“Don’t give the enemy an inch. He will take a foothold". This old adage holds true mostly when battle lines are drawn. On the cricket field, it is a factual description of the India-Australia rivalry.
A look back at the ferociously contested Border-Gavaskar Trophy earlier this year, and the rivalry between these two sides comes to the fore. The four-Test series, which India won 2-1, had everything in it—from pitch controversies, brain fade (when Australian skipper Steve Smith referred to the dressing room for DRS) to the Indian skipper Virat Kohli nearly using the word “cheat", and the situation almost escalating to a legal stand-off between the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and Cricket Australia on account of their respective arguments to the International Cricket Council on this matter, and so on. This clouded what was otherwise a thrilling contest.
But the forthcoming series promises to be different. “One Day Internationals (ODIs) are a completely different format compared to Test cricket. I think it will be played in good spirit," said Smith, on arriving in India for the five-match ODI and three-match T20I series starting 17 September in Chennai.
“I am not too concerned about the differences with Kohli," he added. “He is obviously a very good player and has a phenomenal ODI record. Hopefully, we can keep him quiet as much as possible in this series."
Australia managed to keep Kohli “quiet" earlier in the year, when he was only able to score 46 runs in five innings, his poorest return from a Test series on home soil. As Smith underlined, limited-overs cricket is a different ball altogether, and Kohli is a run-scoring machine in this format.
In 2013-14, when Australia last visited the country for a seven-match ODI series, Kohli had scored 344 runs in five innings at an average of 114.66, including two hundreds and two fifties.
He was in great form on the recent Sri Lankan tour, scoring 330 runs in five ODI innings at an average of 110, with another two hundreds. His appetite is insatiable, as seen from the lone T20I in Colombo. Kohli scored a splendid 82 off 54 balls.
There is a keen difference from that 2013 tour. Kohli was only a premier batsman when Australia visited last year. This time, he has additional responsibility as skipper, which comes into larger focus as India have set themselves early on the road to the 2019 ODI World Cup. They are in the process of trying different names in both batting and bowling departments.
“In ODIs, we will certainly experiment," says Indian coach Ravi Shastri. “It is a long way to go to the World Cup, but the endeavour will be to rotate the players around and give enough opportunities so that with 12-15 months to go for the World Cup, you have a nucleus of about 18-20 players in place whom you can choose from. We will be trying different players and combinations."
An example of this experimentation is opener K.L. Rahul being shifted to the middle order, whilst Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma continue to be first-choice openers. The No.4 spot has been long troublesome, but the team management is keen to fit Rahul here, with Manish Pandey batting lower in the order. The other angle to this experiment is to find out if India can make do with only five full-time options and play without the inconsistent (with both bat and in the field) Kedar Jadhav, who is quickly losing his standing in the pecking order.
For the second consecutive international series, the selectors have picked spinners Axar Patel, Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav, while R. Ashwin is busy playing county cricket and Ravindra Jadeja is rested. It isn’t a coincidence—Jadeja went wicket-less in the last three ODIs he played (Champions Trophy final and two matches in West Indies), and Ashwin took only four wickets in his last five ODIs (across Champions Trophy and in West Indies again).
Could India be mulling a spin attack without Ashwin-Jadeja in the World Cup? “In ODIs, there is a need for balance in the bowling attack, in both pace and spin. You should be able to take wickets at all stages. Ashwin and Jadeja are options, of course, but their inclusion depends on a lot of factors, which we will take a call on in the next two years," says Shastri.
In Sri Lanka, Patel, Yadav and Chahal took 14 wickets between them to lead India to a 5-0 series whitewash. The spinners’ performance, on flat tracks and against a much-stronger Australian batting line-up, is already under spotlight in what will be assuredly a heated contest.
Chetan Narula is the author of Skipper—A Definitive Account Of India’s Greatest Captains.