Looking for redemption and respectability

Australia’s stock is at a low ebb after the sandpaper episode in South Africa. The cricket world's eyes will be on the India vs Australia series to see if the host can turn things around.

Taking charge: Right now, there is a big question mark next to the Australian team, who are in the early stages of a cultural shift under coach Justin Langer.   -  Getty Images

Undoubtedly, this is the lowest ebb for Australian cricket. Ever since Cameron Bancroft attempted to hide sandpaper down his pants, the sport Down Under has been in disarray leading to much uncertainty for the looming blockbuster summer.

Bancroft was suspended for nine months, while Steve Smith and David Warner, the team’s leaders and best batsmen, received 12 months. More heads have rolled with coach Darren Lehmann resigning during the ugly tour of South Africa, while chief executive James Sutherland and high performance boss Pat Howard are also part of the exodus.

There has been no respite with a scathing 145-page independent review outlining toxicity within an “arrogant” Cricket Australia leading to under-fire chairman David Peever falling on his sword. There has been unrelenting media scrutiny with damaging headlines almost totally focused on the off-field fiasco, but the international summer has finally begun much to the relief of everyone — especially the under-pressure CA.

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Right now, there is a big question mark next to the Australian team, who are in the early stages of a cultural shift under the new leadership duo of captain Tim Paine and coach Justin Langer.

Australia’s home stand is highlighted by a mouthwatering four-Test series against No. 1 India in what looms as a severe challenge without Smith and Warner, who have essentially carried a brittle batting order for the last few years.

On fast and bouncy pitches, an aggressive Australia have never lost a home Test series against India but could start underdogs when the first Test begins in Adelaide on December 6. Due to the Board of Control for Cricket in India’s reluctance to play pink-ball Tests, the Adelaide match will not be under the lights for the first time since 2014 — during India’s last tour of Australia.

Cameron Bancroft (R) is questioned by Umpires Richard Illingworth (L) and Nigel Llong (C) during the third day of the third Test against South Africa at Newlands.   -  AFP

In a throwback to traditional Adelaide Tests, the match promises to be a high-scoring affair and could set the tone for the series. The main problem for Australia is whether they can score runs without their former leaders.

Against Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates, Australia suffered all too familiar collapses and the batting order looked incredibly flimsy, which was exacerbated by the maligned Marsh brothers, who badly struggled to repay coach and fellow Western Australian Langer’s faith.

The batting is an absolute mess and looms as a major headache for Langer, with Australia only surviving total humiliation in the UAE through Usman Khawaja’s master class in the fourth innings in Dubai.

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The batting stock has been jarringly bare for many years and has been exposed through the long suspensions of the trio of ball-tamperers. The talented Travis Head has long been earmarked as a future star and finally had an opportunity in the UAE, though he mostly struggled.

Khawaja and Aaron Finch, the veteran opener making a long-awaited Test appearance, made an effective partnership at the top in the UAE and Australia do have impressive youngster Matthew Renshaw waiting in the wings.

The middle order is a mishmash. There will be much pressure on the Marsh brothers at the selection table with both of them enjoying fruitful Ashes campaigns last summer, but they have been far too inconsistent during their careers. At 35, Shaun Marsh may have played his last Test innings.

There aren’t many viable options though, which leads to mercurial all-rounder Glenn Maxwell, who was surprisingly left out against Pakistan. It has led to speculation that Langer isn’t enamoured with the Victorian’s work rate, with Maxwell’s training methods previously being put under the microscope. The indefatigable Langer demands elite fitness levels from his players, an unyielding characteristic that helped resurrect Western Australia after he took charge in late 2012.

Australia’s batsmen will have to counter a dangerous Indian pace attack, which has been rated as their best ever and impressed in favourable conditions in England. Apart from a rarity, like an Ajit Agarkar special, India’s bowlers have generally been unable to penetrate in Australia, leading to the hosts racking up massive totals.

By the end of the disastrous tour of South Africa, Pat Cummins had become arguably the team’s best paceman   -  AP

 

One wonders if Australian pitches might be spiced up with their best chances of a series victory resting with a star-studded bowling attack. Even though they are severely weakened in batting, Australia’s first-string bowling attack probably ensures the hosts are deemed as favourites.

In the UAE, Australia were without quicks Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins, who by the end of the disastrous tour of South Africa had become arguably the team’s best paceman. Combined with spearhead Mitchell Starc, Australia has the artillery to scythe through line-ups on responsive pitches — particularly an Indian batting order still susceptible in unfamiliar conditions.

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Australia’s quicks, notably the firebrand Starc, relish setting the tone through intimidation and — quite literally — getting the batsmen on the backfoot, then giving lip service. But those unsavoury antics are over in these more staid times for Australian cricketers. It has been well documented that Australia are attempting to turn a new leaf away from the type of macho bravado that underlined their much-maligned behaviour before the ball-tampering scandal. It remains to be seen whether Australia’s quicks can still exude trademark swagger that so often fuelled the team on home soil.

Make no mistake, this is India’s best chance to win a Test series in Australia. There shouldn’t be any excuses; all the ingredients are there for them to produce a momentous breakthrough.

One feels India will need to make a fast start in Adelaide ahead of the historic second Test at the new Perth Stadium. It will be the first time Test cricket is played at the 60,000-seat ground and there is an expectation that the pitch will be fast and bouncy in a WACA throwback.

There is plenty of big-picture stuff in the backdrop. If India pull off a series win, they can legitimately feel a domination of Test cricket is imminent. For Australia, victory against mighty India could well prove a pivot point towards redemption and respectability.

There is plenty at stake for both teams.