Whatever happens at the MCG tomorrow, one thing is clear. Their batsmen would have gone through a litmus test which will decide which way the series will go. With or without India’s top pace bowlers on show, Australia’s green openers and creaky middle order will have to make a statement in Melbourne that drastically changes their opponents’ minds, and those of neutral viewers if only temporarily, about the vulnerability of their so called unpredictable batting line up.
The Indians generally do well to put Plan A to work. To expect them to come up with and execute Plan B in the very first Test match will be a tall ask, even under M.S. Dhoni’s calm and assured leadership. Australia’s batsmen have an opportunity here to blunt the new ball and India’s confidence at the same time. Whenever Australia do bat, India’s best chance to make erosions into the Australian top order is with the new ball which will swing a bit. Without that movement, Sharma and Yadav will be left to rely on bounce: a very unusual experience for an Indian bowler.
And a very usual one for the home batsmen. Which is why a good first session for the top three could very well mean a huge total for Australia, and immediate pressure on India’s somewhat lackluster openers. Obviously the big if in all of the above is whether the likes of Ed Cowan, David Warner and Shaun Marsh (if he plays) will have the skill and patience to blunt someone like Zaheer Khan with the new ball. If there is an Australian batsman around who could answer such a huge question mark in the batting of the national team, it is Simon Katich.
He was dropped after a poor run of form, mostly against India in India and against an unbelievable English attack in Australia. Though it was unarguably uninspiring form for an opener to average 25 over these four Tests, it wasn’t worse than what then captain Ricky Ponting would go on to manage over the rest of the Ashes tour, and indeed many of the other batsmen, especially his replacement, Phil Hughes, would go on to have one of the worst international seasons from an Australian opener in eons.
The sad part about it all was the shroud of politics that surrounded Katich’s continued absence from a side in dire need of a steady hand. A string of good First Class scores combined with Hughes’ repeated failures was not enough to get back into the team, simply because the captain, Michael Clarke, had had a tiff with him.
Clarke, in public, had little choice but to back Phil Hughes, the man he handpicked to take Katich’s place in the national side, as one of the selectors in Cricket Australia’s revamped structure, despite the latter’s continued international embarrassments. Pushing himself into such a corner over a personal issue put Australia into a situation where they contrived to lose to a New Zealand side which just about managed to beat a newly reinstated Zimbabwe side a few weeks ago.
The Hobart defeat to New Zealand certainly was a case where a steady opening partnership would have avoided defeat, maybe ever brought a victory. It is incredible that Clarke has escaped any sort of vilification in public for his part in it. Indeed, it may even be a reflection of the state in which Australian cricket finds itself in at the moment.
It’s hard to imagine Allan Border, Mark Taylor or Steve Waugh making such errors of judgment, and indeed, getting away with them in the Australian press in those rare instances. Clarke’s untouchability in this case is more down to a lack of adequate resource which would help replace him, than anything creditable to his qualities as a leader. Indeed, despite wonderful honeymoon tour as captain to Sri Lanka, things have fallen apart quickly under ‘Pup’ Clarke. His former captain must be thanking his stars he quit at the right time. Ponting’s batting form coupled with Australia’s recent results would have certainly made him the first target for receiving the axe under the new selection regime.
This Indian tour is an important one for many of Australia’s batsmen. But for Michael Clarke, it will be the biggest strength of his resolve to keep Katich out under any means. It’s over to Messers Warner and Cowan till then!