History beckons Down Under

India will not be short of ambition and a sense of anticipation as it travels Down Under this time around. But the team needs to clean up its batting act.

There were some runs from Cheteshwar Pujara (right) and Ajinkya Rahane in England, but their contributions were few and far between.   -  AP

India has a good opportunity to beat Australia in a Test series down under, a feat it has never accomplished. While the Australian batting is vulnerable right now and tends to crumble in pressure situations, India has the quality in bowling. Without the mercurial David Warner and the influential Steve Smith, there are huge holes in this Australian line-up — unless their bans for ball tampering during the tour of South Africa earlier this year are dramatically lifted ahead of the four-Test series.

India has to clean up its batting act. Both in South Africa and England, the line-up depended heavily on skipper Virat Kohli. In both these challenging away series, India competed hard but lost key moments since its batting could not come together as a strong, resilient unit.

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In the end, only the final scoreline of the series matters. This team, not short of desire, needs to put results on the table against the stronger, non-subcontinental teams away from home.

Both South Africa and England were able to make early inroads and — Kohli apart — the middle order lacked consistency.

The conditions were demanding both in South Africa and England, and the ball swung, seamed around and bounced. And the footwork of the Indian batsmen — again, save Kohli — came under scrutiny. Gone were the big runs on home soil; this was a different ball game.

Without footwork, a tight game and calculated strokeplay without slipping into a negative mindset, it is hard to combat the moving ball delivered at some pace on such tracks. Playing away from the body, launching into big drives and not covering up for deviation can be fatal when the ball seams around.

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And the big names have to deliver. There were some runs from Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane in England, but their contributions were few and far between. They are key batsmen and need to lift their game. Rahane will have good memories of Australia from the 2014-15 tour where he cut and pulled with panache.

The pitches in Australia will surely not probe the batsmen’s technique as relentlessly as the ones in South Africa and England did. They will have bounce, but not as much movement off the seam or swing. Strong backfoot play and effective use of horizontal bat shots will be crucial.

The Kookaburra ball should do less too for the pacemen than the Duke — used in England — that has a more prominent seam. But then, the Indian batsmen will have to counter a top-notch Aussie pace line-up of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins. All three are fit and firing again.

Starc could be menacing with his left-armer’s angle, speed and intimidating bounce. He is a strike bowler and an enforcer, and can get the ball to swing into the batsman. Hazlewood will be at the batsmen, pegging around the off stump, giving little away and examining them with his two-way deviation. And the bustling Cummins delivers a heavy ball, bowls with intensity and passion and can push the batsmen back with his steep lift and velocity.

Simply put, this Aussie pace pack has firepower and thrust. The question remains: Will the trio stay fit through the series?

The Kookaburra ball does not assist swing after the initial overs and there is hardly any reverse swing either.

Under the circumstances, the performance of the Indian opening combination and the No. 3 will be critical to the outcome of the series. If the Aussie pacemen can be prevented from making early breakthroughs and a solid platform can be laid, India can put up big scores and provide a cushion that its bowlers so desperately need. These additional runs will result in more attacking fields, fire the bowlers up and put the Aussie batsmen under stress.

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With the experienced Murali Vijay — successful in Australia in 2014-15 — back in the mix, it will be interesting to see what opening combination India fields in the first Test in Adelaide.

The young and talented Prithvi Shaw has runs and momentum in his favour, but the smooth-stroking K. L. Rahul has struggled for consistency. The practice sessions and a tour game ahead of the series should provide clues as to the opening pair for the first Test.

This much is certain: India requires solidity at the top and needs to see through fierce opening bursts with minimal damage. It has enough arsenal in its own pace attack to make survival hard for the Australian line-up.

What drew attention in England was the control with which the Indian pace battery bowled. Mohammed Shami has skiddy pace and movement, Bhuvneshwar Kumar missed the England tour, but his control and precise deviation make him dangerous, Jasprit Bumrah is quick and his unique release and lift from back-of-a-length balls can be disconcerting, Ishant Sharma’s off-stump line, bounce and cut lend both incision and stability to the line-up, and Umesh Yadav has the speed and heart to inflict considerable damage.

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Making a return: With the experienced Murali Vijay — successful in Australia in 2014-15 — back in the mix, it will be interesting to see what opening combination India fields in the first Test in Adelaide.   -  Sandeep Saxena

 

If cracks open up on the tracks, as they do in the Australian heat, the lanky Bumrah and Ishant could be particularly dangerous.

The Indian attack, however, needs to prevent the late middle order and the lower order from blossoming. Runs conceded after the top five were back in the hut dented India against England. The bowling has to be clinical against the lower order and the tail.

India also needs to get the slip cordon and its positioning right. Edges should fly thick and fast down under and missed chances will hurt the side.

Apart from the Sydney Cricket Ground, where there can be appreciable help for spinners from day four, India is unlikely to play more than one spinner in the XI. It will be a tough choice between Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. While off-spinners have traditionally performed well against Australia, Jadeja was impressive with his left-arm spin at the Oval against England, bowling with control from one end.

Both have batting ability, with Jadeja perhaps in better form after his unbeaten 86 at the Oval and his maiden Test hundred, which came against the West Indies in Rajkot. Surely the team management has a selection headache ahead of the first Test.

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The Aussies found Kuldeep Yadav’s variety hard to pick in the Test series decider at Dharamshala, but his left-arm wrist spin could be in view only if India plays a second spinner.

The bowlers will need the support of the keeper. Rishabh Pant is a marauding batsman but needs to up the standard of his wicketkeeping. Parthiv Patel is the other option, but he is there more as an attacking left-handed batsman who can be used — if the need arises — at different slots in the order.

This is a campaign where India is bound to miss the exceptional wicketkeeping ability of Wriddhiman Saha; catches put down behind the stumps could come back to bite India.

Australia has a dependable wicketkeeper batsman in skipper Tim Paine. If Kohli is all fire and brimstone, Paine is calm and composed. The Aussie also has great hands behind the stumps. Paine will need all his skills standing up to Nathan Lyon, who could emerge as a big factor in the series.

Lyon has evolved as an off-spinner, with greater body in his action now, and his over spin could be very effective on surfaces with bounce. The man with pace and angle variations comprehends the pitches down under — the rough created by Starc and the widening fissures on the surface as the match progresses will be his allies — extremely well.

All things said, India will not be short of ambition and a sense of anticipation as it travels to Australia this time around. Kohli’s men could just make history.

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