morbidly fascinating; logical autolysis at its best.
Though the Australian batting line-up now has very little experience, it’s enveloped in a new wisdom, so this Indian series might be as good an opportunity as any to fast-track the inexperienced but accomplished Will Pucovski. His recent 254 against WA was dashing and carefully constructed. He also showed a certain amount of doughtiness after being hit on the head last March while batting, becoming the first batsman to be replaced under the concussion sub rule.
But there’s no substitute for experience. Warner and Smith had a combined 138 Tests of the stuff. They also happened to be two of the world’s very best batsmen. Australia needs them back. Matt Renshaw, perhaps Finch’s perfect foil, and possibly Peter Handscomb, both have the approach Langer is looking for, and deserve persistence at home. They must come into the selectors’ calculations.
India’s top-six are, as mentioned earlier, very good but looking more xenophobic as time goes on. Only Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara (in flashes) impressed in England. Both can get runs in Australia. KL Rahul and Ajinkya Rahane have scored well Down Under.
Earlier in 2018 in South Africa, India’s batting looked exposed. It’s not that they were self-doubting or lacking technique. They simply couldn’t get the likes of Morkel, Rabada, Steyn and Philander away, no matter how they tried. On that and the subsequent England tour, Kohli averaged over 50. The rest were in the teens. The records of Rahul, Pujara, Rahane, Murali Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma have been slim indeed.
Here’s a clue for Australia: neither South Africa nor England batted all that well against India. It was their fast-bowlers who restricted, and then uprooted, India’s batsmen. Indian cricket scribe Ayaz
Memon described their current batting component as “fair-weather featherbed maestros”. Here, the term we use is flattrack bullies.
Kohli has identified it as a “mental issue”. History shows this might not change. The reverse side of that Indian ability to produce wins from nowhere is the odd tendency to disengage halfway through an arduous tour if it all seems too hard.
Savage determination seems confined to Kohli right now. In Adelaide in 2014-15, his second-innings century meant nothing to him at the time. He had eyes only for the required total, and victory. Many teammates seem to lack that mindset. Talent, combined with ambition and application, wins Tests because it makes for great players. If Kohli proved anything on that tour, it’s that any successful team needs a critical mass of those attributes, not a one-man show. Ability needs stability; aptitude, attitude.
Kohli has made telling comments about India’s batting in Australia. He wants 18-year-old Prithvi Shaw here, despite his tender years. And who can blame him? Shaw’s confidence and aggression might be a youth thing, but he’s been a thrilling run-getter, and, unleashed, has allowed the established stars in India’s line-up an opportunity to relax and concentrate on accumulation. If he can continue such form here, India’s top order might gain a new lease on life – an effect Kohli is hoping for.
Shaw won man-of-the-series on his elevation to Test level against the clueless Caribbeans, prompting Kohli to make a hyperbolic claim: “I don’t think any of us were even 10 percent of what he is at 18-19.” If Shaw follows that trajectory, he should retire with a Test average of around 500. Realistically, though, he didn’t fail at all against the Windies, and became India’s youngest-ever centurion on debut. It looks as though they’ve found a replacement for the much-favoured “Charlie” Dhawan. Cruel, but he’d understand. This is about survival of the fittest.
It’s been said India’s selectors stuck with Dhawan way too long. Have they done Murali Vijay the same favour? It’s difficult to say whether his recent form lapse is a result of age (he’s 34) or poor decision-making born of dwindling confidence.
One thing we can be sure of: Kohli is undiminished, and no longer has Steve Smith to cancel him out, as he did in 201415, or outshine him, as he did in India in
THE REVERSE SIDE OF THAT INDIAN ABILITY TO PRODUCE WINS FROM NOWHERE IS THE ODD TENDENCY TO DISENGAGE HALFWAY THROUGH AN ARDUOUS TOUR IF IT ALL SEEMS TOO HARD.
2017. He’s primed to rack up another man-of-theseries prize. Overseas, India barely cracked the 200-run mark in 2018, and when they did, it was at the matches at Centurion and Birmingham, when Kohli tonned.
But South Africa and England have very wellorganised pace attacks. Australia’s has always had a little more of the random about it. Hopefully for the Aussies, consistency and complementarity will feature under the tutelage of Langer. If so, the Indian batsmen, apart from Kohli, will again struggle on a foreign pitch. Maybe. At least they won’t have to contend with the ceaselessly swinging Duke, or the new, bio-degradable version of the SG, a ball the Indians once loved.
Both sides are capable of solid batting from no.7 down. India might have Hardik Pandya, if his back issues have been resolved, and Ravi Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja can bat, but we’re not sure they’re coming. India’s tail has folded like a poker player with panic disorder way too often for anyone’s liking of late. Mind you, it helps if the top-three pave the way, and that hasn’t been happening.
For Australia, Lyon, Cummins and Starc have proved not only handy, but necessary in recent times to minimise the embarrassment our upper order has caused, if nothing else. But they can be dangerous too, and capable of scoring 100-plus between them, sometimes at critical times.
TERRORS AND TURNERS
If anything counterbalances the potential strength of India’s batsmen, it’s the StarcHazlewood-Cummins (and we keep saying this: hopefully Pattinson) fast-bowling powerhouse, especially on their home strips. Steep bounce combined with speed has often exposed India’s batsmen in Australia.
Kohli wants to concentrate on fastbowling Down Under. He has unprecedented depth and firepower at his disposal. Last tour, Umesh Yadav was unveiled: brash, aggressive and pretty rapid. He’s a little costly, but well-suited to our pitches, fit and capable of the unplayable. Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar have all fared well overseas. Ishant has improved of late under the tutelage of Jason Gillespie. All-rounder Pandya, if fit, is a dangerous seamer who shredded England at Trent Bridge, claiming 5/28. Shami fared well on India’s last tour here when the tracks were mostly unhelpful. Kumar gets nice late swing. The dangerous Bumrah is quick and has the advantage for a pace-man of an unusual action. He extracts purchase from the stingiest of pitches.
It goes without saying that India always has good spinners, but there’s some sort of internecine intrigue, incomprehensible to foreigners, going on. Ashwin is in crisis to the extent that he’s practising leg-spin. Jadeja, an impressive cricketer, never seems to impress his own Test selectors. Kuldeep Yadav has impressed Kohli with his leftywrist-spin, and might be selected away from home. Yuzvendra Chahal is a wily leggie who plays little red-ball, but might be a revelation in the format. He’s an attacker, and a container.
But weaving their web around Australia’s green bladesmen won’t be so easy for India’s spinners if they have small totals to defend. We’re predicting a series characterised by low scores, dominated by bowlers. If that’s the case, Australia might drag India down to its level. Sounds cruel, but the only way for Australia’s batting to go is up.
Australia’s ordnance remains unchanged. Starc, Hazlewood, Cummins and Lyon, backed up possibly by Mitch Marsh and Labuschagne, augmented by Pattinson, just might outweigh India’s. On the other hand, India’s batting is more settled and established. Even troubled, it should have more of what they call in Hindi nihit kshamata, roughly translated as “inherent capacity”, than Australia’s.
The way India’s batsmen handle Australia’s bowlers will prove the difference. Their attack, like Australia’s top-six, is establishing itself. Each might benefit from the other’s weakness, and develop gradually during the series.
One hidden ingredient that will emerge over the summer is Australia’s fitness, which will impact on their batting, bowling and fielding. Langer emphasises physical conditioning more than Lehmann did. In a crunch, it might the Aussies’ X-factor.
This is a tough series to pick. There’s a fence that goes right up the middle of this four-Test series, and we’re sitting on it,
THE WAY INDIA’S BATSMEN HANDLE AUSTRALIA’S BOWLERS WILL PROVE THE DIFFERENCE. THEIR ATTACK, LIKE AUSTRALIA’S TOP SIX, IS ESTABLISHING ITSELF. EACH MIGHT BENEFIT FROM THE OTHER’S WEAKNESS
predicting a 2-2 result. However, we’ll be specific:
Adelaide is an opportunity for India to start with a victory. It’s no longer a bowler’s graveyard offering grudging assistance to spin as it ages. The groundsman has made it spin- and seamfriendly, yet rewarding of good batting technique. Australia’s pace attack will fare well, but India’s will be effective, too. It will come down to Australia’s batting. India to win a low-scoring thriller.
Perth doesn’t favour quicks as it once did, and it’s possible India will bag a big total. But Australia’s fast-bowlers are more used to the strip and Lyon will bowl well there. Australia, just.
India’s spinners will find their feet in Melbourne, and if they bat first, the Indian line-up will rack up a match-winning total before the inevitable deterioration. India, better equipped for poor pitches, will win decisively.
Sydney no longer packs little surprises for spinners, but does provide a good, equal contest. Australia’s bowlers will prevail. Lyon, who knows how to over-spin a ball for Aussie conditions, will be a factor, as in Perth. The Indian bowlers’ sidespinning habits will be hard to break. Australia will finish on a winning note, Paine will be good for the captaincy at least for the Sri Lanka series, and Australia’s top-six, whoever they end up being, will be more settled.
The dancers are diminished, but the dance will captivate, as ever.
The new leadership team of coach Langer and captain Paine [below] have made an imprint. Will wins follow? Aaron Finch will have to prove that playing as a Test opener is not too much of a stretch ...
Meanwhile, the team will be sweating on the health of Khawaja, who has swept to top-bat status.
With Shaun Marsh's place in the order again up in the air [ ], is the door open for a bolter such as Will Pucovski?
Looking out for no.1: prodigy Prithvi Shaw and Chet Pujara [ ] will need to make runs on the road. There's pace depth with Umesh Yadav, but Ashwin's spin is still key.
Even with all the batting questions, the Aussies are right with the spin of Nathan Lyon ...
... while the pace and bounce of Starc and co. will have the Indians watching out.