Saturday, December 17, 2011

India’s tour of Australia: A Preview

On Boxing Day, the Melbourne Cricket Ground will host its traditional Boxing Day Test. A year ago, the MCG Boxing Day Test was the game in which England officially thwarted Australia’s advances on the Ashes, and their convincing innings victory allowed them to retain the Ashes for the first time since the 80’s. With Australia managing to avoid plunging to (many more) such depths since that landmark Test, the Australian public will very well look to the upcoming four Test series against a confident (and at times cocky) Indian outfit as a chance to win back some lost confidence as well as reputation.

Having avoided defeat in their last three series, winning one of them, things might, at least on paper, be looking a lot better for the team from down under. Issues such as inconsistent middle-order batsmen, indifferent opening batsmen, and injured bowlers remain, but the old Australian spirit has guided them through two extremely tough away assignments to Sri Lanka and South Africa respectively and a tricky one at home against trans-Tasman rivals, New Zealand.
In Sri Lanka, old war-horse Michael Hussey and young tykes Ryan Harris and Nathan Lyon guided the former Test Champions to an unexpected series win against a surprisingly fragile Sri Lankan outfit. In South Africa, the Oz team began in the most disastrous way imaginable, falling to 21 for the loss of 9 wickets in reply to South Africa’s seemingly modest 96. Australia regained some ground in the second Test with a thrilling two wicket win, young fast bowler Pat Cummins coming into his own.
Injury to key players such as opener/all-rounder Shane Watson and Cummins threw a spanner in the works for the Australian team just before the series against New Zealand, in-spite of which Australia took a one-nil lead heading to Hobart for the second Test. An unexpected last inning salvo by Doug Bracewell put paid to Australia’s hopes of a series win on home soil in 2011.
India by contrast started the year off in much brighter fashion. In January, India were contesting a fiercely competitive Test series in South Africa, losing the first match, staging an improbable comeback in the second, and pushing the Proteas all the way in the third and final encounter. The sub-continental team followed this up by clinching their second ever World Cup title, on home soil (the only team to do so).
When it seemed like everything the Indian captain, M.S. Dhoni touched turned to gold, disaster struck, and the Indian team returned from their tour of England without winning a single match they contested. This was sandwiched by twin Test series triumphs against once mighty, but now lowly, West Indies, first away, and then at home. While the wins against the Caribbean islands showed off the Indian team’s batting strength and depth, and vastly improved and improving bowling arsenal, the England failure highlighted beyond the doubt the distance yet to be travelled by the team before they can challenge for world supremacy.
And this is their first test on the lessons they were taught so impeccably and diligently by Andy Flower’s English outfit. An away assignment to Australia is a mixed bag for this Indian side. As a unit, they have healthy experience of the conditions on offer in the region, and the susceptibility of their opposition means this as good a time as any to play them. But there are factors that go against them, mostly revolving around the bowling and fielding of a vastly ageing yet technically skilled outfit.
The history of this tour means the hosts will, or rather should, be above and beyond the firm favourites to win this tie. But it would be wise to keep in mind both teams’ recent record, as well as the fact that since the infamous Sydney-Gate Test, India have not lost a Test match to Australia, home or abroad. The record stands at five wins and three draws for India.
Let us take a look at the contests and possible outcomes the series might throw at us.

Sehwag versus swing
Much has been made of the Australian batsmen’s frailty against swing bowling, but their counterparts should be equally guarded against the menace. Particularly Virender Sehwag. The “Nawab of Najafgarh”, as Indian batting legend, Sunil Gavaskar, once called him, is renowned for not moving his feet, and while his average in Australia is nearing 60, his recent performances in England and South Africa, countries where he averages in the 20’s, would have alerted the Australian think tank to his frailty to lateral movement. The man is easily the most destructive opener in the world today, and possibly, in fact, ever, and one of the few players on either side that can change the course of the game in just a few overs of carnage. Australia would want to send him back to the dressing room early, because if he lives to see off the brand new Kookaburra ball, the Australians will be in for a ride.

Openers vs Zaheer
Rumour has it that Australia are set to recall ostracised opening batsman Simon Katich. Even if that’s true, Watson and his opening partner will have a handful to deal with provided Zaheer Khan returns to fitness in time (refer to Zaheer vs fitness below). Watson has been one of the bright sparks in the Australian unit over the last few seasons. While South Africa’s Jacques Kallis has been monopolizing all the top all-rounder votes from around the globe, the Queensland allrounder has averaged 43 with the bat and an astonishing 25 with the ball. All the more impressive taking into account the difficulty associated with opening the innings in Test cricket, and the physical strain of being a quick bowler. But his technique will be put to the test from possibly the best left arm quick bowler the world has seen since Wasim Akram departed, especially on recent form. While nowhere near as menacingly quick as the Pakistani great, nor as physically imposing, Khan has, though, mastered the former World Cup winner’s intelligence with the ball, cunningly plotting the downfall of his opponent over the course of an entire spell, at times more. Khan lost most of his early career to injuries relating to a faulty action, but a stint in English county cricket has turned him into a semi-genius who is equally at ease bowling on flat lifeless pitches on offer in the sub-continent as he is in bouncy, swinging conditions of South Africa. Whether or not Katich makes a comeback, how Australia’s openers deal with Zaheer will go a long way in deciding the outcome of the series.

Zaheer vs fitness
Zaheer Khan copped a lot of flak for his part in India’s disastrous tour of England. He declared himself fit but duly broke down on the very first day of the first Test match at Lord’s. India played the rest of the game one bowler short, and the rest of the series with a second string bowling line up which was vastly underprepared. Since then Khan has undergone two different surgeries and is has survived two Ranji Trophy matches for Mumbai in an effort to prove his fitness. In the first practice match at Canberra, Zaheer was conspicuous by his absence, which was immediately put down to jetlag. The second practice match, a three-day event, against what is expected to be a similar opposition, is set to begin on 19th December, 2011. Khan’s performance in this match will decide if he plays in the first Test at Melbourne or not. In his absence, the Indian pace attack looks decidedly bare. Ishant Sharma walked off after bowling less than six overs in the first practice match against the Chairman’s XI, while barring the impressive Umesh Yadav, the other two Indian pacers struggled against a third-string Australian batting line up. Even if Sharma overcomes his troubles to join Yadav in the first team, the third seamer’s position will prove to be a soft-spot for the visitors. Given the inexperience of their spinning options, the Indians might be left yet again with a vastly sub-standard bowling attack. With Zaheer fit, of course, the Indians can boast a near world-class bowling line up, with two 90 mph bowlers complementing him. The Indians will be praying for this one.

Ponting vs the fall
It’s been a frailty that’s been around for a while, but one that age, slowing reflexes, and ever improving technology have revealed for all to see. Ricky Ponting’s love of thrusting his front foot across the line of the ball has cost him his wicket time and again this year, and one has to wonder whether a week-long batting clinic will be enough for the batting heavyweight of the Australian team to set the wrongs right. His age, and the selectors’ glare will no doubt mount the pressure on the former captain to perform, but if ever there was a chance to bounce back, it is against this kind of bowling attack. The Indian’s possess a very vulnerable attack, and if Khan can be avoided, with or without the aid of an injury, Ponting would love to take apart an inexperienced bowling line up on their first trip down under. Ishant Sharma caused Punter all sorts of problems in Perth four years ago, but Ponting will be backing himself to come good in the presence of the injuries in the enemy camp.

Captain Cool vs Captain Pup
Michael Clarke has established his authority on the team pretty impressively since Ponting’s resignation from the post, but a four Test series against one of the best Test teams going around will be his first big test. The Indian batting line-up will trial his tactical nous to the hilt. From Virender Sehwag at number two, to Sachin Tendulkar and V.V.S. Laxman in the middle order, and lower middle order of Dhoni and young Ravichandran Ashwin, the Indians possess a potent bunch of hitters who at their pomp are capable of posting totals in excess of 600 with alarming regularity. Clarke will have to consistently be on his toes due to length and class of this line-up. It really isn’t over till it’s over in this case, and Clarke will have his hands full if he is to bowl this team out 8 times in the coming series.
His opposite number has problems of his own, but of a different kind. He will have to juggle his best bowlers around and make sure they are fit and firing throughout the four games, as without them, the entire tour could be in jeopardy. Dhoni, for the first time is under pressure to get the results, in the light of the calamitous 4-0 drubbing his team received in England. Expectations back home are high. Given the talent at his behest, and the fragile nature of the opposition, this is being touted as great chance to register a very first series win in Australia. Anything short of that will be considered failure. Dhoni has to guard against complacency. It will also be up to him to pick between two extremely promising batsmen for the number six slot in the batting order. The task was made easier in the first practice game at the Manuka Oval when Rohit Sharma cracked an impressive 50, while Virat Kohli fell for one. Another selection issue for the Indian captain will be the spinner and the bowling combination. He will have to decide how many bowlers to play, and what combination to pick. Injuries might end up forcing his hand, but differing pitch conditions will test his resolve to play either three fast bowlers and a spinner, or two and two. If India play one spinner, he will have to pick between Pragyan Ojha, who had a disappointing outing in the practice game, and Ashwin, man of the series in the recently concluded series against West Indies, who is also the better batsman.

Ageing Middle Orders vs Green Bowling Attacks
Both teams boast heavyweight middle orders, with three of the batsmen participating in this series being the three highest run getters in the game today. Apart from Ponting, Rahul Dravid, and Tendulkar, Laxman, Clarke and Hussey will provide further fillip to their teams’ run scoring needs. It will be an intriguing contest when these experienced stalwarts take on the young, inexperienced bowlers from either team. Much has been said about Nathan Lyon’s ability as a spinner, but it is against India that every spinner worth his salt measures himself, and that’s especially been true of the most recent duo of spin kings: Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan. Neither succeeded against India on a regular basis, but both will tell you, it wasn’t for the lack of trying. Lyon will be in for a tough examination at the hands of the best players of spin in the world, but an impressive outing against the sub-content’s giants will go a long way in establishing his international reputation. Similarly for Indian pace prodigy, Umesh Yadav, this will be a testing tour, on pitches he will not be used to, against opposition which loves to feast on fast bowling. But an impressive display in Australia, under the tutelage of Zaheer Khan will quickly make him an automatic pick in the side. James Pattinson will be another young pacer with huge expectations on his back. He will be the one charged with the most dastardly of all tasks in this series: bowling first up to Sehwag. In many ways, he can have the most telling impact on the series. If he manages to ping the record breaking batsman back regularly, Australia will have a huge advantage in the series, but failure to do so could mean quite the opposite. The Indian spinners will be under heavy pressure. Australia is not a place spinners traditionally do well in, but with 400 wicket man Harbhajan Singh breathing down their necks, Ojha and Ashwin can’t afford too much damage to their career figures so far.

Tendulkar & Dravid vs History & Nostalgia
Wherever Tendulkar goes, pressure follows. It was once said about him that “he has for breakfast the kind of pressure that Tiger Woods has to deal with” and that is not really exaggerating it. But in recent times, in light of the impending statistical peak that beckons the Little Master, the pressure has intensified even further. Andrew Strauss vowed before the start of the English summer that his team would prevent Tendulkar from reaching his 100th international century, and his team achieved the improbable task. And so did West Indies in the series that followed. Having gone seven Test matches without a three figure score, a normality, for mere mortals, not afforded to a player used to churning one out every three matches, Tendulkar will be expected, and will be demanded, to break his duck and get beyond the 90s in Tests for the first time since January. It is not a bad task to be tasked with though, if you were Tendulkar. He has never returned from Australia without a Test hundred, dating back to his first tour there as an 18 year old. In 16 matches spread over twenty years, Tendulkar has an impressive six Test hundreds in Australia. The bouncy and fast paced nature of Australian wickets suit the stroke maker in Tendulkar just fine, and against an inexperienced Australian attack, much will be expected, as usual of the little champion.
Tendulkar, and his partner in numerous crimes (namely the murder of countless bowling attacks) Rahul Dravid will also face the inevitable “standing ovation” at every entry and exit they make on the trip owing to the fact that this might be their last tour to these shores. At 38, the two stalwarts must surely be on their last legs, except, the same was predicted four years ago, of Tendulkar anyway, and there he is, yet again, the “annoying little prick”, heavy bat in hand. Whether or not the two are around in 2015/16, the nostalgia associated with each in grounds across the Australian island will sure provide enough distraction for the Australian team to sneak one through.
Both will have to, and surely will, guard against such distractions. They have been professionals, and impeccable ones at that, for over two decades, and their experience, in hand with their good form, will go a long way in dictating who the Border-Gavaskar Trophy rests with come the end of the tour.

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