Border-Gavaskar Trophy, 1st Test: India, Australia joust for supremacy as action begins in Nagpur

IND vs AUS: Nagpur, traditionally known to favour spinners, will be no different this time around as India opens its Border-Gavaskar Trophy campaign against Australia on Thursday.

The stakes are higher than ever for both India and Australia in the current iteration of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.

The stakes are higher than ever for both India and Australia in the current iteration of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. | Photo Credit: DEEPAK KR

IND vs AUS: Nagpur, traditionally known to favour spinners, will be no different this time around as India opens its Border-Gavaskar Trophy campaign against Australia on Thursday.

The fabled rivalry acquires a prickly edge as India and Australia gear up to joust for supremacy in the Border-Gavaskar Trophy (BGT). The series gets underway with the first of four Test matches at Nagpur’s Vidarbha Cricket Association (VCA) Stadium from Thursday.

The stakes are higher than ever in the current iteration of the series. 

First, a spot in the World Test Championship final later this year is up for grabs. Australia already has one foot in the title clash at the Oval; only a draw separates the side from an official confirmation. India, meanwhile, is locked in a three-way battle for percentage points with Sri Lanka and South Africa. The only way coach Rahul Dravid’s men can qualify without having to bother about other results is by winning at least three games.

Then, there is also a chance of the host getting to leapfrog the Aussies to claim the top spot in the ICC Test rankings. It needs to win by a margin of two or more games to move to the summit in all formats of the game, becoming only the second team ever to achieve the feat after South Africa in 2014.

THE SUBPLOTS

The spin factor

Nagpur, traditionally known to favour spinners, will be no different this time around. Cricket Australia (CA), which last played at this venue only in 2008, called it ‘bone dry’ on Tuesday, adding that it was also sporting loose cracks. When the track takes some beating, the rough will surely come into play, the prospect of which will have Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Nathan Lyon licking their lips.

Australia has been preparing in unique ways to deal with the turn in the subcontinent.

A handful of players, before their departure, practised on a dusty pitch at the Bon Andrews Oval in North Sydney, specially made to emulate the Indian conditions. That surface also had a lot of cracks akin to what can be generally spotted on deteriorating decks here.

The series is World No. 1 Test batter Marnus Labuschagne’s first trip to India. The highest run-scorer in the 2020-21 edition of the BGT has left no stone unturned to prepare for the rank turners, even coming up with a unique backyard contraption. On a specially made mat, he could be seen taping sheets which, on coming into contact with the ball, made it impossible to predict the direction of the turn. 

CA even managed to rope in Maheesh Pithiya, a local spinner whose action is similar to that of Ashwin’s, to bowl in the nets.

Jadeja’s return to boost Indian attack

Fresh from picking seven wickets against Tamil Nadu in his comeback game after a back injury in the Ranji Trophy, Jadeja will also draw confidence from his past performances against Australia. In 22 Test innings against the Aussies, the left-arm spinner has picked up 63 wickets.

His performance, when operating in tandem with the experienced Ashwin, seems to receive a boost as well. Without Ashwin in the eleven, Jadeja has scalped 45 wickets in 31 innings at an average of 40.4. However, with the wily off-spinner for company, he has picked up 197 wickets from 83 innings at a miserly average of 21.1.

While Jadeja will be effective against the right-handers, Ashwin is lethal against southpaws, having gathered 226 career wickets of left-handed batters at an average of 19.5 and a strike rate of 47.6.

PS – Four of Australia’s likely top seven are left-handed: David Warner, Usman Khawaja, Travis Head and Alex Carey.

Lethal Lyon

Nathan Lyon “will lead our attack this series”, Australia skipper Pat Cummins remarked on the eve of the Nagpur Test. With seamers Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Cameron Green missing out with injuries and the conditions favouring spin, Lyon will be expected to bowl a lot more overs. And, of course, take a lot more wickets.

He has been the joint-most successful bowler against Virat Kohli in the longest format, alongside England pacer James Anderson. They have each removed him on seven occasions. That Kohli has not scored a Test century since November 2019 does not make things easier.

When the pacers’ footmarks gradually become more prominent by Lunch on day two, Lyon’s deliveries from the other end will pose a challenge. 

The critical No. 5 spot

With Shreyas Iyer out with a back injury and vice-captain KL Rahul almost certain to open alongside captain Rohit Sharma, there will be a toss-up between Shubman Gill, who has scored four centuries in his last seven innings across formats, and Suryakumar Yadav, the No. 1 T20 batter, for the No. 5 spot.

“Gill and Surya bring different things to the table. Gill has been in supreme form in the last 3-4 months. A couple of hundreds, big hundreds as well. On the other hand, Surya in T20 cricket has shown what he is capable of. He can bring that kind of game to Test cricket as well. Both are quality options. We have not decided yet. We will keep in mind all aspects of the game,” Rohit said during the captains’ press conference.

Axar or Kuldeep?

While Jadeja and Ashwin are assured of their spots, only one between left-arm spinners Kuldeep Yadav and Axar Patel may take the field on Thursday.

Wrist spinner Kuldeep has more variations and may be beneficial on flatter tracks, while Axar, a finger spinner, may utilise the cracks on the pitch to turn the ball. Axar’s deadliest delivery is the one that pitches and keeps straight. It often deceives batters into playing for the turn.

“Axar and Kuldeep, whenever they have got an opportunity, they have done well. They have put batters under pressure. In the last series that we played against England, Axar took a lot of wickets (27 wickets, the most by an Indian in his debut four-match Test series). Kuldeep played only one Test match against Bangladesh and got five wickets,” Rohit said.

SQUADS

India (for the first two Tests): Rohit Sharma (c), KL Rahul (vc), Shubman Gill, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Shreyas Iyer, KS Bharat, Ishan Kishan, R. Ashwin, Axar Patel, Kuldeep Yadav, Ravindra Jadeja, Mohammad Shami, Mohammed Siraj, Umesh Yadav, Jaydev Unadkat, Suryakumar Yadav

Australia: Pat Cummins (c), Ashton Agar, Scott Boland, Alex Carey, Cameron Green, Peter Handscomb, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Lance Morris, Todd Murphy, Matthew Renshaw, Steve Smith (vc), Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Swepson, David Warner

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