David Warner is a ferocious opener in Australia with a Test average of close to 60 (59.21 in 33 matches at a strike rate of 84.18 with 14 centuries). His career average (49.16) is not bad either. However, Warner becomes a pale shadow of himself in Asian conditions (an average of 25.57 in seven matches, without a ton).
On the last tour of India (his first as a Test player), he failed to cross even 200 runs in a four-match series (an average of 24.37 and just two half-centuries). Yet, almost a month ago, Australia captain Steve Smith said he not only wants centuries and double centuries, but a triple hundred, from Warner.
Smith’s optimism could stem from his deputy’s batting in the Indian Premier League’s (IPL’s) last edition (848 runs at an average of 60.57 and a strike rate of 151.42), where Warne was second only to Virat Kohli.
Smith is one of the premier batsmen of this generation, but his numbers too are not great in Asia/India (an average of 68.65 in Australia and around 40-plus in Asia/India), though they are not as bad as Warner’s. Perhaps it’s fair to say that their claim to greatness will depend on how they fare on this tour, which starts in Pune on Thursday.
“How many wickets did Dennis Lillee take in Asia?” asks Kapil Dev. The former India all-rounder rates Richard Hadlee and many others from the West Indies higher because of their records in India. “We give a lot of importance to the statistics of Australia when we talk about our players (Asians). Shouldn’t the same yardstick be applied while judging the Aussies?” he questions.
India can be a harsh place even for an all-time great like Ricky Ponting. The former Australian captain, who is also the second highest run-scorer in Test history, has a career average of around 57. But he was able to score at an average of roughly 37 in Asia, and only around 27 in India.
While Ponting was part of some of the best Australian teams that have toured India, Warner and Smith don’t enjoy this luxury.
“They are two of the most important batsmen in their line-up and they also need to prove themselves—we have seen a lot of established players struggle in India,” says Murali Kartik, a former India spinner who has been part of two Test series against Australia.
On the face of it, the Australians seem to be trying to hide their apparent vulnerability in these conditions. A few weeks earlier, however, Smith conceded that even a draw in India would be a good result (better than a loss, he argued).
“It’s a great challenge to play here in India. We know that if we can pull something off and win a series here, we will look back in 10-20 years and it will be some of the best times of our lives,’’ Smith said during his first press interaction of the tour in Mumbai.
The Australian captain sounded more optimistic than realistic but many observers feel it’s not a bad ploy to keep a young team motivated for one of the toughest places to play Test cricket.
“There was a time when greatness used to be evaluated by how you perform in the West Indies, and then doing well in Australia became the benchmark,” says Kartik. “Today, it is India. The way Kohli’s team has been performing, forget draws, I will be eager to see if they can last five days in Test matches and hence a 4-0 (series result favouring India) is not out of the question.”
Australia clearly believe spin will play a crucial part; they have picked four spinners for the team. Yet their only series win in the last 40 years (in 2004) came because the fast bowlers did exceptionally well.
The trio of Glenn McGrath (20 wickets), Jason Gillespie (14) and Michael Kasprowicz (9) matched Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, who were the top two bowlers of that series, with 27 and 21 wickets, respectively.
“Australia are predicting that spin is going to play a huge role. But I still think the quicks have a big role to play as well,” said former Australian captain Michael Clarke—who was captain on the last tour, in 2013—on a Facebook Live chat this week. “(Mitchell) Starc and (Josh) Hazlewood will need to take a lot of wickets to help Australia win this series.”
Finally, the Australians will still have to deal with Kohli. As Malcolm Knox wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald: “Get Kohli. Yes, that can sound like ‘A quick five wickets and we’re back in the match’. Kohli is in intimidating, meat-loving form, and he loves beating Australia like old Tom Mooney used to love scoring tries. Loves it!”
Many Australian observers, however, also believe that this Indian team is a one-man army. “Kohli inspires his teammates so much that his psychological dominance can (in a best-case scenario for Australia) be a potential weakness. If Kohli should fail, India’s mood could turn to anxiety. Murali Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane are fine batsmen who ride in the lee of Kohli’s abrasive leadership. In 2004, a disconsolate captain, Sourav Ganguly, brought his team down with him. Australia cannot win if Kohli dominates them, because if he does, he will not dominate alone,” wrote Knox.
Vimal Kumar is the author of Sachin: Cricketer Of The Century and The Cricket Fanatic’s Essential Guide. He tweets at @Vimalwa.