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India’s Murali Vijay in action against Cricket Australia XI in Sydney on Saturday. Photo: AFP
India’s Murali Vijay in action against Cricket Australia XI in Sydney on Saturday. Photo: AFP

Testing time for India as it takes on Australia down under

A solitary rain-curtailed practice game before the Test series against Australia spells starting trouble for India

Bengaluru: India bowled England out for modest scores seven out of nine times. Ishant Sharma found a new lease of life; Mohammed Shami impressed the great West Indian Michael Holding with his mastery over seam; and Jasprit Bumrah emerged as the leader of the pack with his versatility and speed.

It’s the batting that let India down this English summer. It began disastrously at Trent Bridge, with only Virat Kohli’s brilliance making a match of it. Others in the line-up eventually took the cue from Kohli to adapt to English conditions, but it wasn’t good enough to salvage the series.

The challenge to batting in England is two-pronged—swing in the moist air, as the proud seam of the new Duke ball makes it swerve, plus deviation off the live grass on a typical English pitch. The first Test of the four-match series, starting Down Under in Adelaide on 6 December, presents a different challenge.

The hot Australian summer, bone-hard pitches and the Kookaburra ball with a flattened seam will take deviation in line out of the reckoning most of the time. A late afternoon south-westerly breeze from the coast could produce a stunner like Ajit Agarkar’s 6 for 41 that gave India a famous Test win in 2003, but even that has become less likely in the newly built stadium that’s more enclosed than earlier.

The challenge in Australia comes from bounce and here’s where tall, strapping bowlers such as Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins become a handful. On Indian pitches, misjudging the length is not such a big deal—one can play through the line of the ball even if it is short of length, or pull it with aplomb off the front foot. Down Under, this kind of bravado will produce a sore thumb, or worse.

However, the new generation of Indian batsmen appears unfazed by pace and bounce. So, we should see more runs from them on Aussie soil than in England where they were undone by seam and swing. The openers Murali Vijay and Lokesh Rahul can stand tall and punch back, Cheteshwar Pujara sways out of line as easily as Rahul Dravid used to and Virat Kohli is in a class of his own. But that’s on paper.

The ground reality is a decline in Test batting technique, which we can attribute to a surfeit of T20 cricket. It takes practice on Australian pitches to judge a ball on length and leave it to sail harmlessly over the stumps. The current Aussie coach, Justin Langer, used to excel at it as an opener, much to the frustration of visiting bowlers.

Defensive technique will also be put to test with bouncers, as it’s harder to clear the boundary with hooks on the big Australian grounds. Dravid mostly chose to leave the short ball and let the bowler tire himself out; Sachin Tendulkar was as good as any Aussie at pulling the ball, until a bad back forced him to put away that shot; and Virender Sehwag revelled in his own brand of horizontal bat shots to pepper the offside boundary. The current lot will each have to find his own way.

That’s why a solitary rain-curtailed practice game before the Test series again spells starting trouble for India, just as in South Africa and England. Coach Ravi Shastri admitted after losing the South Africa series 2-1 that a little more preparation might have produced a different result. But it was the same story in England and, now, in Australia.

Why the richest cricket board cannot schedule an extra practice game to produce the best from the No. 1 Test team in the world defies comprehension. They did start the tour with a one-day series, but Test cricket is a different ball game, with bowlers pitching the ball up to bring slips into play.

Under the circumstances, Kohli and company will again have to learn on the job as it were. The first hiccup is an ankle injury to the new star Prithvi Shaw, whose impetuosity in attempting an acrobatic catch on the boundary in the practice game has cost him a place in the Adelaide Test. His 66 off 69 balls in Sydney before twisting his ankle makes him an exciting prospect as an opener in Australia, just as Sehwag was in another era. We’ll now have to wait for Perth or Melbourne to see if he can emulate his fellow Delhiite.

The elimination of Shaw makes the selection straightforward, although you can never tell with an Indian team management that left out Pujara from the playing eleven for the first Test in England, before he proved again that he’s India’s most dependable Test batsman other than Kohli.

Vijay is a pale shadow of his former self, but he could draw inspiration from his past exploits in Australia, which gave him a Test average of 60 there.

K.L. Rahul gets another chance to show that his sheer batting talent can come good in Test match conditions.

Shikhar Dhawan might have been a good alternative to Vijay or Rahul, but he lost his Test cap after a dismal show in England. The ease with which Dhawan played in the one-day series shows the folly of judging a batting prospect for Australia on the basis of performances in England or India. Dhawan’s technique is vulnerable to deviation in line and not so much to the bounce and pace of Australia. Anyway, he’s out, so there’s no point debating it.

Pujara and Kohli will again be the mainstay for India. Just when you think you’ve seen the best from the Indian captain, he produces a new gem. Hopefully, the graph is still on the ascendancy.

Vice captain Ajinkya Rahane will slot in at five, although on current form, Dinesh Karthik would probably have served India better. Rahane has developed a habit of poking at rising balls outside off stump with an angled bat, perishing time and again in the slips or gully.

Selections based on past performances or different conditions have been the undoing of many a visiting team. Vijay and Rahane will need to beat the odds on that happening again.

The unavailability of “all-rounder" Hardik Pandya could be a blessing in disguise for India. He did produce one match-winning spell of bowling in England, but underwhelmed with bat and ball the rest of the time, while his counterparts in the late order, such as Ben Stokes, made all the difference between India and England.

Pandya’s replacement is the exciting Rohit Sharma, who has the potential to take the game away from the Aussies if he gets in to bat at number six against the old ball. Sharma is the only one in the batting line-up who can even outshine Kohli when he’s on a roll. It’s a pity he wasn’t given a longer rope to develop into a Test batsman, but Australia could become a happy hunting ground for a creature that feeds in style on pace and bounce.

All in all, India has the makings of a batting line-up that can put up enough runs on the board for its bowlers to win a Test series in Australia for the first time since we started touring the land Down Under in 1947.

The absence of Australia’s two best batsmen, Steve Smith and David Warner, after getting caught ball-tampering in South Africa offers ran opportunity to set that record right.

Sumit Chakraberty is an author and freelance writer based in Bengaluru.

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