Ind v Aus: The face-off

Who will scale the heights in the India versus Australia Test series? As the cliche goes, only time will tell. Cricketing logic, though, might well point towards India.

Virat Kohli, who has led from the front, has earned tremendous respect from rival teams.   -  K. R. Deepak

The current Australian team led by Steve Smith may not necessarily test the Indian squad, but you cannot discount the Aussies with their attribute of being tough as nails.   -  PTI

India versus Australia is a contest that has its own resonance and relevance. In terms of scale, it is as big as the historical Ashes or the India-Pakistan skirmishes on the cricket field. And while Virat Kohli’s men swept past Bangladesh in the one-off Test in Hyderabad, the expectations, the hype and the arc lights are already on the impending series against Australia that includes four Test matches.

It is understandable as an entire generation of young fans in India have grown up revelling in the afterglow of a Sachin Tendulkar ‘Desert Storm’ in Sharjah in 1998 or the ‘gosh-we-did-it’ adrenaline rush following V. V. S. Laxman’s Houdini Act through his 281 at the Eden Gardens in Calcutta in 2001. The cerebral followers loved Anil Kumble’s withering line — ‘Only one team was playing in the spirit of the game’ — after an emotionally-fraught Sydney Test in 2008. In all these memory-milestones, the storied rival was Australia.

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As India and Australia gear up for the first Test, commencing in Pune on February 23, followed by Tests in Bengaluru (March 4-8), Ranchi (March 16-20) and Dharamsala (March 25-29), the verbal jousts, an essential precursor to any modern day tussle, has been a mixed bag. Surprisingly, the Aussies have been a bit reserved, while from the Indian side you could trust Sourav Ganguly to come up with ‘the Australia could be thrashed 4-0’ line.

Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja could prove to be a handful for the Aussies on tracks that are conducive to spin.   -  K. V. S. Giri


The former India captain, who infamously made Steve Waugh wait at the toss, and had a good laugh about it later in private, has his reasons, ranging from bravado to smart analysis of hard facts. India truly has been a behemoth in home conditions. Late last year, New Zealand and England, and early this year, Bangladesh have all felt defeat’s cold embrace, aggravated by the menace of Indian spinners and the mayhem unleashed by its batsmen enjoying a stint in their backyard.

Australia, for all its dominance across the world, has had weak feet in India. It didn’t help that Steve Waugh quadrupled the pressure by referring to India as the ‘Final Frontier’. In 2004, Australia did win 2-1 but it has largely been a tale of landing with high hope and leaving with a modest result.

The current Australian team, led by Steve Smith, may not necessarily test the Indian squad, but you cannot discount the Aussies with their attribute of being tough as nails. In the build-up to the series, Australia, with its mind still traumatised by last year’s 0-3 loss in Sri Lanka, sent some of its players to train in Dubai. ‘Get used to the heat, get used to the pitches,’ was the refrain and the guarded phraseology in the Smith camp is centred on ‘hope’, ‘being positive’ and ‘negating Kohli’.

The respect for the Indian team in general and Kohli in particular is heart-warming. But make no mistake, Australia will be aggressive once the toss is done in Pune. Caught in the laborious process of transition, Australia will bank on David Warner, Smith and Mitchell Starc to shoulder the burden. All three are impact players and like Kevin Pietersen showed many moons ago in Mumbai, all that the team needs is one big explosive innings to light up its campaign.

Warner seemingly has found a stable opening partner in Matt Renshaw, and with Usman Khawaja coming in at three, Australia has a strong top order before Smith and company lend it further impetus.

The Australian batting line-up, despite its innate positive air, has to contend with the claustrophobia that Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja can create. If Smith’s men can alter that jail-house scenario, then they have a chance of springing surprises.

David Warner and Mitchell Starc, along with Steve Smith would be the key personnel for Australia.   -  PTI


India for now is a well-oiled cricketing machine, especially on home turf. Off the field, there could be administrative reforms and related distractions, but Kohli and his men have been obsessed with accumulating victories. Smith might find it tough to puncture the host’s self-belief, but like Allan Border, who led a rookie team here in 1986 and managed to return with a drawn series, including a pulsating tie in Madras, the present captain can dream of a stalemate or a come-from-behind triumph.

Starc, with his left-arm angle, could pose a threat. On flat, slow pitches that help spin, his air speed could bail him out and stun the Indians. Glenn McGrath believes that Starc and his fast bowling ally Josh Hazlewood can pose problems to the Indian line-up. If there is a minor chink in the Indian armour, it is the team’s opening combine. Murali Vijay and K. L. Rahul are accomplished batsmen, but as partners atop the order, they are yet to strike.

Australia would also watch Kohli’s hyper-optimism keenly. The Indian skipper has often gone in with five batsmen, even dropping a triple-century maker like Karun Nair, but whether he and his coach Anil Kumble will replicate the same model remains a matter of conjecture. Smith’s spin reserves may not be the greatest with the experienced Nathan Lyon and raw leg-spinner Mitchell Swepson being part of the mix, but Indian batsmen, strangely, have revealed a diffidence against the slow art unlike their predecessors from the Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar eras.

It remains to be seen if Smith could do a Border and eke out a drawn series or do a Ricky Ponting, who led Australia to victory here in 2004. That would depend on him leading by example and players as varied as Shaun Marsh and Ashton Agar buying into his vision and chipping in.

Fittingly, the series will conclude at Dharamsala where the mighty Himalayas will stand as grand witness. Who will scale the heights? As the cliche goes, only time will tell. Cricketing logic, though, might well point towards India.

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