India vs Australia: A Test series that could turn on small margins

India takes on an Australian team that is battling on-field and off-field issues in the aftermath of the sandpaper gate in March.

Having conquered Australia with the bat during India's tour Down Under in 2014-15, Virat Kohli has a chance to make history this time by becoming the first India captain to lead the country to a Test series win in the country.   -  Getty Images

It is easy to keep staring at the sky over the Adelaide Oval. Planes descend low, the sound booms while pilots eye a smooth landing at the nearby airport. India and Australia, meanwhile, have preferred to stay glued to terra-firma. In the run-up to the four-match Test series that commences with the first game here from Thursday, the air is devoid of sky-scraping promises but there is revelation of intent and a desire to walk the talk.

Aware of the ‘enfeebled’ perception that trails Australia following the ball-tampering controversy and the bans handed to Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft, India has tried to shun talk about this tour becoming a cake-walk. Coach Ravi Shastri, skipper Virat Kohli and vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane have refused to label Australia as a weak outfit.

It isn’t that there were no verbal jousts but they were seen as after-thoughts. Ricky Ponting mentioned about Usman Khawaja pipping Kohli in the batting honours. The dare was ignored, people moved on with their lives. Primarily Australia is obsessing over its sporting image, holding a mirror to itself, checking its manners on the field, trying to keep a lid on white-line fever.

Read: Greg Chappell expects Aussies to be competitive on home turf

Recently, Australian coach Justin Langer spoke about gradually reintegrating Smith and Warner into a ‘dysfunctional family’. Cricket Australia officials have bandied around a term – ‘elite honesty’. The self-scrutiny has been coming in waves and even Shane Warne tore into Steve Waugh’s ‘Baggy Green’ culture in his book ‘No Spin’.

India on the other hand has toned down its self-hype. Shastri, who in the recent past, raved about the potential within the ranks, has guardedly spoken about how modern teams stay strong at home and that Australia is a tough rival in its backyard. Perhaps Kohli and company want to smother Australia, with a gargantuan bag of expectations.    

Australia will miss Smith and Warner but often overseas matches involving India are shaped by how the oriental batsmen cope with menacing pace and malevolent swing. In Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood, Australia has a fine trio, which has matured over the years and can scythe through the very best of batting line-ups. India has to post healthy scores. Often its bowlers whisper about the lack of runs from their batting colleagues affecting chances of imposing ‘scoreboard-pressure’.

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Murali Vijay warmed up for the first Test with a century in the second innings of the Tour match against CA XI.   -  AFP

 

Prithvi Shaw’s absence due to an ankle injury ideally should leave Murali Vijay and K.L. Rahul as the opening combine. But it remains to be seen if the management has other ideas. The last time India toured Australia for a Test series in 2014, in the opening Test at Adelaide, leg-spinner Karn Sharma was picked ahead of R. Ashwin. The selection boomeranged and seen in that light, the think-tank should exercise rationality over taking a punt.  

Kohli hammered 692 runs at a mind-boggling average of 86.50 in that 2014 series. His batting colleagues need to step up and chip in this time around. Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane need a shot of confidence and they need to play out time. It is an attribute that men like Rahul Dravid and V. V. S. Laxman possessed. Perhaps all the talk about hastening the scoring-rate scrambled the heads of Vijay, Pujara and Rahane. Not all can bat like Kohli, and perhaps Vijay is better off practising abstinence outside the off-stump.  

India has a fine crop of fast bowlers led by Umesh Yadav and adequate spin back-up. The ingredients are there for a gripping series, which will turn on small margins. India has never won a Test series in Australia, if that historical inadequacy can be corrected, this squad may well do all the special things that Shastri has promised.